Syria’s Druze minority walking a war-time tightrope

BEIRUT: Syria’s Druze minority, whose men are being called up for military service by Damascus, is struggling to insulate itself from the conflict that has engulfed the country since 2011. The Druze community accounted for around three per cent of Syria’s pre-war population of 23 million. They are located mainly in the southern province of Sweida with smaller pockets around Damascus and in the northwest, although some have fled IS-held parts of the latter area. Some 200,000 Druze are located in neighbouring Lebanon and over 100,000 are in Israel, while 18,000 live in the Israeli-occupied Golan.
Syria’s Druze have been split by the uprising that erupted in 2011 against President Bashar al Assad, who had long portrayed himself as a protector of the country’s minorities. Druze should not be seen “as being neutral in this war — it’s more multifaceted and the Druze are not a monolithic bloc”, said Tobias Lang, an analyst focused on Druze populations in the Middle East. One of the first soldiers to defect from Syria’s army in protest at its handling of demonstrations was Druze officer Khaldun Zeineddine, who later died in clashes against Syrian forces.
Others remained firmly loyal, like General Issam Zahreddine, one of the highest-ranking Druze army officers who died last year in a mine blast after battling the IS group in Syria’s east.
Druze leaders have often tried to maintain a relationship with the government to keep their areas autonomous and spare them from government attacks. One symbol of that complex relationship was Wahid al Balous, a Druze religious authority who pushed for the sect’s soldiers to be deployed near their hometowns, rather than in other provinces.
Balous, who died in a car bomb attack in Sweida in 2015, spoke out against both IS and Assad. Syria’s Druze have protected their heartland in Sweida with their own forces.
The most powerful has been the Sheikhs of Dignity, which was headed by Balous and included fighters and other religious figures. Sheikhs of Dignity has fought fierce battles against the IS group and Al Qaeda’s Syrian affiliate.
Other militias have been closely linked to the government, including the Dareh al Watan (Shield of the Nation), a Druze force founded in April 2015 with 2,000 fighters.
Such groups appear to have protected Sweida’s sons from compulsory military service, with authorities turning a blind eye so long as young men fight in units not opposed to the government. — AFP