The most rebellious community in Syria’s modern history is a people called the Druze, most of whom live in a region called the Druze Mountain, Jabal al-Druze, about 70 miles south of Damascus. Members of this syncretic, semi-Shiite Muslim sect battled the country’s successive overlords, notably the Ottoman Turks in World War I and the French mandate authorities in the 1920s and ’30s. Syrian independence in 1946 did not dampen their enthusiasm for revolt, as they rose against nationalist regimes that they felt threatened their traditional ways of living. Yet when the biggest rebellion in the country’s history broke out in March 2011, the Druze stayed out.
The traditional leader of Lebanon’s Druze, Walid Jumblatt, called on his Syrian brethren to “join the Syrian rebels who are marking in blood heroic battles against oppression on a daily basis.” Jumblatt explained to me in 2012, “The Druze don’t live in an Alawite sea. They live in a Sunni sea.” In Jumblatt’s view, Druze survival depended on joining the majority Sunni population in opposition to rule by Alawites, another minority with roots in Shiite Islam. Although some Druze took part in peaceful demonstrations for reform in 2011, they did not turn to violence. Hassan al-Atrash, a biology teacher and former communist, said, “As far as people were concerned, this was not meant to be a war. They made legal demands for their rights.” They thus ignored Jumblatt’s call to join the rebels, but they did not join the Syrian army either.
Their regional capital, Sweida, is one of the few areas in Syria – along with the Kurdish pocket of Afrin in the north until Turkey invaded in January – unscarred by seven years of war. Many Syrians from battle zones like the Yarmouk Palestinian refugee camp in Damascus, eastern Ghouta, Aleppo and Deir el-Zour have taken refuge among the Druze. Raed al-Atrash, a Druze who works for Syrian television in Sweida, estimated that as many as 40,000 people had fled to the tranquility of the Druze Mountain. He pointed to the dozen or so lively restaurants and cafes on the street where we met as a sign of a kind of normality, albeit a precarious one.
Neutrality has not been easy with government forces to the north, the Islamic State to the west, other jihadis in Daraa province to the east and rebels coming across the Jordanian border to the south. The Druze live astride the Golan Heights, half of which has been occupied by Israel since 1967. According to Druze officials in Sweida, some Israeli Druze encouraged them to cut themselves off from Bashar al Assad’s regime and establish an autonomous region similar to the U.S.-backed Kurdish zone in northeastern Syria. One source said a Druze religious leader from Israel, Sheikh Muaffaq Tarif, offered them $20 million to declare a Druze republic. “He gave us the money,” he said, “but we used it to buy weapons to defend ourselves, and we did not separate.”
Cousins Hassan and Raed al-Atrash are descendants of Sultan Pasha al-Atrash. This legendary, mustachioed tribal chieftain led his people against the Ottoman Empire in 1916 and raised the Arab nationalist flag over Damascus when the British and the Arab irregular forces with Lawrence of Arabia expelled the Turks in September 1918. He also led the Great Syrian Revolt, which nearly ended French rule over Syria in 1925 but resulted in massive destruction. Al-Atrash fled the country, but he returned to harass French and Syrian governments in Damascus. That legacy should have put the Druze at the forefront of rebellion for the last seven years, but it didn’t.
Sultan Pasha’s granddaughter, a retired French teacher named Rim al-Atrash, told me her grandfather had written a letter to his followers during the 1925 revolt that said, “It’s necessary not to destroy public property. It’s important not to kill.” She added, “That’s a real chief of a national revolution.” She contrasted his words favorably to the jihadists who destroyed Palmyra, executed Christians and enslaved Yazidis.
The additional obstacle to Druze participation in the latest uprising was that much of the opposition did not want them. Raed al-Atrash recalled, “At the mosques in Damascus suburbs and Deraa, the sheikhs said it was halal (legitimate) for the jihadis to take Druze women and houses and to kill the men.” How could they support religious zealots who sought to destroy them as they did the Yazidis in Iraq? The Druze defended themselves against the Islamic State, Jabhat Fatah al-Sham (formerly known as Jabhat al-Nusra) and other Salafists, but they neither encroached on Sunni territory nor joined the Syrian army.
A Flood of Weapons
The frontier between Druze Sweida and Sunni Daraa has become a zone not so much of battle as of crime, as brigands on both sides take advantage of wartime lawlessness to profit from kidnapping, car theft and extortion. “There were 137 kidnappings in three months in Sweida,” said one aid worker from the area. “We know this from Facebook posts that people have placed looking for their relatives.” The hostages are taken to rebel-held parts of Daraa until ransoms are paid. The aid worker continued, “There are too many weapons. Children at schools are killing each other. Drugs. Stealing cars. If you catch them before they get to Daraa, you can buy your car back.”
The proliferation of weapons in private hands resulted from the government policy of arming young Druze men. “Because we were afraid of the jihadis, we asked the government for weapons to defend our areas,” said Raed al-Atrash. “They were very effective. We stopped the jihadis from entering Sweida.” The long-term effect, however, has been negative. “There was a time when they (the government) needed everyone to have a weapon,” said a Syrian security source. “That time has passed.” Yet restoring government authority over the Druze Mountain, let alone over Daraa where jihadists remain a potent force, and removing the weapons must await the war’s end. The recent international imbroglio over chemical weapons in eastern Ghouta appears to have delayed that prospect indefinitely.
The outside powers that sought to upend al Assad’s rule by arming hundreds of factions failed to understand the dynamics of Syrian society and the loyalties of its communities. The strongest and most effective elements of the rebellion excluded the Druze, Alawites, Ismailis, Christians and Yazidis on principle; they sought to expel or annihilate them. Many of the Sunnis who resented Alawite minority rule feared a Sunni fundamentalist takeover more than they feared al Assad. If all the Sunnis, who were at least 75 percent of the population, had risen up to fight against al Assad, he would not have lasted seven days, let alone seven years.
Main image: Druze sheikhs (Al Aqal) with white lap and black dress, photograph by Ameeno1989.