How a Great Power Falls Apart
Decline Is Invisible From the Inside
For years, the small and relatively quiet Israeli Druze community—and its spiritual leader, Sheikh Muwafaq Tarif—has warned of the dangers its brethren face in southern Syria, where the al Qaeda-affiliated al-Nusra group and other rebels have steadily gained ground. But it took the June 10 killing of more than 20 Druze villagers in Idlib in northwest Syria to whip them into action. They held massive rallies in northern Israel, where the five-colored Druze flag waved proudly and prominently in a show of transnational solidarity, and raised roughly $2.8 million to purchase weapons, via Jordan, for their Syrian co-religionists.
The reaction stood in marked contrast to that of the Druze community in Lebanon. Following the Idlib attack, Lebanese Druze were undoubtedly angry and concerned, but they mostly heeded the calls of their leader, Walid Jumblatt, for restraint. Jumblatt, who is the most prominent Druze figure in the region and a critic of the Assad regime, has played an indispensable role in easing sectarian tensions in Lebanon, which is deeply divided between pro- and anti-Assad camps. He heads the Progressive Socialist Party (PSP), which since the Idlib incident, has taken the line that the solution to the Syrian Druze problem lies in “political communication.” Likewise, PSP Spokesman Ramy al-Rayess has explained that the party reached out to the al-Nusra group and other rebels now in control of large swathes of the Idlib province and to regional powers such as Turkey to ensure the protection of Druze—who numbered roughly 600,000 in pre-war Syria. A few days after the Idlib incident, al-Nusra, which Jumblatt does not recognize as a terrorist group, issued an apology and said that the murderers violated orders and will be held accountable.
The Syrian war has revealed fissures within the Lebanese Druze community. Some Druze sympathize with the Syrian regime and its ally, Hezbollah, whereas others have maintained their loyalty to Jumblatt, a pragmatic leader who’s seeking to keep sectarian tensions at bay. His mission is certainly difficult, but, so far, his policies have yielded positive and important results, especially in Lebanon.
Some Druze have criticized Jumblatt’s dispassionate response to the plight of his Syrian coreligionists, but other Lebanese religious communities have welcomed it, particularly moderate Sunnis, who are also seeking to shield Lebanon from Syria-inspired strife. On June 14, a delegation of Sunni clerics visited Druze religious figures in the southeastern town of Rashaya al-Wadi to underscore the importance of friendly coexistence in the face of the deadly attack. “We came to pay our condolences, because when you are in pain, so are we. Our misfortunes are one,” the mufti of the Bekaa Valley and Zahle, Sheikh Khalil al-Mais, said while addressing his hosts. The mufti added that Jumblatt “is a great guarantor of stability and national unity.”
Jumblatt’s reputation for crisis management was evident back in 2014 when fighting first broke out between pro-regime Syrian Druze and Sunni rebels on the Syrian side of Mount Hermon, a mountain that dominates both sides of the border. Jumblatt visited a number of villages on the Lebanese side in September that year, one of which was Ain Atta. The village is mostly Druze, but it has a very small Christian community (The Mar Elias church remains open and active.) The Druze of Ain Atta are split between those who support Jumblatt’s PSP and those who are loyal to the Syrian Social Nationalist Party (SSNP), which is aligned with the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and Hezbollah. Yet despite their differences, they remain united.
For his followers, Jumblatt is not only protecting the Druze community but also Lebanon’s fragile stability.Jumblatt’s visit to Ain Atta came weeks after residents had opened fire on a van suspected of carrying Syrian extremists, a move that some now admit was a mistake. The van reportedly entered the village from the Sunni-dominated town of Shebaa, which shelters a large number of Syrian refugees. In a speech after the attack, Jumblatt urged the locals to “[d]istinguish between a terrorist and a Syrian refugee.” He continued: “If anyone of you suspected that a person is a terrorist, then let us approach the government. Only the government and its [security] apparatuses will decide who’s a terrorist and who’s a refugee.”
Jumblatt’s calls for peace seemed to have worked. More than ten months after this incident, the residents of Ain Atta are no longer worried about the possibility of jihadists crossing the ragged Mount Hermon and entering their town. “It’s difficult to cross the mountain from this side. And nothing will happen here before it takes place in Sheba, because accessing it is easier,” said Nizam, a Druze who supports the SSNP. Despite the different views within the Druze community, support for Jumblatt and his policies is entrenched among Druze, who are loyal to the PSP and its leader. For them, Jumblatt is not only protecting the Druze community but also Lebanon’s fragile stability. He is thus likely to preserve the cordial relations between his constituents and their fellow Lebanese, particularly Sunnis, given that many Sunni moderates have welcomed his political stance on the Syrian conflict, in which Syrian Druze are playing an important role.
Jumblatt has been advising the Syrian Druze, particularly those in Jabal al-Arab in the south, to abandon the Assad regime and settle their differences with the rebels who now control Daraa, a Sunni-dominated province that borders Jabal al-Arab/As-Suwayda to the west. But here, he is having a more difficult time, namely because the Syrian Druze’s allegiance is more complicated to begin with.
When the Syrian uprising began, some Druze participated in the protests and a few even defected from the army. The Druze have criticized the brutality of the regime and have also expressed solidarity with those fighting against it. But because of the threat of extremism—which Assad continues to exploit—some Druze in Jabal al-Arab/As-Suwayda still fight with the regime. Still many others are determined to defend the province by themselves from both Assad and Sunni radicals, according to Fadi al-Dahouk, a Beirut-based Syrian journalist, who hails from As-Suwayda. And there are other groups of Druze who remain uninvolved. Unlike their Lebanese co-religionists, the Druze in Syria do not have a strong political leader akin to Jumblatt. The community in Syria is currently led by three top clerics, known as Mashayekh al-Aqel, who are appointed after the regime approves of them.
The Druze in Lebanon, Syria, and Israel are bound together by strong family ties and a faith that underscores the importance of solidarity.Talal Arslan, the second-most powerful Druze leader in Lebanon, and Wiam Wahhab, a Druze politician loyal to Assad, approached the Syrian conflict differently from Jumblatt. Arslan, who heads the Lebanese Democratic Party, believes that the Druze should continue fighting alongside Assad’s forces. He has rejected al-Nusra’s apology for the killings that targeted Druze villagers in Idlib. “We still believe that this massacre is part of the [global] plot against Syria and only serves the joint interests of Israel and takfiri groups,” the Daily Star reported him as saying, “which are two facets of the same coin.”
Wahhab is more extreme. He recently visited the Druze village of Hadar in the Syrian side of Mount Hermon, which is the only Druze town still under the control of the Assad regime. In an address to a number of Druze villagers and clerics there, he warned that “what protects us are our rifles and our [continued] presence in our land.” He added, “[The people of] Hadar will win and with the Syrian army they will be able to break the siege.” In mid-June, Islamist militants seized a strategic hilltop north of Hadar and ended up surrounding the village. The regime sent no reinforcements to the besieged town, according to Dahouk.
Despite the fact that a considerable number of Druze are fighting alongside the regime forces in Hadar, there are some Druze in the village who advocate reconciliation between the village and neighboring areas that have fallen into the hands of rebels. On June 21, a group of Druze clerics in Hadar issued a statement. “We thank the ongoing efforts to open communication lines between us and our neighbors in the villages of Quneitra and Daraa,” it said, “to preserve Syrian unity and the primary objective of the Syrian peoples’ cause.” This is what Jumblatt has been urging all Syrian Druze to embrace to prevent Sunni–Druze fighting.
Jihadists are not the only danger facing the Druze of Hadar. The city, which is close to the Israeli Golan Heights, is in an area where Lebanon’s Hezbollah group is extremely active. In April 2015, an Israeli strike killed four men who were attempting to plant bombs near the Israeli Golan. Two of them were Druze brothers, originally from Majdal Shams (in the Israeli Golan), who reportedly left for Hadar to fight for the regime. The two men were recruited by pro-Hezbollah Samir Kuntar, a Lebanese Druze, who was convicted of killing an Israeli family in Nahariya in 1979. He was jailed in Israel and released in 2008 in a prisoner swap. It is worrying that some Druze, who are now being recruited to fight rebels, could later be tasked with carrying out attacks against Israel from southern Syria. Such violence will only serve the interests of Hezbollah, not the Druze community.
The Druze in Lebanon, Syria, and Israel are bound together by strong family ties and a faith that underscores the importance of solidarity. Although Druze do not have a unified stance on how Syrian Druze should manage the ongoing civil war, protecting this small community in the region is a top priority for all its factions. But what distinguishes Jumblatt’s policy is that it seeks to shield the Druze from further harm and at the same time preserve co-existence with other religious groups, especially Sunnis.
The Syrian Druze are undoubtedly in a precarious situation, and Jumblatt has made efforts to assist them while also ensuring the interests of his own constituents in Lebanon. Even if he fails to convince the Druze to abandon the Assad regime and seek an accord with the rebels, Jumblatt will be remembered as the only Druze leader who sought peace in the middle of a bloody and maddening war. And so far he has mostly succeeded.