The Druze Dilemma

How the Religious Minority Gained Influence in Syria

Members of the Druze community stand near their flag during a rally on the Golan Heights, between Israel and Syria, February 2014. Baz Ratner / Courtesy Reuters

Throughout Syria’s civil war, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has for the most part managed to maintain the loyalties of the country’s various religious minorities: Christians, Alawites, and Shiite Muslims. These groups, which together amount to about one-quarter of Syria’s population, appear to prefer Assad’s authoritarianism to an uncertain future dominated by Sunni radicals. One minority community, however, has begun to distance itself from the Assad regime: the Druze, followers of an esoteric offshoot of Islam who live near Syria’s border with Jordan and Israel. Their growing opposition to the regime, alongside their deep hostility toward Islamic radicals, puts this small but influential group in a unique position. Indeed, the Druze, who number about two million worldwide and 700,000 in Syria, could help the U.S.-led coalition shape the outcome of Syria’s civil war and the ongoing fight against al Qaeda and the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS). 

Historically, determining the loyalties of Syria’s Druze has been difficult, as its members tend to hide their political persuasions -- a preference for privacy with roots in their theological concept of taqiyya, the concealing of one’s religious beliefs to avoid accusations of heresy. Like many Syrians living in regime-controlled areas, many Druze have also been afraid to speak out against Assad. Recently, however, a number of Druze religious leaders have taken to social media to broadcast their antiregime sentiment, part of a series of unusually assertive gestures against the regime. Where Druze sheiks once lavished praise on Assad, they now present him with strict demands and ultimatums.

Their biggest grievance is that Assad has not provided them with enough weapons to defend against attacks by ISIS and al Qaeda’s affiliate in Syria, Jabhat al Nusra. Since the start of the popular uprising against the regime, in 2011, Syria’s government has provided weapons only to pro-Assad forces -- in this case, to Druze militias loyal to the regime. As attacks have intensified, however, many Druze,

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