How a Great Power Falls Apart
Decline Is Invisible From the Inside
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, particularly a group of religious leaders known as the Ajaweed, have begun demanding weapons for themselves, claiming that the regime-backed militias have not done enough. During a funeral for Druze fighters on August 17, one Ajaweed leader gave a speech demanding heavy weaponry. If Assad failed to provide the weapons, he said, community members would not hesitate to acquire them independently. His statement underscored a growing schism between the Druze religious establishment and the Syrian regime.
In another display of assertiveness, the Druze also called for the removal of their province’s top security official, Wafic Nasser. This campaign began in April, after government officials, led by Nasser, arrested a prominent Druze sheik for opposing a compulsory celebration of Assad’s reelection bid. Shortly after the arrest, online videos showed armed Ajaweed sheiks raising the Druze flag, shooting their guns into the air, and demanding Nasser’s resignation -- an outpouring of rage reminiscent of the events that first ignited the Syrian revolt. And in a display of communal solidarity, members of the Druze government-backed militias broke ranks and joined the Ajaweed in protest. The regime, however, has refused to remove Nasser, further straining relations.
These tensions were on full display at the August funeral, which the Ajaweed demanded be free of regime symbols and spokespeople. The funeral packed an entire stadium, yet online videos reveal only a few Syrian flags, vastly outnumbered by the colorful stripes of the Druze banner. And the regime took notice. On September 2, Assad sent two influential Druze loyalists, former Lebanese minister Wiam Wahhab and Syrian General Issam Zahreddine, to relay a message to Druze leaders. “You demand your rights from the state,” video footage shows Wahhab saying. “It also demands your loyalty.”
Undeterred, however, some Ajaweed have emerged as an independent political and military entity that could play an important role in shaping Syria’s civil war and the fight against Islamic extremists, whom they view as an existential threat. And unlike the Free Syrian Army and other rebel groups, they wish to confront ISIS and al Qaeda before taking on the regime, making them natural allies for the U.S.-led coalition in the region.
As the only independent voice among the Druze capable of shaping the trajectory of southern Syria, the Ajaweed present Assad’s regime with a critical choice: meet their demands for more weapons, at the risk of further enabling their increasingly independent streak, or hold back, betting that the Druze will ultimately prefer the regime to any alternative. Assad cannot afford to lose the Druze. For Assad, the Druze are a strategic buffer, defending the southern flank of Damascus from rebel-controlled territory farther south. But unless the U.S.-led international coalition is willing to alter Assad’s calculus by supporting the Druze, Assad will probably stay the course, and the Druze will remain lodged between an authoritarian regime they grudgingly need and the Islamic extremists they fear.