Speculations over Syrian Druze active participation in the country civil war seem to forget that community priority is survival, and political pragmatism its main value
My piece for The National and a longer version (without editing falls about Asmahan’s life + links to sources) here below:
Late Princess Amal Al-Atrash, better known as Asmahan, the Arab singer of Syrian origins and from a prominent Druze family based in Sweida, left Syria for Cairo, her family under pressure from French colonial authorities. Asmahan made there her artistic career, married a relative and later divorced, managing to apparently alienate herself from the community and the family, who left her with no money, and threatened her much loved diva life-style. But after her accidental death in 1944, rumours spread on her role as a spy for the British and the Germans during World War II, and her work as intermediary in order to promote the interests of the Druze cause. Asmahan’s eccentric and unique life is a tale of rebellion and survival, pragmatism and long lasting community ties, but also the representation of what are main Druze shared values and priorities.
Recent opposition fighters attacks targeting Druze in Northern Syria and in the Southern Jabel Druze area, put the community in the spotlight, leading to speculations over their definite involvement in the Syrian civil war, after maintaining for four years a cautious position of loyalty to Damascus. While all sides rushed to present themselves as the community cause champions, they did so without considering Druze main priorities and ultimate goal: survival. A Druze clear-cut position and active participation in the ongoing conflict in Syria require certain conditions on the ground that are actually still missing.
An history of rebellion, survival, and connection to the land
The community history in the region discloses instead more of what the actual situation is saying and is plenty of examples of Druze communities cautious stances along with decisions to wage war. During the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982, Druze fighters carefully waited to engage the Phalangists, who moved in to control the mixed Christian-Druze area of Jabel Chouf. When in 1983 the Israeli army left the region, young Druze leader Walid Jumblatt quickly started a bloody war against the Lebanese Forces, again retaking full control of the area.
In 2004, with Bush administration mounting pressure on Syria, Walid bey decided to move away from his Damascus alliance and joined the anti-Syrian coalition, which managed through a popular mobilization to push the Syrian army out of Lebanon. Even his wife, Nora, played a main role in assisting and organizing the protest in Beirut Martyrs’ Square. Conditions in Lebanon seemed perfect at that time to secure victory and reinforce the community in the political arena.
Syrian Druze in regional and international spotlight
Last June killing, by the hands of opposition fighters from al-Nusra Front, of more than twenty Druze in Idlib, in Northern Syria, and the ongoing battles investing the Southern area around Sweida, caused opposite reactions among regional community leaders. Walid Jumblatt, who already reached a deal with al-Nusra Front in Idlib in March, tried to present the Idlib episode as an isolated incident, and asked them instead to revolt against Assad. Other Druze Lebanese leaders offered instead military support to Syrian Druze against rebel fighters.
The following attack by a Druze mob of an Israeli ambulance in the Golan Heights occupied territory, and the lynching of a wounded Syrian rebel fighter, managed to draw even more attention in Israel on the fate of the Syrian Druze. Both episodes pushed Israeli Druze to ask for an international military intervention, raising money for their cause, and putting pressure on the Israeli government to help their Syrian brethren. Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon finally acceded to the community demands, publicly adding the Druze among those who are assisting in Syria. A little step to calm their national community, and to win Syrian Druze hearts, but definitely far from Druze position on the ground, which historical Arab nationalism makes unsuitable an open alliance with Israel.
The incidents also showed the intricate relations within the community at regional level and how each state community is actually championing behind their master and for their interests. Syrian Druze of Sweida, who have been in the last years sporadicly, but constantly protesting Damascus policy toward their region and community members conscription in the national army, are still officially loyal to the Syrian government. The recent episodes indeed seem to have consolidated the community ties with Assad, who accomplished to the community demand of more protection and privileges. The community, with no real political leader, is still attempting to maintain a unified but cautious position, but mainly following its own agenda of survival.
Waiting for a definite situation, avoiding perilous adventures
Lured by the Syrian regime, a possible defensive Israeli buffer zone inside Syria, fragmented rebel groups with no clear vision for the future, and a possible international “humanitarian” intervention, none of these options seem enough appealing for the community. Syrian Druze are not willing to take a definitive stance against Damascus, at least until a new situation on the ground will emerge. Not for any political or ideological reason, but mainly for political pragmatism. When Syrian Druze will actively engage in the war it would probably mean that Bashar Al-Assad is irreversibly starting to lose his power, and that another powerful backer is acting behind the scene.
Asmahan’s father left his position as Ottoman governor at a time the Empire was approaching its final days and escaped with his family to Beirut. The Al-Atrash family leaded then the Arab Revolt along with Arab nationalist forces against the Turks, cause they bet the Ottoman Empire was about to fall. They were right. But Druze didn’t know that the British and the French, the new strong lords, finally had other plans for the region. That was a century ago, the community already learnt the lesson.