Why the Middle East’s warring enemies are competing to win over the Druze

On the sidelines no more. EPA/Atef Safadi

In the making of the modern Middle East, minorities have often been used as pretexts and pawns for external intervention. It is in this light that the recent massacre of more than 20 men from the esoteric Druze religious sect by the al-Qaeda-linked Nusra Front must be understood.

As a result of the threat to the Syrian Druze by Nusra, their protection now is contested between a trio of sworn enemies: al-Qaeda-affiliated rebel fighters, the Syrian regime, and Israel.

So who are the Druze – and how should we understand their dangerous situation?

Who are the Druze?

Dispersed across the Levant, the Druze have historical roots in the 11th century Ismaili branch of Shia Islam. The sect has an estimated 1m members worldwide; the majority live in Syria and Lebanon, with smaller communities in Israel and Jordan.

A distinctive array of social practices, such as marrying within the sect and belief in an exclusive form of reincarnation , have all helped create a popular image of a homogenous, tightly bound transnational community – although in reality, they are rather more politically and socio-economically diverse than this image would have it.

The Druze tend to be valourised as staunch nationalists almost wherever they are. They helped lead the nationalist Syrian revolt against the French Mandate in 1925, are trusted to serve in the Israeli army, and have long been considered “kingmakers” in Lebanese politics.

But their situation has changed drastically since Syria’s war. As the country’s social and political fabric has fallen apart, the Druze have been caught up in the ensuing struggle for power and control of geographical boundaries.

This is nothing new. Since Ottoman times, external powers and local elites have played minorities for their own geopolitical goals. Indeed, defining populations as minorities and majorities and “protecting” them has always been part of colonial governance, imperialist intervention, and the geopolitics of states and sovereignty in the Middle East.

Meanwhile, sectarianism has been used to explain Middle Eastern conflicts ever since the Druze-Maronite massacre of 1860 in Lebanon, and it has become fundamental to the make-up of today’s post-Ottoman modern states.

Along with the continuation of the colonial security structures within the Syrian Baathist state, minorities have been instrumental to the consolidation and maintenance of the authoritarian and populist Assad regime.

What now?

Since 2011, most Druze areas in Syria – largely in regime-held territories – have welcomed hundreds of displaced internal refugees and attempted to maintain neutrality without challenging Damascus’s claim to state sovereignty.

But the town of Qalb Lawza, the scene of the recent massacre, is different. In March 2015, along with other Druze villages, it accepted a truce with the advancing Nusra Front. The deal included a rigid “Islamisation” programme setting out rules for religious minorities’ behaviour.

The Qalb Lawza massacre, which was allegedly triggered by a dispute with Nusra fighters over a Druze-owned property they took over, has heightened fears of sectarian retributions. Al-Nusra has issued an apology. Walid Joumblatt, the Druze Lebanese political leader opposing Assad, views the massacre as an “isolated incident” and has called his Druze brothers to accept al-Nusra’s apology, and to side with the Turkish-backed “moderate” Islamic opposition.

Israeli Druze demonstrate in support of their Syrian comrades. EPA/Atef Safadi

The Syrian regime, not wishing to lose the support of its third largest minority, has blamed the attack on “takfiri [a Muslim who accuses another Muslim for apostacy] terrorists” from Jabhat al-Nusra and the Islamic Ahrar al-Sham Movement, which it claims is backed by Saudi Arabia and Turkey.

But the latest offensive mounted by IS and rebel forces on the fringes of the Druze province of Suwayda and Deraa in Southern Syria has diminished the sect’s trust in the ability of the Syrian regime to keep protecting them.

Meanwhile, Israel has proclaimed itself the Druze’s strongest bodyguard, ready to defend them as necessary. Arguing that the memory of the Holocaust requires action to avert a possible genocide of the Syrian Druze, Israel has stepped up talks to establish a buffer zone along its Syrian border. This even as Israel is trying Druze resistance fighter Sudki al-Makt for espionage after he filmed evidence of Israel’s support for armed rebel groups in Syria.

Yet, the Druze in and outside of Syria are unlikely to support Israel’s policies on Syria. On June 23, a group of Golan Druze attacked an Israeli military ambulance carrying wounded Syrian rebel fighters, killing one and severely wounding the other.

The politics of protection

Combined fears of a repeat of the 2014 massacre of Kurdish Yazidi villagers by IS have now forced the Druze to confront the new wave of violent sectarian terror. Like other religious minorities, the Druze find themselves caught between the promise of authoritarian “protection”, the threat of majoritarian marginalisation, and even extinction.

The latest massacres have all paved the way for a dangerous escalation of violence. In the name of “protecting” the Druze, major regional powers are competing to take them under their wings at the expense of their enemies –- but the sect’s members have little to win and much to lose by picking sides.