As war swirls around Suwayda, a complex picture emerges of Druze interests

March 15, 2015

The Druze of Syria have largely attempted to remain neutral in Syria’s four-year old uprising, although an estimated 14,000 Druze are currently wanted for fleeing mandatory conscription, a pro-opposition Druze human rights activist told Syria Direct last month.

Likewise, some Druze have participated in the civil disobedience that marked the beginning of the Syrian uprising, and periodically clash with regime forces in Suwayda, but the sect has not taken up arms against the government—a possibility many analysts consider far-fetched.

Still, Sheikh Abu Fahed Waheed al-Balaus, leader of the “first real [Druze] political movement to emerge during this crisis,” delivered a widely circulated speech earlier this year in which he called the Druze “more honorable than the Alawites” and alluded to Assad’s ouster from power if he did not “undertake to preserve Syria.”

While the speech found support among Druze outside Syria, inside the country, Balous has since gone underground, withdrawing for a spiritual “retreat” to “recuperate” after months of involvement in public affairs, according to pro-Balaus Facebook page a-Tawhediyun al-Judud.

tobianThe fiery rhetoric was particularly notable because of a persistent “leadership vacuum” within the Druze in Syria, says Tobias Lang, a Vienna-based political scientist and Ph.D. candidate who founded the MENA Minorities blog.  

“There has always been a vacuum because the regime has prevented leaders from emerging,” Lang tells Syria Direct’s Kristen Gillespie.

Syria’s many minorities have long been plagued by an extinction complex, by which they fear any changes in the political system could threaten their existence by stirring up historical grievances. In this respect, the Druze are no different; their survival is paramount and their decisions reflect that priority.

In recent weeks, Syria Direct has interviewed half a dozen Druze activists from across the political spectrum in addition to defected officers and found that what the Druze want most of all is to protect their land, security and sect.

To this end, the Druze “have managed to position themselves as not being diehard Assad supporters,” Lang says. But among Syrians, they are known for not supporting the opposition. As the war rages around the Druze, “the best thing for them is to stay out of it. But the question is how? Can they stay out of it?”

Q: What we're hearing from Druze in Suwayda is that they are unhappy with the direction of the revolution, also noted in our interview last month, and they're against the mandatory conscription imposed by the regime. Are the Druze better off staying neutral, or fighting the Syrian government - or is that even the right question to ask?

I don't think it's the right question to ask. Of course, the best thing for them is to stay out of it. But the question is how? Can they stay out of it? I think they did a pretty good job of staying mostly neutral within their limited possibilities. They managed not to position themselves as diehard Assad supporters, as did the Mashaykh al-Aql [the provincial council of Druze leaders].

Q: The Druze we're talking to for this report do not want to overthrow the regime. They're unhappy with the regime, but they are not interested in sectarian politics. Yet Sheikh Abu Fahed Balous, in his video speech widely circulated online last month, makes comments such as, "the Druze are more honorable than the Alawites." Do you think people really support Balous's radical ideas or are they tired of the regime playing games with them?

I don't think that there is any big animosity against the Alawites as a religious community. I think we should see it more in the context of the regime being perceived as an Alawite regime, so his comments are more against the regime than against the Alawite sect, I think.

Q: Do you think Balous has wide support among the Druze? Does he really want to overthrow the regime?

No. It's just rhetoric. I don't think he wants to overthrow the regime, I think he wanted to send a message that he is not afraid of confrontation. He overdid it, because he ran into major problems afterwards with the Mashaykh al-Aql.

Q: Can we say the Druze of Suwayda are unified in the sense that they all want the same things for Syria or are there divisions within the Druze and even the Shuyukh?

Of course the Syrian Druze are not a unified bloc. There are many different groups. They are not politically organized. Balous is the first real political movement to emerge during this crisis. We don't know where the rest of the population stands. His followers are mainly religious people, sheikhs, so I won't estimate the size of his support from those in the population who are not sheikhs.

Also, his militia seems to be composed mainly of religious people, but that represents only 10 percent or 15 percent of the population. So I have no indicators to estimate the size of his support. I can only say that Druze in the diaspora feel favorably about him, saying he is protecting Druze interests.

Regarding the population in Suwayda, it's hard to tell. He has a huge fan base on social media, but it could be from the diaspora as well.

Q: We read your post about Balous on the MENA Minorities blog and appreciate your take on events. You linked to the video of the Balous speech, which I thought was unnecessarily inflammatory. What was your take?

I think it's a great deal [important]. The first time I heard of Balous was in April 2014 when he emerged as a leader of the Mashaykh against the regime and there was unrest in Suwayda after one sheikh was arrested.

After that he somehow emerged also as a militia leader; critical of the regime but not directly against the regime. When the video came out, and he was directly threatening the security chief of Suwayda, it was a big deal, and he was also saying he can remove Assad. So he is directly seeking confrontation with the regime - that was my take. 

Q: Why do you think Balous, whom you point out has been on the scene since last year, is emerging now as a leader? Why are we only hearing about him now?

There is a big leadership vacuum inside the Druze community in Syria. There has always been one because the regime has prevented leaders from emerging. The regime was mostly dealing with the Druze through the Mashaykh al-Aql [in Suwayda province] and its three high spiritual representatives. They are not really spiritual leaders but they are the highest Druze representatives and they didn't allow the emergence of any other leader.

The Mashaykh al-Aql are completely co-opted by the regime.

So when the crisis broke out, new leaders tried to emerge and Balous is the first non-regime affiliated leader who emerged.

Q: Do you think the Druze can remain relatively neutral as a minority in this war? Some are fighting for the regime, but there is also mandatory conscription. A few are fighting with the rebels, but it seems most are trying to stay neutral. Can this group survive in Syria and stay in Syria without clearly taking one side or the other? The Yazidis and the Christians of Iraq, for example, are fleeing the country to stay alive.

The Druze in Syria are completely different from the Christians or the Yazidis because the Druze in Syria were a compact minority. They are the vast majority in the province. In Suwayda, you have about 90 percent Druze. We don't have exact numbers; maybe it is a little less because of all the refugees from the other provinces, but they are the vast majority in Suwayda.

Suwayda is not like central Syria. It's not a big fighting ground, not until now. I think if the overall situation is not changing, and Suwayda does not become a big battleground, I think the Druze might succeed in keeping themselves out of the civil war. They are doing a pretty good job of it until now.

Q: I agree. Can Suwayda remain quiet, or is the encroachment of the Islamic State and Jabhat a-Nusra in the south and now this new regime campaign to drive rebels away from Damascus potentially destabilizing?

Overall yes [the province can remain quiet], but now you have in the north and east of Suwayda some Islamic State activity, though on a low scale. There are reports of two villages, Bedouin villages I think, where you have the Islamic State...

Q: Bir Qasb.

Exactly - if the Islamic State is contained more or less within the rural northeast, I don't see Suwayda becoming a big battleground. Although from the Daraa side, it is not looking to me like Jabhat a-Nusra will advance on a big scale to Suwayda. I don't see that at the moment. But it can change, of course.

Q: As we report on the Druze in Suwayda, we're hearing from people on the ground there, including a Druze defector from the Syrian army familiar with regime tactics, something that might seem strange but given the conspiracies around Syria, both real and fabricated, perhaps it's not. People are saying that the regime facilitated the entry of the Islamic State into Bir Qasb in order to scare the Druze of Suwayda.

Could be. It's not impossible because we have seen this idea propagated of the Islamic State coming into the rural, more desert-like parts of Suwayda. We have seen this in media close to the regime, like Al-Akhbar. We have seen this before it actually happened. I remember last summer there was a huge article, which I criticized on my blog, talking about the danger of the Islamic State coming to Suwayda.

And it's also very contained - only two villages.

When I look at the map, it seems to be an isolated Islamic State activity. Could be orchestrated, but hard to tell.

Q: How are the Druze reacting to that Islamic State presence? Did the tactic work, if it was manipulated? Whatever happened, does the Islamic State being that close to Suwayda scare the Druze at all? 

I think the idea of course is scary. But as long as it's on that low scale, I don't think the Druze feel so endangered. I think they feel more endangered by Jabhat a-Nusra from the west.

If a Druze village gets attacked and there are civilian casualties, different story. But until now I don't see any huge effect.

Q: Any other observations?

Very interesting is the whole story about former Lebanese minister Wiam Wahhab who was imported by the regime to Suwayda to fill this leadership vacuum and to have a completely trustworthy person in charge of the Druze. He always threatened to establish Druze militias if they are attacked and when they were attacked last summer, when the villages of Dama and Deir Dama were attacked by Jabhat a-Nusra and some local Bedouin affiliated with Nusra, he couldn't deliver because the regime didn't allow Druze militias - or didn't want to support them at least.

Q: Was the regime afraid the militias might turn against them?

You have seen some Druze militias before, but they are very poorly armed. The militias controlled the sheikhs, like Balous. What they have seen with Balous is that they can control him.

The regime doesn't want religious militias affiliated with a religious sect other than the Alawites or the Shiites. Here, the connection with the regime is not as strong as it is with Alawites. I think that's the reason.

Q: Last month, regime forces stopped a flour truck in Suwayda and attempted to turn it back, reportedly after the driver refused to be shaken down. Armed Druze arrived on the scene and “liberated” the truck. How do you interpret this?

For me, there is a strong sense of self-confidence among the Druze to stand up against the regime and carry arms - not fighting the regime, but clearly signaling that they will not be pushed around.

But at the same time, their impact on the regime is limited. When the riots broke out in April, the regime circulated the news that [Suwayda security chief] Nasser will be replaced. And it's now more than 10 months later, and he is still there.

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