Posted by Aymenn Al-Tamimi on Friday, November 15th, 2013
In light of responses to my previous piece on Druze militias in southern Syria, here are some further thoughts:
1. Druze in opposition: The initial article drew conclusions that the majority of Druze in Syria who have taken up arms do so on the side of the Assad regime and that there is no evidence of a separatist trend even among Druze militias that might be deemed autonomous. In objection to my conclusions it has been claimed that I intentionally overlooked Druze who are on the side of the opposition, whether political or armed.
However, my assessment was clear that a “majority” had taken up arms on the side of the regime, and thus I do not discount Druze on the other side. To give a notable example, we have from the Quneitra region the case of “Katiba Ahrar Haḍr” (Battalion of the Free Men of Haḍr), referring to the Druze village of Haḍr in the Jabal al-Sheikh region.
This battalion was formed on 28 January 2013, in response to some Druze’s disillusionment with regime policies of conscription into the Syrian army as well as apparent extortionist practices on the part of the People’s Committees set up to coordinate the activities of Druze militias with the Syrian army. In the group’s formation video, the battalion declares affiliation with the FSA-banner Military Council of the Quneitra and Golan region.
In wars with sectarian dynamics, extortionist policies by militias claiming to protect your own sect are hardly surprising. Allegations of such behavior have already emerged from Alawite areas of Homs (a city where sectarian cleansing has been an important element of the urban warfare), and extortion by the Mahdi Army from Shi’a residents in parts of Baghdad during the sectarian civil war in Iraq in 2006-7/8 is well-known: something that helped to create a degree of Shi’i disillusionment with Muqtada al-Sadr’s militia.
Operating in the al-Aqsa area of northern Quneitra, the battalion has even claimed a martyr: Sheikh Ghassan Saleh Zidane, also known as Abu Adna. He was until his death considered the leader of the battalion and one of the mashayakh of Haḍr. The mashayakh are an essential senior component of a Druze locality. On announcing his death, the battalion accused the “shabiha of Haḍr” of killing him in an ambush.
Figure 2: Photo released on 1 April to announce death of Sheikh Ghassan Saleh Zidane. Notice his body covered with the Druze flag. See here for a video featuring the corpse.
Nevertheless, the existence of this battalion does not illustrate a sharp division in the village’s population between pro and anti-regime sentiment. On the contrary, Haḍr remains loyal to the regime, and far more martyrs for the village have been claimed on the side of regime forces, whether of those deemed shabiha or the Syrian army, as the photos below should demonstrate (courtesy of pro-Assad activits in Haḍr). From the evidence, there is no reason to suppose an anti-regime Druze autonomist trend in this area.
Figure 3: Tomb of local martyr and Syrian army soldier Ayham Faheem Hamid.
Figure 5: Bibris Asa’ad Hasoon, a conscripted soldier from Haḍr killed in Idlib province.
Figure 6: Photo from Haḍr on 9 April. Funeral for local martyrs.
Figure 7: Locals in Haḍr commemorate martyrs for the Syrian army and pro-regime militias. Photo from mid-October.
Like the Jaysh al-Muwahhideen circles, the pro-Assad activists of Haḍr have also featured Jaysh al-Muwahhideen/Abu Ibrahim photos, as below, identical to one in my previous piece but without the Jaysh al-Muwahhideen label but instead advertised “for your eyes, Haḍr.” Again, this puts into doubt the contention that these militias are somehow autonomous and of a non-cooperative orientation vis-à-vis the Syrian army via the People’s Committees. Indeed, these photos of Jaysh al-Muwahhideen/Abu Ibrahim photos are never advertised in any kind of supposed Druze separatist/autonomist circles, but rather among activists of a clearly pro-Assad orientation.
Thus, the case of the village of Haḍr should illustrate my point in my previous piece that the majority of Druze who take up arms do so on the side of Assad. Those in the armed opposition are simply outliers. Common sense should tell us that no community is ever completely monolithic in political outlook, but it is wrong to pretend that the exceptions here somehow point to a sharp split of loyalties amongst the Druze of Syria.
The same goes for Druze figures in the political opposition: they are primarily associated with the opposition-in-exile coalition (e.g. Jabr al-Shufi) that has little credibility on the ground, and so invoking such figures as evidence for Druze sympathy on-the-ground for the opposition is in fact much more dubious than invoking the few Druze who form and join FSA-banner groups.
2. Syrian Druze and Israel: Given the existence of a Druze community in the Galilee area that tends not to identify with Arabist causes and is in fact pro-Israel, one might ask how the Druze in Syria view their Israeli brethren. There is an interesting trend in the Jaysh al-Muwahhideen circles whereby photos are put up of Druze soldiers serving in the Israeli Defence Force’s (IDF) Sword Battalion, as per the examples below.
Is this reconcilable with the contention in my previous piece regarding Syrian Druze hostility to Israel? Yes. Notice that in these photos the Israeli flag is not openly on display, and these photos, if any caption is given, are advertised as soldiers of “Battalion 299” without any explicit reference to the army in which they serve. The concern here is simply to reflect notions of Druze solidarity and ideals of Druze unity and power. Note also the images below from Jaysh al-Muwahhiddeen circles purporting to show Druze loyalty to Syria in the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights and resentment over the treatment of Druzes by the “soldiers of the occupation.”
Figure 16: Druze man in occupied Golan Heights waves the flag of Syria. Note Jaysh al-Muwahhideen label in top left-hand corner.
Figure 17: Photo in Jaysh al-Muwahhideen circles purporting to show Israeli mistreatment of Druze in the occupied Golan Heights.
Figure 18: From a Druze page based in Lebanon, which like the Jaysh al-Muwahhideen pages features photos of Druze soldiers in Battalion 299. This photo hosted by the same page shows Druze support for Syria and Syrian nationalist Druze leader Sultan al-Atrash. No similar gestures of Druze support for Israel would be featured.
To round off, here are some more photos of Druze militiamen in Syria put out under the Jaysh al-Muwahhideen label.
Figure 19: From Jabal al-Sheikh.
Figure 20: From the town of Haḍr, Jabal al-Sheikh. Note the fighter wearing a jacket with the Syrian flag.
Figure 21: Near the town of Haḍr in Jabal al-Sheikh. In light of the presence of the Syrian army tank, overlap is implied between Druze irregulars in this area and the Syrian army.
Figure 22: Jabal al-Sheikh.
Figure 23: Druze militiamen in Arna, Jabal al-Sheikh. “Forces of Abu Ibrahim: Jaysh al-Muwahhideen.” Note the Druze colours on the gun in the middle of the photo.
Figure 24: Druze militiamen with the Syrian flag. Note the individual on the right with a portrait of Assad on his shirt.
Aymenn Jawad al-Tamimi is a student at Brasenose College, Oxford University, and a Shillman-Ginsburg Fellow at the Middle East Forum. His website is http://www.aymennjawad.org. Follow on Twitter:@ajaltamimi