Posted by Matthew Barber on Wednesday, September 9th, 2015
by Waleed Rikab
With the ethnic cleansing of the Yazidis in recent hindsight, how can the U.S. help prepare for a similar existential threat to Sweida’s Druze?
The Druze minority in Syria has been in the news quite a bit recently. In July, al-Qaeda’s affiliate, Jabhat al-Nusra (JN) executed over twenty Druze villagers in Idlib. Just this month (Sept. 2015), Sheikh Waheed Balous was assassinated in Sweida, the mountainous “capital” of Syria’s Druze. Balous was critical of Bashar al-Assad’s regime for its corruption and for failing to protect the Druze from extremists.
Most Druze in Syria live in the province of Sweida which has traditionally been a regime stronghold but is now surrounded by rebel militias. A smaller number of the adherents of this religion also reside in Idlib province, where they have been forcibly converted to Sunni Islam under JN rule.
Following the assassination of Sheikh Balous, open resentment toward the regime has engulfed Sweida. All the same, the Druze are unlikely to join the rebels or break their alliance with the Assad regime. They do not want to see an evacuation of regime forces from the province.
The province is not within what Assad views as his heartland, although it is important for the protection of Damascus. Assad may redeploy forces away from the province if pressured in the capital or on the coastal region. His forces have suffered a number of recent defeats, and with ongoing attrition, many speculate that he will eventually have to pull out of the Sweida region. Such a pattern has been repeatedly witnessed in eastern, northern, and southern Syria. Today, most regime and allied forces have been pulled back to the areas where most Syrians live—the major western cities and the coast—defending smaller but strategic portions of what used to be the Syrian Arab Republic.
On the other hand, in the calculus of rebel factions, the geography of the mountainous Sweida region and its proximity to the capital may prove crucial to threatening Bashar’s grip over the capital.
These scenarios, which in the end will lead to battles for control of Sweida with or without a regime presence, should be the real issue, regardless of the immediate consequences of the assassination, calling into question the prospects of the Druze minority, which seems marked by strategic inferiority compared to potential rivals, mainly due to low military capabilities in the form of its newly established local militias. These militias were formed as an attempt to protect the Druze population amid a background of several attacks by JN and ISIS in the Sweida area.
The tenants of the Druze faith, for example the transmigration of souls, worship of saints, and the rejection of the pillars of Islamic orthopraxy, will make any peaceful life under hardline Sunni rule all but impossible. In this regard, JN and the Islamic State appear to only disagree over tactics, and not the essence of their ideology.
A recent issue of IS’s mouthpiece, Dabiq magazine, had this to say on the way Druze should be treated, quoting the medieval Islamic scholar Ibn Tamiyyah (issue 10, p. 9):
“They are not at the level of Ahlul-Kitāb (people of the book, meaning Jews and Christians) nor the mushrikīn (apostates). Rather, they are from the most deviant kuffār (infidels)… Their women can be taken as slaves and their property can be seized. They are apostate heretics whose repentance cannot be accepted. Rather they are to be killed wherever they are found and cursed as they were described… It is obligatory to kill their scholars and religious figures so that they do not misguide others. ”
These statements obviously echo the IS treatment of the Yazidi minority in Iraq, which has suffered the full brunt of the Islamic State’s dark ideology and remains dispersed and shattered to this day.
Both faiths are considered beyond heretical by IS and it uses the same justification for its intended annihilation of the Yazidis and Druze. For instance, an earlier issue of Dabiq justified the atrocities against the Yazidis, including the reintroduction of slavery, saying:
“The Islamic State dealt with this group as the majority of fuqahā’ (scholars) have indicated how mushrikīn should be dealt with. Unlike the Jews and Christians, there was no room for jizyah payment. Also, their women could be enslaved unlike female apostates who the majority of the fuqahā’ say cannot be enslaved and can only be given an ultimatum to repent or face the sword. After capture, the Yazidi women and children were then divided according to the Sharī’ah amongst the fighters of the Islamic State who participated in the Sinjar operations, after one fifth of the slaves were transferred to the Islamic State’s authority…”
JN, on the other hand, will suffice itself with coerced conversions to Sunni Islam and the desecration of places of worship, which has been already been witnessed in Idlib and was clearly stated in JN leader al-Jolani’s interview with Al-Jazeera in May 2015, on the occasion of JN’s and Ahrar al-Sham’s gains in northern Syria.
The contradicting military efforts of the regime, JN, IS, Ahrar al-Sham, and the Southern Front are bound to reach Sweida province sooner or later, with each faction trying to deny the others any gains. Bashar will most likely abandon the province, given the current trajectory of the conflict and his distress in Damascus and the areas adjacent to coastal regions and the border with Lebanon. Such a scenario may allow the entry of forces from the relatively moderate and Jordan-backed Southern Front, but will also enable the entrance of JN and IS. However, even if the Southern Front enters the province, a settling of old accounts with Bashar’s supporters is to be expected, owing to the high numbers of regime-aligned parties in Sweida. Such control is also likely to be severely contested by the Islamist factions. Regrettably, the Druze minority’s entry into the turmoil of armed conflict and possible atrocities is just a matter of time.
How the U.S. Can Prepare
Syrian Druze preserve a unique and rich religious cultural heritage; the same cultural heritage that IS is systematically destroying in Iraq and Syria. Men, women, children, and beautiful places of worship, cannot be brought back once they fall into the hands of the chauvinistic ideology of IS and JN. The U.S. is currently waging a campaign aimed at containing and disrupting Islamic State and al-Qaeda expansion in Iraq and Syria. It attempted to assist the Yazidis when their lands where attacked, albeit too late to prevent mass killings and enslavement. A quick reaction force or a U.S. contingency plan might possibly have saved thousands of lives.
Together with allies in the region, Jordan for example, the U.S. should now start working on local coordination with elements in the Druze community, applying lessons learned from the successful coordination of military tactics and aid with the YPG in northern Syria – the only model that has proven capable of protecting territories in the Iraqi and Syrian theaters – before it is too late. Such engagement would likely also deprive the Assad regime the support of the Druze community, which seems reluctant to openly disavow him only for lack of better options and out of a need for self-preservation.
Waleed Rikab, a former intelligence officer, heads the Strategic Research Department at Terrogence, a privately-owned counter-terrorism and risk assessment company