If the 50-month-long civil war in Syria – with its 200,000 fatalities and with unexplained rivalries and alliances – has created a big mess, a more convoluted threat is emerging, a threat to the Druse community, which may drag Israel unwittingly into the killing fields.
On the surface, Israel is closely monitoring the situation. Security officials clarified there is no intention of intervening in the civil war, but could Jerusalem really stand idly by as 700,000 Syrian Druse face an existential threat?
On Saturday night, Druse in Israel and on the Israeli-controlled Golan Heights demonstrated in solidarity with their brethren in Syria. Their political leaders, led by Deputy Regional Cooperation Minister Ayoub Kara and spiritual leader Moafaq Tarif, showed responsibility and restraint.
“As a Druse,” Kara said, “I’m making great efforts to ensure the safety of the Syrian Druse and to mobilize every player in the world to help them.”
He was referring to the US, Jordan and Turkey. The concern for the fate of the Druse was discussed last week during a visit by the chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Martin Dempsey.
President Reuven Rivlin called on the United States to protect the Druse community in Syria. Kara last week attended a regional Israeli-Jordanian-Palestinian conference about the rehabilitation of the Jordan River and the Dead Sea basin. But he also used the opportunity to meet with Sheikh Yousuf Jorba, the spiritual leader of his community in the Mount Druse region of southern Syria – the largest Druse concentration in the country.
Kara also met with Jordanian security officials and discussed with them a scenario in which the Druse would seek refuge in the Hashemite Kingdom.
He will visit Turkey next month as a guest of the Turkish mufti and use the opportunity to discuss the possibility that President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s government would open border crossings if there were mortal danger to the northern Syrian Druse.
But behind the scenes, the secret dealings and messages are even more complicated and intriguing. They create hidden alliances that would be incomprehensible in normal circumstances.
They include Israel, Jordan, the US, the Nusra Front (the Syrian branch of al-Qaida), Hezbollah and, over the horizon, Iran, Hezbollah’s partner in the Shi’ite alliance.
The events regarding the Druse community in Syria have unfolded rapidly in recent weeks. As an ethnic and religious minority, the community enjoyed the protection and sponsorship of President Bashar Assad’s regime and army, but of late, they were informed that the military could not protect them anymore due to its overstretched deployment.
The biggest threat to its 700,000 members is the advancement of Islamic State in the region known as Mount Druse, 60 km. from the Jordanian border and 50 km. from Israel’s Golan Heights.
There are two more Druse areas in Syria that are facing trouble. One is in the north, where 20 members of the community were murdered by the Nusra Front last week. Nusra’s leaders announced in an unprecedented message that they apologized, and described it as a rogue operation, promising to punish the perpetrators.
It is worth noting: The murderers of al-Qaida apologized.
No doubt someone made sure to send them a strong message not to mess with the Druse. Was it Israel? According to foreign reports, it has maintained cordial relations with the group, which controls the 100-kilometer strip of the Israeli-Syrian border.
A similar strong message was sent months ago to the Nusra Front when it tried to take control of the third-largest Druse concentration, on Mount Hermon, near the Israeli border.
Since then, the border has been quiet, and a tacit understanding has been established that as long as the Israeli side of the border is tranquil, the Nusra strip on the Syrian side of the Golan will be so, too.
But the Druse in Syria, Lebanon and Israel don’t trust the apologies of the jihadists, and as such, began to organize. Hundreds of Lebanese Druse responded to their leader Walid Jumblatt and moved from the Chouf Mountains, with free passage arranged by Hezbollah to their brethren’s villages on Mount Hermon.
And this is where it gets unbelievable: Hezbollah and Israel have a common interest, albeit with different motives, to defend the Druse community in Syria.
This is part of a larger realignment aimed at creating an independent Druse military force. The initiative is ambitious and requires the enlistment of 100,000 troops.
The coordinator is a former general in the Syrian army. The heavy weapons – antitank missiles, armored cars and artillery – will probably be provided via Jordan by foreign suppliers.
The US, if necessary, will provide air strikes against Islamic State. It can be assumed that these steps, if executed, will be coordinated with Israel.
In the worst-case scenario, Israel is preparing for an emergency in which it will have to absorb tens of thousands of Druse refugees, or as a last resort use its air force to defend them.