Syrian Druse stay neutral, eying post-Assad survival

Expert discusses ethnic groups in Syria who are thinking more about what they should do if President Bashar Assad’s regime falls.

druse majdal shams_311 (photo credit: Oren Kessler)
druse majdal shams_311
(photo credit: Oren Kessler)
Amid reports that Western powers plan to step up aid to the Syrian rebels, the several ethnic groups in the country surely are thinking more about what they should do if President Bashar Assad’s regime falls.
The main groups – Sunnis, Druse, Christians, Kurds and Alawites – can be further broken down into subgroups based on religious denomination, tribe, clan and family. The myriad groups each base their strategy not on what is best for Syria, but on what is best for themselves.
Syria has around 22 million people. Sunnis make up approximately 74 percent of the population, various Christian denominations 10%, Alawites 7%, Druse 3%, and there are a small number of Shi’ites and others. The Sunnis have numbers on their side, not only within the country, but also in the region, with many of their brethren supporting their struggle against Assad’s Alawite regime.
For the most part, the non-Sunni groups are united behind the Assad regime because they fear a Sunni Islamist-controlled state. The Kurds, for example, are taking advantage of the chaos to form an autonomous region in northeastern Syria, but are largely staying out of the fighting.
The Kurds, like some of the other minorities, are hedging their bets so that whether Assad stays in power or the Islamist-dominated rebels topple the regime, they will have working relations with the power that be.
A similar dynamic seems to be true for the Druse. Gary Gambill, a Syria analyst and associate fellow at the Middle East Forum, in an interview with The Jerusalem Post, says, “While some journalists close to the rebels have reported that the Druse community is on the verge of switching sides, this is wishful thinking.”
He adds, “I do not think the Druse will stay as solidly pro-Assad as they have been and they may become more sympathetic to the opposition, but they do not want to open themselves up to government reprisals.”
The Druse originated in the 11th century as an offshoot of the Ismaili Shi’ite Fatimid dynasty in Egypt and its ruler Al-Hakim bi-Amr Allah, who was and is believed to be a messianic, divine figure.
In a recent article Gambill wrote titled, “Syrian Druze: Toward Defiant Neutrality,” Gambill mentions often-neglected background information on the Druse, how a fierce battle between two Druse factions in 1711 – the Qaysi and the Yamani – in Mount Lebanon led to the defeat of the Yamani faction, which migrated to an area known as Jebl Druse, located in southwest Syria. Another point is that the Syrian Druse rarely fight among themselves or with Christians in Jebl Druse.
In Syria, writes Gambill, the Druse are represented equitably in the civil service, the army’s mid-level officer corps, and state-owned industries. Since the uprising began in 2011, there has been a presence of Druse intellectuals in parts of the opposition, though Gambill notes that most have remained loyal to the regime and are not fighting on the side of the rebels.
The Druse, similar to the Kurds, seem to be concerned with defending their area from the Sunni insurgents, but not inflaming relations with them either.
“The best way to ensure their interests are protected is not to alienate either side,” says Gambill.
“If Damascus were to fall, I think that Druse paramilitaries in the Jebl would take control of the area and come to an arrangement with the rebels, just as the Kurds would. But the war is not going to end when the regime falls,” he says.
Asked by the Post if US aid would influence the outcome of the conflict, Gambill responded that he does not see American aid as being decisive enough at this stage as the Islamists will remain the dominant player in the opposition regardless.
He concludes by noting that the Islamists are the ones most willing to take risks against the regime.
“If the armed opposition had been made up of secular liberals, they would have been decimated by now.”