Dreaming of a Druse state

Will Israel get sucked into the Syrian quagmire to protect the Druse community near its border from the advancing threat of Islamic State?

Members of the Druze community stand near a Druze flag during a rally in the Druze village of Majdal Shams. (photo credit: REUTERS)
Members of the Druze community stand near a Druze flag during a rally in the Druze village of Majdal Shams.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
A “Druse State” existed in Syria from 1921 to 1936 located in the Jabal Druse – which means Druse Mountain‒ region that gave the state its eponymous name. Jabal Druse is part of the volcanic heights in southwest Syria, some sixty kilometers from the Jordanian border and a similar distance from the Israeli border with Syria along the Golan Heights.
Today, as pressure grows from the advancing forces of the Islamic State, the Syrian Druse community is preparing to defend and establish its own autonomous zone. This may also, for the first time since the war broke out more than four years ago, suck Israel, with its own Druse community of some 130,000 people, deep into the bloody Syrian quagmire.
The “Druse State” was an autonomous district during the days when the French ruled Syria and Lebanon between the two world wars. Its capital and central city was and still is As-Suwayda. During the state’s brief period of “independence,” the Druse led by Sultan al-Atrash rebelled in 1925 against the French occupiers. The revolt with a strong Syrian nationalist sentiment spread to engulf the whole of Syria, but was quashed within two years by the French. Still, the revolt did ensure that autonomy lasted until 1936 when the area’s special status was canceled and it was incorporated into Syria as part of the Franco-Syrian treaty signed the same year.
The Druse dream of independence vanished.
Though al-Atrash was a Syrian nationalist who showed solidarity with the Palestinians, he is still admired nowadays by Druse everywhere, including in Israel.
Thirty years after the Druse autonomy ended, Yigal Allon, a former general and hero of the 1948 War of Independence who was then a cabinet member and one of Israel’s finest strategic minds, entertained the notion of helping the Syrian Druse renew their independence. Allon revealed that he had maintained contacts with the Atrash family and visited Suwayda.
Allon’s idea was part of a larger geo-strategic concept, known as the Peripheral Alliance, which dominated Israel’s foreign and security policy from the 50s to the 70s. It was based on the old dictum of “my enemy’s enemies are my friends.” Executed by the Mossad, it succeeded in forming secret ties with non-Arab states in the Middle East and its periphery – Turkey, Iran and Ethiopia – as well as non-Arab ethnic and religious minorities in the hostile Arab states such as Kurds in Iraq, Christians in Lebanon, and Sudan and the Druse in Syria.
During the Six Day War in June 1967 ‒ before the IDF captured the Golan Heights on the sixth and last day of the war ‒ Allon lobbied then prime minister Levi Eshkol, defense minister Moshe Dayan, his cabinet colleagues and the chief of staff Yitzhak Rabin for an extended campaign. He called to not only conquer the Golan Heights, but also the Suwayda region. “I dreamt the dream of the Druse republic,” Allon recorded in his memoirs, “which would spread in southern Syria including the Golan Heights and would serve as a buffer state between us, Syria and Jordan.”
His proposal was rejected.
Today, the Druse question is once again being discussed in closed-doors meetings of the IDF and senior cabinet ministers and officials, as the regime of Bashar Assad and his army loses more and more territory and the forces of the Islamic State advance in the direction of Suwayda and its nearby villages.
Israeli policy has so far been consistent and reiterated on numerous occasions by Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon. It is a policy of non-intervention in the Syrian civil war with clear “red lines.”
The aim is to maintain quiet and tranquility along the 100-kilometer border on the Golan Heights, stretching from Mount Hermon in the north to the Jordanian border in the southeast, and to defend Israeli security interests.
Thus,the IDF responds only when Israeli sovereignty is intentionally violated from the Syrian side and it exercises restraint when stray bullets, or even shells, hit the Israeli side of the border. The Israeli policy is also to disrupt, whenever it can, the supply and transfer of sophisticated and accurate missiles from Iran, via Syria, to Hezbollah in Lebanon. Foreign media reports credit the Israel Air Force with bombing, on at least 10 occasions in the last two and a half years, convoys and storage depots of Iranian and Syrian missiles destined for Hezbollah.
To achieve its goals, Israel has even allowed, without any interference, the radical Islamist group of Jabhat al-Nusra, which is practically a Syrian branch of al-Qaida, to take over almost the entire border area from the Syrian army. According to foreign reports, Israel has maintained secret ties with the Nusra Front to coordinate the successful execution of this policy. In return, Israel accepts and treats, in a field hospital near the border, wounded civilians and combatants from the Syrian killing fields and supplies humanitarian aid.
The secret ties led also to the understanding that Nusra Front terrorists would avoid clashing with Druse living in several villages – the biggest is the village of Hader ‒ on the Syrian side of Mount Hermon.
When Hezbollah tried to gain a presence in the area by bringing over a militia of 500 fighters from Lebanon and Syria, the local Druse communities, with Nusra and Israel’s forces looming in the background, showed them the door and expelled them from the neighborhood. Not so incidentally, the militia was commandeered by Samir Kuntar, a Hezbollah terrorist of Druse origin who, in 1979, murdered four Israelis (one, a 4-year-old girl he killed by crushing her skull with the butt of his rifle) on the Nahariya beach after landing with another three members of the Palestinian Liberation Front. He was sentenced to life imprisonment, served 29 years in an Israeli jail and, in 2008, was exchanged with others, for the bodies of Israeli reservists Eldad Regev and Ehud Goldwasser, whose capture sparked the 2006 war with Hezbollah.
Israel’s reasonable, though perhaps not highly moral policy of cooperation with Islamist groups on the Syrian side of the border, may soon change, however.
“The situation of our Druse brothers is rapidly deteriorating, I am very worried,” Deputy Minister for Regional Cooperation Ayub Kara, the only Druse member serving in the government, told The Jerusalem Report.
Kara, who is one of the leaders of the Druse community in Israel and a member of the Likud party, says he is in constant communication with Druse leaders in Syria.
In early June, political and religious leaders of the Israeli Druse community met to discuss the situation. At the last moment, a decision to organize a protest in support and solidarity with the Syrian Druse was called off due to pressure from officials in the Prime Minister’s Office.
But it is clear that Druse leaders in Israel will not be able to stand still and ignore events on the other side of the border, in the event of atrocities against their Syrian brethren.
“I am a bit more relaxed about the situation in the Mount Hermon area, but much more worried about what happens in Jabal Druse,” says Kara. On the Syrian side of Mount Hermon, there are approximately 25,000 Druse, while in the Suwayda region there are around 800,000.
“Until recently,” the deputy minister stressed,”ISIS didn’t dare approach the Druse concentration in the Suwayda district, but now they are advancing with tanks and armored cars [which were looted from the defeated Iraqi army ‒ Y.M.] and are threatening our community.”
According to reports that have reached Israel, Islamic State terrorists are still 30-40 kilometers away from Suwayda, but they have already started to activate their brutal tactics.
Dozens of Druse men and women were ambushed and abducted ‒ most of them burned alive or beheaded. Because of the gravity of the situation, the Druse leaders in the city declared a night curfew, began accumulating food and, in order to defend themselves, started organizing their own militia.
The danger is growing because the Assad army is less ready to defend them. As a measure of survival, the Druse minority, wherever they live, tend to rely for their safety, security and prosperity on local governments.
This has been evident in Israel where they serve in the IDF and police, and also in Lebanon and Syria. In return, the Druse show their loyalty to the government, which protects them.
However, this reality is changing in Syria.
The Assad army’s reluctance to defend the Druse is due to several reasons. One is practical: It is losing ground in the battlefields against opposition forces, its ranks are shrinking, and it is overstretched.
The other reason is political: The Assad regime recently demanded that the Druse community send 27,000 young men to serve in its army and replace the dead, wounded and those who have deserted. The Druse have refused to comply with the demand.
Feeling less secure than ever, the Druse leaders began to mobilize their youngsters for the newly organized militia trained by Druse officer veterans of the Syria army.
“But they lack proper equipment and expertise,” emphasizes Kara, “and are eager to receive support from anyone.”
Including from Israel, I asked? “I am in a very sensitive position to answer the question because I am a member of the Israeli government and whatever I say will be echoed and repeated. So I have to be cautious. However, I can say that they need help from any source. I can also add that we are their brothers and cannot be complacent and stand aside when their fate is at stake. We will work hard with all measures available to us to help our brothers, if their lives are in peril. We will not let them be annihilated.”
With these words, Kara refers to a speech delivered in September 2014 by the commander of the Israel Air Force General Amir Eshel. Meeting Sheikh Muwafaq Tarif, the spiritual leader of the Israeli Druse, Eshel assured him, “our alliance with the Druse doesn’t end at the border.”
One can assume that if worse comes to worst and indeed the Syrian Druse community finds itself facing an existential threat, Israel will have to act in its defense, probably using its air force. And if it hesitates to do so, Israeli Druse will force the government to do so and fulfill Eshel’s promise.
Yossi Melman is an Israeli security commentator and co-author of ‘Spies Against Armageddon.’ He blogs at www.israelspy.com and tweets at yossi_melman.