Syria’s civil war impinges on Israel
Had it not been too busy fighting itself, Syria would this month have been celebrating the 15th anniversary of Bashar Assad’s rule.
Tragically, Assad and his citizenry have no cause to celebrate, as the country haemorrhages and its president’s future looks increasingly grim. As diplomats seek clarity through war’s fog, the dilemmas with which the Syrian crisis challenge Israel are becoming ever more complex – with the current focus on Syria’s embattled Druze minority.
Roughly the size of Benelux, Syria is decomposing – the area under Assad’s control is gradually shrinking and his multiple enemies are steadily encroaching on Damascus.
In the desert northeast of the capital, the historic oasis town of Palmyra has fallen to the Islamic State. West of there, Aleppo is contested by just about all of the civil war’s protagonists, from Iranian proxy Hezbollah to al-Qaeda-affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra to the Syrian Kurds to the Islamic State – and of course Assad’s army, whose jets and helicopter gunships routinely raid the metropolis that has been Syria’s commercial hub for centuries.
South of Aleppo, al-Nusra has seized Idlib province. East of Aleppo, Syria’s Kurdish minority has formed its own canton. In the far south, where the war began, rebel groups have wrested control of Assad’s local military headquarters, a large base known as Liwa 52, and also taken over a border pass with Jordan.
West of Damascus, in the Anti-Lebanon’s Qalamoun Mountains, Assad’s ally Hezbollah is bleeding continuously in what seems like a futile attempt to push rebel forces away from Lebanon’s doorstep. And finally, in Damascus itself, on June 16 rebel rockets reportedly struck the Arnus Garden, a popular hangout, killing nine, shortly after Assad’s fighter planes bombed rebel-held Douma, some 10 km. north of downtown Damascus.
All in all, these developments have strengthened the assessment from many analysts that Assad’s recent salvos are parting shots that will ultimately be followed by a strategic retreat by the regime to the strip between the Mediterranean coast and the Nusariya Mountains where Assad’s Alawite tribe is centred.
It is clear that the social structures and political order that Hafez Assad bequeathed his son upon his death in June 2000 are irrevocably gone – no matter what the aftermath is of this war that has already displaced roughly one-in-two Syrians and killed more than 220,000.
The abnormal situation whereby three million Alawites had effective rule over some 20 million other Syrians will be replaced by a new alignment whose contours, circumstances and timing are impossible to predict.
The Assads’ political formula for rule was more sophisticated than some assume. While enforced by notorious security services and intelligence agencies, it cultivated a variety of minorities which effectively helped the regime keep a lid on the 60% Sunni majority and the 10% Kurdish minority.
Minorities making up a fifth of prewar Syria, ranging from the Greeks and Armenians to Turkmens and Ismaili Shi’ites, enjoyed the non-religious regime’s protection from the potential hostility of the Sunni majority in exchange for support.
A prominent component among these long-time regime allies was the Druze minority, and it is their increasingly precarious situation in the face of Assad’s unfolding retreat that is the tripwire by which Israel, despite its longstanding policies of non-involvement, finds itself potentially being sucked into the Syrian maelstrom.
Harking back to the eleventh century, when a circle of scholars in Cairo developed a post-Muslim, Unitarian theology, the Druze soon became estranged from mainstream Islam which came to see their secretive religion as an apostasy – a status far worse than that of Christianity or Judaism, which were officially tolerated under Islamic rule, if subject to various restrictions and symbols of subservience.
A thousand years on, the Druze number just over a million people in the Middle East and an estimated half-a-million elsewhere. The Syrian community, at 700,000, is the largest, followed by more than 200,000 in Lebanon, 130,000 in pre-1967 Israel, some 30,000 in Jordan, and 20,000 in the Israeli-controlled Golan Heights.
Recognisable through their men often wearing a flat, white, red-topped tarboosh (a hat similar to a fez), and the frequently Western appearance of unmarried Druze women, the Druze remain rooted in the mountainous landscapes where their forebears entrenched themselves once they understood Muslim hostility would be their long-term challenge. The remoteness of their mountaintops addressed the sense of vulnerability that animated Druze life.
The strategy did not always work – most notably in 1860 when thousands died in a war between Lebanon’s Druze and Christians. Still, mountains were the best geographic friend of this vulnerable minority. Politically, its best friend was the principle of loyalty to the local stabilising powers that be, whoever they were.
That is how the Druze in Israel, who live on the summits of the Carmel and Upper Galilee mountains, chose to join the Zionist cause. The result has been a remarkable alliance.
The Druze have served in the IDF since Israel’s earliest years, mostly in combat units, often rising to high ranks. Of 23,320 fatalities in Israel’s wars, 398 have been Druze soldiers. During last year’s fighting in Gaza, one of the main infantry brigades, the Golani, was commanded by Druze Col. Rassan Alian. He was injured during the fighting but after several days’ treatment insisted on returning to the battlefield. Other Druze Israelis have served as generals, lawmakers and deputy ministers. One also served as a government minister.
Speaking Arabic within their own communities and flawless Hebrew outside, many Druze work as professionals in Israeli cities, though farming the mountainous terrain of their historic villages remains central to their community’s livelihood.
The alliance is further cemented by the Druze belief that they descend from the biblical Jethro, Moses’ adviser and father-in-law, whose reputed grave overlooking the Sea of Galilee is the community’s holiest site.
Now, as their brethren in Syria have effectively lost the protection of the Assad regime that they relied on, some Israeli Druze elders are requesting that the Israeli government come to their aid.
In Syria, the mountains where the Druze have clustered for centuries are named after them, the Jebel Druze. This is a region spiked with ten dormant volcanoes ranging from 1,100 to 1,800 metres in height overlooking the Jordanian border, about 100 km east of the Israeli Golan Heights. Nearly half-a-million Druze live there today, while the remainder are scattered in villages elsewhere in other mountainous parts of Syria.
Now, the rebel takeover of Liwa 52 and the disappearance of Assad’s Division 52, which was based there, have created a military vacuum into which the Sunni rebels are quickly getting drawn. Both Jabhat-al-Nusra and Islamic State are advancing toward the Druze heartland from opposite directions, and both see the Druze as both Assad collaborators and non-Muslim infidels. Blood has already been drawn in northern Idlib province, where Nusra gunmen reportedly massacred two dozen Druze villagers.
Ironically, the Syrian Druze had been in the process of parting ways with Assad. What began with the Druze elders’ failure in 2011 to back Assad when the civil war broke out has recently become a concerted avoidance of conscription into the regime’s forces. Behind this retreat lurk both emotion and calculation. First Druze elders fumed in the face of Assad’s disloyalty, and then they began questioning the Assad regime’s durability, and therefore the utility of their alliance with it.
For now, the Druze are being confronted by Nusra’s forces more than by those from ISIS. The clash with the former is not only about strategic terrain and military assets – the fundamentalist Sunni group is demanding that the Druze convert to Sunni Islam. Added up, these circumstances are causing panic among Druze both inside and outside Syria.
In an expression of the pitched tensions at play, a mob in the Golan Heights’ Druze village Majdal-Shams on June 22 attacked an Israeli ambulance that was carrying Sunni causalties from the Syrian fighting to an Israeli field hospital. The mob succeeded in stopping and entering the ambulance and lynching to death one Syrian while severely injuring another.
In Israel, the Druze community began raising funds and pressuring the government to “do something” in the face of the evolving siege of Syria’s Druze heartland.
The idea of expanding the Israeli-Druze alliance across Israel’s borders is old, but also rusty.
Back in 1958, when David Ben-Gurion formulated his “periphery strategy” which courted regional allies who were non-Muslim, non-Arab, or both, he included the Druze in a target list that also included Iran, Turkey, and Ethiopia, among states, and the Iraqi Kurds, Egyptian Copts, and the Lebanese Maronites, among minority groups.
The following decade, as Israel deliberated its response to the Syrian bombardment of the Hula Valley during the Six Day War, one minister suggested sending the IDF to Jebel Druze to help restore the Druze state that the French created there in 1921, before folding it back into a centralised Syria in 1936. The idea was sensibly rejected, and Israel made do with seizing the Golan Heights, where Mt. Hermon’s 20,000 Druze have been living under Israeli rule for nearly half a century now.
No one today is thinking in such interventionist terms.
The failed attempt in 1982 to restore Maronite dominance in Lebanon is a trauma Israeli decision makers will not repeat. Moreover, the Druze, though armed and bellicose, are too small demographically and too disjointed geographically to coalesce into a viable state, even if one included all the various communities from Lebanon to Jordan.
Moreover, the Syrian Druze themselves fear that open collaboration with Israel might cost them dearly in the future, if and when the region comes under Sunni majority rule.
What Israel can do is extend humanitarian aid, not directly but through the Israeli Druze community. That would be an expansion of the medical assistance already offered to the civil war’s victims through a special IDF field hospital in the Golan Heights, where at least 1,600 Syrian casualties have already been treated since 2011.
At the same time, IDF Chief of Staff Lt-Gen Gadi Eisenkot told the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defence committee that Israel “will do everything to prevent a massacre” on its border, a terse offer of passivity for passivity.
One potential location of a prospective massacre is the town of Hader, where 25,000 Druze live on the Syrian side of the Golan border fence among the foothills of Mt Hermon.
“Druze Israelis should be allowed to enter Hader and administer aid there,” said Israel’s Deputy Minister for Regional Cooperation Ayoub Qara, himself Druze. Conceding that the law forbids Israelis from entering enemy lands, Qara explained: “This is an exception.”