Jumblatt and the Druze of Syria

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Israeli Arab Druze and Druze from the Golan Heights attend a meeting with Lebanese Druze leaders Walid Jumblatt and Talal Arsalan in Damascus 17 September 2010. (Photo: REUTERS - Khaled al-Hariri)

By: Bassam Alkantar

Published Thursday, January 26, 2012

Walid Jumblatt has called for Druze soldiers in Syria to disobey orders to fire on civilians. His comments garnered a variety of critical responses from figures in Lebanon and across the border in Syria.

The last time the Druze of Lebanon, Syria and Palestine got together, Damascus was the venue. Walid Jumblatt took the stage at the convention hall, and exhorted the delegation from the 1948 Palestinian territories to reject the conscription of young Druze villagers from Carmel and Galilee into the Israeli army.

The needle of Jumblatt's compass has made many turns since then.

That meeting, in September 2010, was seen as a mark of his gradual shift into the pro-Syrian camp after his break with the March 14 coalition in Lebanon. But Jumblatt repositioned himself after the outbreak of the protests in Syria on 15 March 2011, and became increasingly strident.

Earlier this week, he openly called on young Druze soldiers in the Syrian army to “disobey military commands to kill their brothers.”

Jumblatt has meanwhile stopped speaking out against the conscription of Druze into the Israeli army. Only last month, Israeli prosecutors indicted 16 Druze sheikhs in connection with their visits to Lebanon and Syria over recent years and their urging of young people to refuse to serve in the Israeli military.

It may be too early to judge the response to Jumblatt’s calls among young Syrian Druze from villages in the provinces of Suweida and the Damascus countryside.

There has been a history of tense relations between the Druze and other groups in the Houran area, especially local Bedouins, which the regime has sought to conceal. Conflicts over land led to armed confrontations some years ago. They peaked in late 2000, just after Bashar Assad assumed office, forcing the army to launch a campaign that lasted several months.

The enduring nature of these tensions was reflected in an anti-Druze diatribe made by Sheikh Abdel Salam al-Jalili' in the Dara village of al-Harak shortly after the protests began. Many have since sought to play down the importance of his speech.

There has not been any indication as to whether Jumblatt plans to follow up his call with practical measures – such as sending trusted Druze sheikhs to Syria, under the guise of religious visits, to persuade community leaders there to abandon their pro-regime stance.

An unnamed anti-regime Syrian Druze figure, supposedly close to the French government and a financial backer of the Free Syrian Army, was quoted by the Kuwaiti daily al-Siyassa as dismissing Jumblatt’s “silly” appeal. The paper highlighted what it said were warnings that the antics of Lebanese Druze politicians from both sides of the divide could result in the displacement of Syrian Druze from their homes.

In Beirut, rival MP Talal Arslan reacted to Jumblatt’s call on Druze soldiers to disobey orders by stressing that that “the position of Syrian Druze is not sectarian.” Former minister Wiam Wahhab accused Jumblatt of putting Syrian Druze “in great danger.” He insisted that there had not been a single recorded case of a Druze soldier defecting from the Syrian army, and that this was a mark of patriotism.

Al-Nahar newspaper reported months ago that a total of 100 Druze Syrian army soldiers had been killed so far. The Center for Documenting Violations in Syria, run by activists in the opposition Local Coordination Committees, however, puts the number of soldiers killed from Suwaida as of January 25 at 31. A figure of 45 has been circulated by other activists on Facebook.

In Druze villages in Suwaida located near Sunni villages in the province of Daraa and the Jordanian border, there are unconfirmed reports that “popular committees” have recently been formed – young men who guard the villages at night to protect them from “strangers.” The same phenomenon has been evident, though less widespread, in the Damascus countryside. Reports say that a recent bid to smuggle a large consignment of arms into the country was foiled in the Wadi Sarhan area thanks to information provided by Druze civilians about local smuggling operations.

President Bashar Assad paid an unannounced, unofficial and unescorted visit to Suwaida on March 12 last year, just a few days prior to the eruption of protests in Daraa. Images of a beaming president being carried aloft by a Druze elder, which were circulated widely on social networks, reinforced his image as protector of the country’s minorities.

This does not mean that Suwaida has been untouched by protests. A succession of actions have been witnessed in several parts of the province, and Druze youth have been active in protests held abroad.

But while opposition activists in Suwaida have always maintained that protests there have been curbed by pro-regime thugs, reports indicate that Druze religious sheikhs have opposed the protests and sought to forcibly prevent them.

The first protest dates back to March 27, when about 80 members of the lawyers’ syndicate held a sit-in to demand reforms, liberties, and accountability of public officials. On the same day, vigils spread to several Druze villages. Local sheikhs, however, were adamant in their rejection of these actions, which only involved a few tens of people each.

On April 14, a protest was held in the main square opposite the provincial government headquarters in the town of Suwaida. That was followed by an Independence Day demonstration on April 17 in Qarya, birthplace of anti-colonial revolutionary leader Sultan al-Atrash, which resulted in a number of injuries. Two days later, hundreds participated in protests after portraits of al-Atrash were vandalized in Shahba – an incident still shrouded in mystery given that it served the protesters’ purposes.

Video footage has shown continuing sporadic demonstrations in Shabha over the course of recent weeks, including protests to demand the release of activist Mahran Tawil, who was finally freed two days ago.

On the other hand, hardly a week passes without rallies or gatherings being held in Druze villages to declare loyalty to the Syrian president and voice support for national unity.

The latest such meeting was held on Tuesday, coinciding with Jumblatt's call on Druze youth to defy military orders, in the village of Arna on Mount Hermon. In attendance were the Sunni Grand Mufti Ahmad Badreddin Hassoun, Greek Orthodox Bishop Moussa Khoury, and Sheikh al-Akl Hammoud Hinnawi, along with hundreds of other Druze clerics. According to Issam Shaalan, a mayor from the occupied Golan Heights, the meeting issued a clear message “that those who change their positions to suit circumstances, and dream of leading ethnic and sectarian mini-states, represent no one but themselves.”

This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.

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