Mount Hermon battles highlight divide among Druze communities
Published Tuesday, November 11, 2014
There is a lot of anger in Lebanese and Palestinian villages near Mount Hermon following the death of a large number of Druze fighters in battles with al-Nusra Front. These dramatic developments have brought back to the surface the debate over the neutrality of the Druze community versus calls for them to fight alongside the Syrian army against the tafkiris.
The battles that took place on the Syrian side of Mount Hermon continue to resonate in Hasbaya, Rashaya, the Galilee, and Mount Carmel, days after dozens of fighters from the National Defense Forces (NDF) – which fights alongside the Syrian army – were killed in battles with al-Nusra Front and other Islamist militias. The fallen fighters came from the Druze-majority villages of Arna, Bqaasam, Qalaat Jandal, and Ashrafiet Sahnaya.
So far, the concerned authorities on the Syrian side of Mount Hermon have not been able to provide a precise tally of the casualties, as al-Nusra Front and the other factions have refrained from sharing information with the liaison committee, formed by a number of dignitaries from the village of Hina, on the number of bodies and prisoners that they have taken. Al-Akhbar has learned from local sources in Arna involved in the preliminary negotiations that the committee has not yet obtained any accurate information, saying they could not speculate on the progression or the outcome of the negotiations yet.
The same sources told Al-Akhbar that the militant groups have neither confirmed nor denied the number of casualties or prisoners. The sources said, “We were able to confirm they have two prisoners, Yahya Massoud and Suleiman Ahmad Bad al-Din (from Arna) thanks to leaked video footage.” “The final tally could be 39 martyrs, but the militants do not want to lose one of their bargaining chips,” the sources added.
For their part, sources in the NDF said, “The battles are not over yet. The men of the NDF are determined to protect the villages of Mount Hermon and to punish the terrorists who cowardly attacked our comrades. What happened was a tactical blunder that could happen in any battle, but the cost in blood was high.”
Meanwhile, Syrian military sources said the Syrian army will soon cut off the Khan al-Sheikh road from Mount Hermon to prevent “Israeli-backed terrorists from moving toward the Damascus countryside and to protect villages and civilians.”
Other sources in the NDF stressed that all claims that al-Nusra Front did not want to raid Druze villages were “nonsense,” pointing out that the jihadist group had previously stormed Tal Magher al-Mir and kidnapped a number of its residents. The NDF sources said the fact that casualties had fallen would not “push us to become neutral if the militants attack nearby army positions.”
According to Syrian military forces, al-Nusra Front is attempting to link the borders with the occupied Golan Heights to Damascus’ western countryside and Khan al-Sheikh, in order to circumvent the Damascus-Quneitra road after failing to take Qatna and Saasaa. According to security sources, “the militants have brought reinforcement for this purpose from Jubata al-Khashab through Beit Jinn, but the army foiled them in collaboration with the Popular Committees and the NDF.”
While anger and sorrow have been the predominant reaction of the Druze community in Syria, the repercussions of what happened will no doubt leave a deep mark on nearby Lebanese and Palestinian villages. The events in Mount Hermon served to cement the positions of the rival Druze parties in Lebanon who are at odds over the Syrian crisis, and highlighted the sharp disparity in the Druze street on this issue.
At a time when MP Walid Jumblatt took advantage of the battles to reiterate his position calling for “neutrality and disengagement with the Syrian regime” – and implicitly for the Druze to support al-Nusra Front – MP Talal Arslan, the Syrian Social National Party and former Minister Wiam Wahhab called on the Druze to take up arms and fight alongside the Syrian army and Hezbollah against al-Nusra Front. They also said al-Nusra Front was receiving open support from the Israeli army in the provinces of Quneitra and Daraa, representing a real threat to all the components of the Syrian people just like the threat from the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS).
On the ground, Jumblatt’s calls have had little effect outside of his Progressive Socialist Party (PSP) base, at least in Rashaya and Hasbaya. While PSP supporters, under direction from Jumblatt, have steered clear from staging vigilante patrols and armed appearances in the villages of Rashaya along the border, the Yazbeki movement and local sheikhs have insisted on arming themselves to protect the villages.
This has found a favorable echo with the Druze sitting on the fence, as fears grow from possible takfiri attacks on the villages, in light of the battles between their coreligionists and the takfiris on the other side of the Mount. Some residents of Rashaya and Hasbaya are not only carrying arms at night and establishing perimeters around the border villages, but have also started preparations to form military groups and cross into villages in Syria to help protect them.
Jumblatt’s statements coincided with a campaign launched by PSP officials on the ground and on social media, promoting the idea that al-Nusra Front does not want to fight the Druze, and claiming that the Syrian army had abandoned Druze fighters in the battle. This is while bearing in mind that the information from the field that has reached even PSP officials indicates the Syrian army was not involved in any way in the battles. In effect, it seems that the subsequent intervention by the Syrian army and Hezbollah prevented a larger number of casualties.
Speaking to Al-Akhbar, PSP officials said, “Our vision is that Druze villages can be protected through neutrality. This is a major war and it is going to last for a long time, and the Druze have no interest in siding with the Assad regime, which will fall.”
For their part, sources from Talal Arslan’s Democratic Party said, “Jumblatt had already sanctioned the slaughter of Syrian Druze, so why is he now suddenly concerned about defending them? Moreover, what guarantees can he obtain from the terrorists of al-Nusra Front and others when these groups declare even Sunnis who do not agree with its ideology are apostate, let alone Shias and Druze? There is no other option for the villages but to bear arms and defend themselves alongside the Syrian army.”
Sources close to the March 8 coalition said that the Druze in Lebanon support the Lebanese army against the likes of Salafi cleric Ahmad al-Assir and jihadist figure Shadi al-Mawlawi, and found it odd that the Druze in Syria were being asked to side with al-Nusra, which declares them as heretics according to their Wahhabi ideology. The sources said, “If Jumblatt can get guarantees, then let him give us a plan for how to deal with the takfiris, and let them release the kidnapped Lebanese soldiers before we even talk about Syria.”
Protests in Safed against treatment of al-Nusra Front fighters
More than 500 Palestinian Druze held a protest outside the Safed Hospital in northern Occupied Palestine, which is treating a number of al-Nusra Front fighters who were wounded in the recent battles in Mount Hermon. Israeli occupation forces established a tight cordon around the hospital after receiving reports that the protesters were planning to storm the hospital and attack the militants.
There were also calls to hold protests outside the Nahariya Hospital, which is treating a number of wounded terrorists as well. The demonstrators moved to the barbed wire in the village of Majdal Shams in the Golan Heights, on the border with the liberated Golan Heights. In a statement, the Communications Committee for Druze Arabs of 1948 held Israel responsible for what was happening to the Druze villages, saying Israel was “arming and treating the wounded members of mercenary gangs in Syria.”
Al-Akhbar learned that the Sheikh Akel of the Druze in Palestine, Muwafaq Tarif, left two days ago to Europe to meet with a Druze Syrian opposition leader, amid talk about an Israeli intervention “to protect the Druze.” A number of Israeli intelligence officers with Druze roots have supported calls for Israel to intervene and expand its occupation in Mount Hermon to push back resistance groups linked to Hezbollah and the Syrian army from the occupied Golan.
This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.