Sweida Sheikhs in Lebanon: Putting the house in order

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Druze sheikhs meet in Lebanon's majority Druze region, al-Chouf where popular Druze leader Walid Joumblatt resides. (Photo: Haitham Moussawi)

By: Firas Choufi

Published Monday, November 3, 2014

The visit by Syrian Sweida's Druze sheikhs to Lebanon bares many implications, especially in the midst of growing takfiri threats and Israeli ambitions in Golan and al-Taym Valley. "Setting the house in order" seems to be the priority. But as Syria's Druze seemed to have made up their minds, the margin of maneuvering is getting narrower for the Druze of Lebanon, who are left with only two options: disengagement or going along with the position of their Syrian brethren.

The visit by Sweida's two senior Druze sheikhs, Sheikh Aql Yusuf Jarbou and Hammoud al-Hannawi, to Lebanon does not stray far from the general sense of the existential threat felt by the Druze of Syria and Lebanon, particularly in the midst of massacres and the disintegration of the Levant. The visit was of a religious character and did not go into a broad political debate between the sheikhs of the two countries. However, it indicated the beginning of a new direction for the Druze in face of the upcoming threats from Sweida to Mount Hermon, from Aley to Shouf to Wadi al-Taym, and all the way to Majdal Shams and the villages of Galilee and al-Karmel in the north of occupied Palestine.

For the past several years, MP Walid Jumblatt's orders against the lives of Druze who did not resent their state made many sheikhs under his control deaf to the sound of the tragedy befalling their brethren in Syria. On the other side, the Yazbaki sheikhs seemed more in tune with the vision of the Druze of Jabal al-Arab who demand a more active policy.

Although Jumblatt's latest position on the takfiri groups and his flirtations with al-Nusra Front is an indication of increased isolation from those movements' view of the Druze, the takfiri threat has reached Lebanon and six of the kidnapped Lebanese soldiers are from the Druze community. This put all the sheikhs, regardless of their respective affiliations, face to face with the position taken by their counterparts in Sweida during the early period of the Syrian revolution.

"Seeing is different than hearing about it," as a prominent pro-Jumblatt sheikh told Al-Akhbar.

Does disengagement really work?

For some time, Progressive Socialist Party (PSP) officials have been openly promoting the idea of "disengaging the Druze" from the confrontation with the takfiris. This was based on Jumblatt's conjecture that "takfiris will not attack our villages. They want to strike Hezbollah and our regions are merely a passageway."

However, attempts at "disengagement" of Syria's Druzes proved useless on more than one occasion.

One example are the Druze of Habal al-Summaq in Idlib who decided to stand on the sidelines since March 15, 2011, with some leaning towards supporting the "revolutionaries." Their treatment from the sharia practitioners of al-Nusra Front (a Saudi and a Tunisian) should be something to be considered. Despite the media blackout on this incident, the latest news carried by a delegation from the 18 Druze villages in Idlib who visited Lebanon ten days ago painted a different picture. The Druze of those villages were forced to abandon their religious evenings on Thursday-Friday nights and take up Friday prayers. Women were banned from wearing their white head dress and forced to replace it with the burqa and the sheikhs were prohibited from wearing their white turbans. Recently, there were rumors of intentions to marry off Druze women to al-Nusra fighters.

Another example is the fate of the village of Hadar in al-Qunaitira. The “reward” promised to PSP officials for allowing al-Nusra groups to bomb positions of the Syrian army’s Brigade 90 arrived early. Its residents were kidnapped, killed, and prevented from going to their fields. More recently, several attempts were made to invade the town by members of the Syrian armed opposition.

While local pacts between villagers and the takfiris had been useless, gambling on promises given by Saudi, Turkey, or Qatar to the Druze through Walid Jumblatt does not seem to offer much of a guarantee either. One could ask Lebanese Health Minister Wael Abou-Faour about guarantees that Druze soldiers will not be harmed, made at the beginning of the kidnapping crisis, on the condition that the Druze families retreat from their decision to block the Dahr al-Baidar and the Rashaya-Hasbaya highways, and if the kidnappers did not get the money they asked for.

Golan and Hasbaya

Two weeks ago, Lebanese MP Talal Arslan and Sheikh Abou-Nabih Kabboul visited Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. According to sources at the meeting, they discussed "avenues to protect the villages of Mount Hermon and arming them, due to the threat of al-Nusra’s expansion in Qunaitira." At the same time, the sources added that the delegation discussed with the Syrian president means to "confront Israeli propaganda enticing the Druze to ally with Israel, under the pretext of protecting their villages from the takfiris, who are actually supported by Israel in the Golan."

It is well known that Israel has been trying to open lines of communications with villages of Mount Hermon under the pretext of the Syrian army's failure to protect the communities there. This is accompanied by statements by opponents to the Syrian regime outside the country who are promoting that the future of the Druze should not be under the central state in Damascus, and are encouraging the creation of an alliance to protect them from ISIS.
Added to this are the public positions of several Israeli Knesset members and Israeli army commanders given in Golan recently.

According to local sources in occupied Golan, "a Druze officer from the village of Harfish visited occupied Golan recently and told some sheikhs in Majdal Shams that he had been assigned by the northern command of the enemy's army to arm the town of Hadar (which is in Mount Hermon and not occupied) with weapons needed to fight al-Nusra in the future."

Furthermore, Druze Battalion 233 of the Golani Brigade marched 42 kilometers from Galilee to Golan and toured the occupied Druze villages around one and a half months ago.

Opposite the Israeli momentum and the expansion of terrorist groups into Golan, information from Mount Hermon on the Lebanese and Syrian sides point to an imminent battle being prepared by the Syrian army and its allies in the popular committees to reclaim the village of Mughr al-Mir, currently occupied by al-Nusra Front. In Hasbaya in Lebanon, supporters of the Yazbaki wing decided to create Popular Defense Forces, in coordination and cooperation with Hezbollah and the Lebanese Resistance Brigades, in order to "protect Taym valley and prevent Israel and the takfiri groups from striking the Resistance through Mount Hermon in any future confrontation."

Hassan: "Lebanon's sheikhs support you"

The visit by the two Sheikh Aqls of Sweida was organized by the Lebanese Democratic Party [of MP Talal Arslan] and did not exclude any of the prominent sheikhs in either the Jumblatti or Yazbaki factions. The visit was of a religious character in general. However, several political discussions took place, such as in the homes of Sheikh Aql Nasser al-Din al-Gharib in Kfarmatta, Sheikh Aql Naim Hassan in al-Bneih, and Sheikh Amin al-Aridi in Baysour. Although the Syrian sheikhs requested that no media be present during their visit, they were surprised to see that the cameras had arrived to Hassan and Gharib's homes before they did, and so they were forced to give statements.

What Hassan said "off camera" after requesting not to be filmed was even more remarkable. He addressed the Syrian sheikhs saying, "The sheikhs of Lebanon have been with you since day one, but we did not say anything due to the situation," and indicated "the need to confront the takfiris."

In Gharib's home, Sheikh Jarbou replied to one of the sheikhs who criticized what he termed "the failure to protect the village of Dama." He stressed that "the Syrian army currently has a large presence in Dama, in addition to the Popular Defense Forces, and the Sheikh al-Aqls are paying full attention to this issue."

Al-Akhbar also obtained information that the sheikhs will pay another visit to Lebanon later to meet political leaders, but not MP Walid Jumblatt.

This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.

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