Syria’s Druze Shun Jumblatt

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A man dressed in Druze outfit in Sweida, 6 March 2012. (Photo: Haitham Moussawi)

By: Mohamed Nazzal

Published Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Lebanese Druze leader Walid Jumblatt has repeatedly called for the Druze of Sweida in southern Syria to join the anti-Assad uprising. Jumblatt’s overtures, however, have so far fallen on deaf ears.

Walid Jumblatt has not visited the Sweida region in Syria since the 1980s, but this has not stopped the Druze leader from inundating its residents with calls to join the “revolution against tyranny.” If Jumblatt were to visit Sweida, about 100km south of Damascus, what might he see and hear?

There, the man from Mukhtara (Jumblatt’s home village in the Lebanese Chouf mountains) would find that people are simply unwilling to listen to his message. He might be frustrated by the many pictures of President Bashar Assad hanging throughout the city alongside expressions of loyalty and support.

■ Photo Blog: The Streets of Sweida by Haitham Moussawi

If he were to visit Sweida’s different regions from Arar, Ressas, al-Mazraa, Walgha, Sali, and Arman to Salkhad and Zeki, he would find Sweida an Assad stronghold. In this province of roughly 417,000 inhabitants, “the calls of the opposition have not succeeded in gathering more than 26 people in front of the governorate headquarters” in a “demonstration” against the regime, according to a member of the executive office of the Sweida governorate Bashar Nassar.

This Syrian official prefers not to delve into the subject of Jumblatt. According to him, Syria is an independent country and the Lebanese leader “has no right to interfere in it.”

Nassar points out that he is Druze, while his Christian colleague Mazen Samara won second-place in the elections for the local administration in Sweida. According to Nassar, “this means that there are no religious or sectarian sentiments here. And so, all the calls that Jumblatt is sending from a sectarian standpoint have no resonance among us.”

From Shaarani Street to Ummiya Street, all the way to Assad Square in the center of the city, which contains a statue to the late President Hafez Assad, it is hard to find a single person who sees Jumblatt as an authority. Local resident Khaled Kerbaj asks incredulously, “Who’s Jumblatt? This guy represents no one but himself, so he should just be quiet.”

Attorney Maher Halabi thinks that “Jumblatt is inciting sectarianism, but believe me, none of us are listening to him.” In the historical Al-Mashnaqa Square, where the French authorities used to execute rebels during the mandate period, Christian film director Yarib Zahreddine reacts strongly when asked about the Druze leader’s call to the people of Sweida, saying “we are with President Assad. [We are] with the regime and then some. As for Jumblatt, who is disliked here, he only speaks for himself.”

Shadi Masoud, the Sweida native who recently returned from Venezuela, echoed similar sentiments, saying “We are with President Bashar no matter what. We are with him opposing the corruption in all the countries of the world, with trust in the president’s reformist intentions.” As for Jumblatt, “He does not influence us. Anyway, he should settle on a position first before issuing calls to others.”

From the vegetable seller to the shop owner, from the clothing merchant to the taxi driver, there is only one response to Jumblatt: “Shut up.”

In the cafe of the Dionysius Hotel near Asmahan Palace, young men sip their coffee as they watch Al Jazeera. It is surprising to see that the Qatari station has viewers in Sweida. According to teacher Bassam Kashour, the matter is simple. They watch Al Jazeera on the basis of “know your opponent.”

He is careful not to use the word “enemy,” noting that “we have no enemy except Israel.” Kashour expresses assurance and optimism regarding the future of “this country that ‘makes its own bread,’ because a country that does not produce its own [food] is a country that does not have political stability.”

Near the cafe, behind Tishreen Square, we find the home of Sheikh Ibrahim Abou Assali. This elderly man with a long, white beard enjoys great respect and esteem among the people of Sweida. Hospitality is a duty for him. He insists, despite his shaky hands, to pour coffee for his guests by himself.

“Syria is in Israel’s way, and so [Israel] has used America for a mission to strike Syria, and this [explains] what is happening today in our county,” he says.

There is a “conspiracy,” he adds, which is in fact the buzzword in Sweida these days. Sheikh Abou Assali, draws the line here when it comes to Assad and says, “a true Syrian would die of starvation before betraying his country or government.” Meanwhile, the topic of Jumblatt really bothers him, because “[Jumblatt] is his own enemy, and Syria does not stoop to his level or respond to what he says.”

Between Sheikh Abou Assali’s house and the home of the head cleric (Sheikh Aql) of the Druze in Sweida, Hussein Jarbou, an arch rises above Ferdous Square with one phrase etched into its center: “Our Allegiance is to Assad.”

The walls of Jarbou’s home are full of souvenir pictures that he has collected with both Assads over the years. He is more diplomatic when talking about Jumblatt but nonetheless clear in his stance, saying that “Walid Jumblatt’s family has an honorable history, but we think he does not settle on a position. Sometimes he leans to the right and others to the left. We never see him going with anything but his personal interest, and we here are outside of the traditional battle between the Yazbeks and the Jumblatts, so he has nothing here.”

He expresses resentment when talking about Jumblatt and decides to put an end to the discussion, saying “in short, Druze in Sweida will not follow Jumblatt. Here, neither he nor anyone else can provide the stability and nationalism represented by President Assad.”

Sheikh Jarbou insists that minorities are not afraid in Syria, saying “we [the Druze] do not want anyone’s protection. Our numbers in Syria are almost 600,000, 150,000 of whom are soldiers. And so, our stances arise from a firm national patriotic Arabist conviction and not at all from fear.”

The picture is similar for those who sympathize with the opposition, but the difference is that it is hard to even find opposition members in Sweida. This is no exaggeration, as even the opposition itself will acknowledge. Some say that the Syrian regime has dealt wisely with this province, and that since the beginning of the uprising nearly one year ago, nobody has been killed in Sweida.

Only the city of Shahba, administratively belonging to Sweida, has seen in the past months some, mostly non-violent, opposition activity. Kemal Bakri, a native of Shahba, a town of around 23,000, says that the city has only seen about 400 individuals involved with opposition activity.

On the more traditional outskirts of the Shahba, we find the home of unabashed opposition figure Hussein Noureddine. This dentist “does not fear the regime nor its intelligence services,” especially after his son was detained for a period of ten months. Inside his house is a prominently displayed picture of Gamal Abdel Nasser. He is a Nasserist at heart, despite a “lack of precision in categories these days.”

He has a lot to say about the government in his country, but when talking about Lebanon – and specifically about Walid Jumblatt’s appeal to the people of Sweida to join the “revolution” – he says plainly, “We reject any sectarian message from Jumblatt to us. I say this despite what I feel about the brutality of the regime.”

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