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Dragged into Syrian conflict, Druze seek unity

An elderly man sits in front of a shop in Baissour, Tuesday, Aug. 26, 2014. (The Daily Star/Nizar Hasan)

BAISSOUR/SHOUEIFAT, Lebanon: In many ways, Baissour is a typical predominantly Druze Mount Lebanon town. On a chair outside an old-fashioned grocery sits an old man nearing 70. Wearing a white cap and the traditional dark Levantine-Turkish sherwal trousers, noticeable by their baggy crotch, he seems to spend his whole day greeting pedestrians and drivers as they pass by.

The smell of whole wheat being baked for fresh mankousheh fills the air, and the buildings are decked with colorful flags paying homage to the Progressive Socialist Party, the Syrian Social Nationalist Party, the Lebanese Democratic Party, the Baathist Socialist Arab Party and many others. United under the umbrella of the Kamal Jumblatt-led National Movement during the Civil War, they now represent the 250,000-strong community’s patchwork of political beliefs.

“The political and ideological diversity gives nothing but richness to the sect,” Salah Saab, a longtime member and former political and military officer for the PSP, told The Daily Star. “We want it, and we always support it.”

But in the face of Syria’s more than 3-year-old civil war, the historical diversity of political opinions – and the often strong disagreements that come with it – that mark Lebanon’s tiny, mysterious Druze community are being put to a new and dangerous test.

In southern Syria, the Druze of Jabal al-Arab (known by some as Jabal al-Druze) last week engaged in deadly clashes with neighboring Bedouins, losing a dozen men including three preachers. To add fuel to the fire, the Bedouins were backed by Sunni militants from the radical Al-Qaeda-affiliated Nusra Front who traveled from Deraa to join the fight.

With less than 2 million Druze in the whole world, of which 700,000 live in Syria, there is widespread fear that the group’s very existence would be at stake if the Nusra Front seeks to crush it as part of its quest for more territory.

Within days, angry Druze had gathered in the regional capital of Swaida asking the Syrian regime for weapons to fight off the Bedouin and their Islamist backers. The Assad government’s response was simple: The national army’s doors are always open for new recruits, but it would not arm the community.

The dilemma has exposed the deep divisions between the Lebanese Druze community’s two main zaims – political leaders – over how to deal with the neighboring Syrian regime, especially now that it is mired in a complex and brutal war with a myriad of opponents.

“The only real difference between the Druze political groups in Lebanon is their position toward the Syrian regime,” explained Marwan Hamadeh, a Druze MP in Lebanon’s March 14 coalition.

For example, PSP leader Walid Jumblatt has said the Jabal al-Arab clashes were orchestrated by the regime, accusing it of trying to trick the Druze into entering the war on its side as it has done with Syria’s other minorities.

But a spokesperson for his rival party, Talal Arslan’s Lebanese Democratic Party, the second most popular group among Lebanese Druze, countered that the Syrian regime was simply concerned that radical groups would eradicate Syria’s rich ethnic diversity.

“We believe the Syrian regime is eager to protect minorities in Syria,” Mounir Richani, the head of the LDP’s Shoueifat branch, told The Daily Star.

Jumblatt, famously a vocal critic of Assad, and Arslan, a longtime supporter of Syria’s ruling family, have often locked horns over events next door.

The potential for sectarian escalation over these deep rifts is immense, as evidenced all over Lebanon in recent years, yet perhaps precisely because of this threat, Lebanon’s Druze remain ultimately united.

“The unique aspect of the Druze community is the ability to unite when facing threat,” explained Sheikh Hadi Aridi, a prominent figure in Baissour and head of the Religious Committee at the Druze Religious Council.

“While the community enjoys a great deal of diversity in ideas and stances,” he added, “whenever a threat endangers the existence of the group, everyone claims responsibility and we close ranks.”

There is heated debate on why exactly this is.

PSP member Saab and Sheikh Aridi put it down to that “minority feeling,” but MP Hamadeh refuted this.

“The feeling that unites Druze is nationalism and pan-Arabism,” he countered. “They have never been motivated by minority feelings.”

Druze solidarity in times of peril has a recent historical precedent.

Just six years ago, when intense fighting between militias associated with the March 14-dominated government – which included Jumblatt’s PSP – and Hezbollah-led opposition groups broke out in May 2008, Mount Lebanon’s Druze clashed with neighboring Shiite villages.

Despite being a longtime Hezbollah ally, the Lebanese Democratic Party ended up fighting alongside PSP – the political divisions between the two melted away in the face of a perceived threat to the shared community.

And the same is happening with regard to Syria, even though at a grassroots level there are many different opinions on how to react.

“If the Druze were involved in the political struggle in Syria, they would have been eliminated like other minority groups,” said Baissour’s Mayor Walid Abou Harb, confirming that some had shown great interest in traveling to Swaida to fight.

Recognizing this, Sheikh Aridi said that preachers and political leaders within the community had strived to control the matter.

Jumblatt too has called on his supporters “to not get too excited” and to let Syria’s Druze deal with their own affairs.

Saab said the PSP leader, who he described as a “wise captain” for the Druze ship, had played a key role in preventing any reckless action. “Walid Jumblatt would never allow anyone to go there,” he said.

Regardless of the differences in opinion on Assad, all community leaders seemed to agree that the real enemy to the Druze people is obvious: the rising tide of extremist Islamist groups.

“We have only one fear, terrorist and takfiri groups who are killing and eliminating all those who are different in any kind of way,” Richani said.

Anxieties have reached such a level that the Shoueifat municipality recently announced a controversial 9 p.m. curfew – aimed at Syrian refugees – for “foreigners and [those on] motorcycles.” They have also barred more than one Syrian family from staying in an apartment.

And so, despite their political divisions, the Lebanese Druze are closing ranks and presenting a unified front, with opponents Jumblatt and Arslan even speaking together at a ceremony attended by hundreds in Baissour last week.

In the words of Saab, both leaders are striving to present “one united Druze stance that will protect the sect,” or to quote Jumblatt’s speech that day, “We will emphasize unity, but diversity within unity.”

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on August 28, 2014, on page 4.

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Summary

In southern Syria, the Druze of Jabal al-Arab (known by some as Jabal al-Druze) last week engaged in deadly clashes with neighboring Bedouins, losing a dozen men including three preachers.

The dilemma has exposed the deep divisions between the Lebanese Druze community's two main zaims – political leaders – over how to deal with the neighboring Syrian regime, especially now that it is mired in a complex and brutal war with a myriad of opponents.

For example, PSP leader Walid Jumblatt has said the Jabal al-Arab clashes were orchestrated by the regime, accusing it of trying to trick the Druze into entering the war on its side as it has done with Syria's other minorities.

But a spokesperson for his rival party, Talal Arslan's Lebanese Democratic Party, the second most popular group among Lebanese Druze, countered that the Syrian regime was simply concerned that radical groups would eradicate Syria's rich ethnic diversity.

Regardless of the differences in opinion on Assad, all community leaders seemed to agree that the real enemy to the Druze people is obvious: the rising tide of extremist Islamist groups.


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