Middle East

Druze preachers in Swaida urge defections

Druze in Syria are over-represented in the Syrian military.

BEIRUT: A group of Druze religious figures in Syria has taken the unprecedented step of challenging the regime by urging members of the sect to desert the military, while giving their blessing to the killing of notorious “murderers.” The call was issued after several dozen mashayekh, or religious elders, met at Tel Shihan, a site of religious pilgrimage that lies north of Swaida, the provincial capital.

In the statement they issued, the mashayekh call on “all of our children to leave the army and return immediately to Swaida, without delay or excuses,” adding that this applied to all soldiers, officers, volunteers and reserve troops.

“When they joined the army, they went to defend the nation. Today, the army is defending leaders who are killing the people of this nation and destroying [the country], making no distinction between fighters and civilians.”

Several sources familiar with the issue maintain that the majority of Druze conscripts have been avoiding military service by remaining in Swaida, and Saturday’s call takes things a step further, by encouraging soldiers and officers to leave the ranks of the army and return home.

The Druze make up only a small percentage of Syria’s population but are over-represented, based on their numbers, in the military and the state’s intelligence organizations.

The mashayekh urged the public to sever all ties with “people bearing arms who are part of any side,” in what could be understood as a rebuke to the regime and its shabbiha paramilitaries, as well as the rebel Free Syrian Army.

They also condemned on religious grounds “anyone who incites strife, relays false news, spreads rumors, engages in acts of thuggery, or works for any side for pay.”

However, the clerics took the unusual step of singling out the notorious Brig. Issam Zahreddine, a Druze officer who has reportedly been active on several fronts during the war, leading regime offensives in Damascus, Homs and Aleppo.

“It is religiously permitted to kill anyone who engages in murder, confesses to this, or knows of such acts, such as the criminal Issam Zahreddine ... whoever kills him, whatever the side involved, is guilty of no crime,” they said.

The statement emphasized that Swaida should be a place of refuge for all Syrians, and that no killing or fighting should take place there, “for whatever reason.”

The province of Swaida has taken in tens of thousands of refugees from other parts of Syria.

An anti-regime activist from Swaida told The Daily Star that the statement represented “something new,” in that religious figures had taken the unusual step of speaking out amid the silence of the community’s three senior religious figures, the mashayekh al-aql.

“In one sense, the statement is clear that any side carrying weapons is to be condemned, which applies to both the regime and the armed opposition,” the activist said.

“But it does single out Issam Zahreddine, meaning that the stance they’ve taken should be seen as closer to the opposition than to the regime.”

Although the statement appears to frown on the acts of the armed opposition, the most prominent Druze-led Free Syrian Army unit, the Sultan Pasha al-Atrash Battalion, issued a statement of support for the declaration.

The statement by the mashayekh also addressed the Druze of the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights: “You are far away from what is happening on the ground, and do not know the truth of what is happening in Syria – therefore we ask you to refrain from commenting on what is taking place.

“There are honorable Syrians who are our brethren, and there are those who are destroying the country for the sake of [political power] and bombing homes with planes and rockets have nothing to do with us,” the statement continued, in another reference that may be read as being closer to the opposition than the regime.

The activist said the call to the Golan could be understood as a general plea to Swaida natives outside the country, who are split into pro-regime and anti-regime groups. The Israeli-occupied Golan has seen periodic sit-ins and other expressions of support for the opposition during the nearly 2-year-old uprising.

The activist said the statement by midlevel religious figures represented the view of the majority of the Swaida region, which is overwhelmingly Druze. “There’s a small segment of heavy pro-regime support, and a small segment of enthusiasm for the opposition, but the majority, and particularly older people, want to keep Swaida out of the fighting,” the activist said.

The statement issued by the mashayekh said they had gathered at Tel Shihan under the protection of a group of men from the community who had dedicated themselves to protecting “land and honor.”

The activist said the reference to the protection force signaled the mashayekh had given their explicit blessing to bearing arms in self-defense of the Swaida region, but not for fighting with either the regime or the rebels.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on February 18, 2013, on page 8.




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