Syria's Druze under threat as conflict spreads

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Syrian Druze cross from Quneitra to the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights (2007)Image source, AFP
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Druze make up about 3% of Syria's population of 22.5 million

A recent attack on Druze villagers by radical Islamist rebels in Syria has raised fears about the fate of the country's secretive sect.

At least 20 Druze were shot dead by the al-Qaeda-affiliated Nusra Front in the north-western province of Idlib.

It was the deadliest attack on Druze civilians since the beginning of the country's conflict four years ago.

Fighting has spread to areas where Druze predominate. They are the third-largest religious minority in Syria and are considered by jihadists as heretics.

Shia origins

The Druze religion arose from Ismailism, a branch of Shia Islam, in the 11th Century.

It takes its name from Mohammed bin Ismail al-Darazi, a mystic from Central Asia who regarded the third Fatamid caliph of Egypt, al-Hakim, as an incarnation of God.

In 1021, al-Hakim disappeared under mysterious circumstances. Druze believe that he will reappear at the end of time to establish universal justice.

Image source, EPA
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To avoid persecution, Druze have been secretive about their religion

Al-Hakim's successor, al-Zahir, rejected his claim of divinity and persecuted the Druze, forcing them to take refuge in remote mountainous areas, chiefly in Lebanon and Syria.

Today, Druze make up about 3% of Syria's population of 22.5 million.

Most live in the rugged Jabal al-Druze region of Suweida province, south of the capital Damascus. There are also several Druze villages elsewhere in Syria, including the Jabal al-Summaq region of Idlib - the location of last week's shooting.

To avoid persecution over the centuries, Druze have been secretive about their religion. Only a small number who demonstrate extreme piety and devotion are allowed to participate fully in rituals and have access to scriptures.

And although Druze have played prominent roles in shaping the region's history, they have traditionally been considered political quietists.

Southern threat

For a long time, the majority of Syrian Druze remained loyal to President Bashar al-Assad - a member of the heterodox Shia Alawite sect - fearing that if he was overthrown, minorities would be targeted and communities destroyed by extremists among the country's Sunni majority.

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Many Druze believe only President Bashar al-Assad can protect Syria's minorities

Some Druze took up arms and formed Popular Committees to defend their homes against rebel attacks, while others joined a pro-Assad paramilitary group, the National Defence Forces, which fights alongside the army.

But with government forces suffering a string of defeats since December, signs of dissent have become more visible among Druze.

Those in the south have in particular reacted angrily to the government's efforts to stem its manpower losses by rounding up young men evading compulsory military service.

Conscription patrols have reportedly been attacked and expelled by residents of Druze villages, and last December an intelligence officer was kidnapped in an attempt to free a local man arrested for draft-dodging.

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Syria's war has spread to areas where Druze make up the majority of the population

The government sought to calm the situation by agreeing to deploy Druze conscripts only in their home areas, but Druze leaders have accused it of breaking that promise.

Druze are also increasingly concerned about the threat posed by jihadists from al-Nusra Front and Islamic State, who have been gaining ground in south.

Al-Nusra fighters are currently only a few kilometres away from the provincial capital of Suweida, opening the possibility that they will soon move on Jabal al-Druze, where Druze constitute the vast majority of the local population.

'Forced conversions'

Al-Nusra's leader has promised not to harm Druze, so long as they do not fight against the group and "retreat from their religious mistakes".

But after a rebel alliance that includes al-Nusra took control Jabal al-Summaq, several hundred Druze were forced to convert to Sunni Islam, shrines were damaged and graves desecrated, according to local activists.

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Druze in Israel have warned that communities across Syria are under threat

The shooting last week in the village of Qalb Lawzah triggered outrage among the Druze communities in Lebanon and Israel.

Thousands of Druze protested in villages across Israel, calling on the government and international community to come to the aid of their brethren in Syria.

The chief of staff of the Israeli military - in which hundreds of Druze serve, many of them in high-ranking positions - said it would act if needed to prevent a massacre in the Syrian Golan Heights. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said he had "given instructions to do what is necessary", without elaborating.

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Lebanese Druze leader Walid Jumblatt insisted the Idlib shooting was an isolated incident

In Lebanon, Druze leader Walid Jumblatt strongly condemned the shooting, but insisted it was an isolated incident.

Mr Jumblatt, a staunch opponent of President Assad, called on Syrian Druze to support the rebellion in their country, arguing that the real threat to them came from a government that killed dozens of people every day.

A Lebanese Druze politician close to Mr Assad, Wiam Wahhab, disagreed and appealed for "money, volunteers, weapons" to help those in Suweida defend themselves.

As a minority, Druze have had to negotiate centuries of conflict in the region. Once more, they are being forced to pick a side and potentially decide their fate.