Religious and ethnic minorities have been targeted by Islamist armed groups in Syria throughout the last four years of bloodshed, and theDruze community is no exception. Shawki, a 24-year-old university student, says that, although it has become increasingly difficult for Druze to stay neutral, he wants no part of the fighting.
“Why should I be part of this war when so many fighters aren’t even Syrian? Syria is no longer for the Syrians,” he told Syria Deeply, referring to the presence of foreign fighters in rebel groups such as the Islamic State (ISIS) and pro-Syrian government militias. “[There are] Iranians, Lebanese, Iraqis, Afghans, Chechens and people from other nationalities.”
Speaking to Syria Deeply, many young people explained that there are varying views toward supporting Syrian president Bashar al-Assad or opposition groups. Like so many of Syria’s minorities, they feel stuck between two sides.
“It’s everyone’s right to call for reforms and freedom, but carrying arms and bringing foreign terrorists … distances me from the opposition,” added Shawki, who comes from Sweida, a predominantly Druze city in the country’s southwest.
The Syrian government “is no better,” he continued, “because it released thugs and army to fire live ammunition on the peaceful protesters,” as well as importing fighters from Iran and the Lebanese political and military group, Hezbollah.
With the Syrian opposition growing increasingly sectarian, however, others have thrown their weight behind President Assad. “The army must terminate these terrorists,” Najla, 22, told Syria Deeply, pointing to the execution of dozens of Druze in June by Jabhat al-Nusra, the Syrian wing of al-Qaida. “We have to stand with the army to save us from the terrorists who are coming from all sides.”
On June 10, Jabhat al-Nusra fighters killed “dozens of Druze men” in Qalb Lawzah, a Druze village in the country’s northwest, including elderly people and a child, the U.K.-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported at the time. The bloodshed stopped only when other rebel groups intervened.
Unexpectedly, Jabhat al-Nusra later announced that it would prosecute the fighters who killed the Druze, saying it was “in clear violation of the leadership’s views.”
One Qalb Lawzah-based Nusra fighter, who spoke to Syria Deeply on the condition of anonymity, claims that a group of fighters targeted theDruze despite Nusra’s leader, Abu Mohammad al-Golani, having ordered them to ensure the protection of local residents.
“We apologized – it was important to reduce the tension in this area,” he said. “Nusra wants to show that it is different from Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s fighters [ISIS].
“Nusra is attempting to have stable relations with religious minorities because it aims to play an important role in Syria’s future political life,” the fighter added.
Yet few Druze believe the group’s apology. Citing “impending danger,” Sheikh Youssef Jarbou, a Druze spiritual leader in Syria, called on Druze to take up arms and join the Syrian military in order to fight Jabhat al-Nusra and other similar groups.
As Druze feel increasing pressure from both the government and the opposition, there seems to be a unanimous concern for protecting their own community that surpasses national loyalty or political allegiances. Najla argues that the Syrian government is the only secular party to the conflict that can protect religious minorities such as the Druze.
Not everyone agrees. Shadi, a 29-year-old pharmacist from a Sweida-area village, rejects the claim that Assad’s government is secular, describing it instead as “exclusively sectarian.”
“The regime does not differentiate between Sunni and Druze – it considers all of them traitors and agents until they prove otherwise,” he told Syria Deeply. “Proving their alliance depends on whether they send their children to die for al-Assad to remain in power. So, the Druze are also considered traitors because they still refuse to send their youth to death for the survival of Bashar al-Assad as Syria’s president.”
He says that preserving the small religious community – which makes up a mere 3 percent of Syria’s population – is the most important task at hand. “We are Druze before we are Syrian,” he said. “Our religious ties are far more important than any political affiliations.”
Shadi nonetheless believes the Druze need to make a strategic decision to support the uprising. “What will happen to the Druze if the regime falls and we don’t have a clear position? We must take a stand before it’s too late.”
ISIS is now believed to control more than half of all Syrian territory, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights estimates, while the Syrian government controls between 20 and 30 percent.
Shadi believes that supporting other opposition groups is crucial for the survival of Druze in Syria. “ISIS and the regime are two sides of the side coin,” he said. “They’re both criminal and they’re both extremists – one in the name of religion and the other in the name of a sect.”