Within the complex ethno-sectarian palette of the Syrian war, the secretive Druze community, who live primarily in the country’s southern regions, continues to play one of the most behind-the-scenes roles. And the Pentagon's underestimation of the strategic significance of this Druze factor has greatly contributed to the failure of its plans to take control of southern Syria, even with the assistance of the Free Syrian Army (FSA).
What makes the Druze so unique is principally the distinctiveness of their religion, which is a radical branch of Shi’ite Islam that has over time incorporated elements of other faiths. Although the Druze accept the Islamic creed of shahada, they are often not considered to be Muslims at all. For example, like Hindus, the Druze believe in the transmigration of the soul: if one of them dies, then at that same instant a new Druze is born in the same spirit. When charging forth in an attack, on their lips is their famous battle cry: «Tonight my mother’s womb!» («I’m prepared to die, but will be reborn!»)
The Druze speak Arabic and refer to themselves as «al-Muwahhidun» («monotheists»). Their principal prophet and saint is the Jethro of the Old Testament (known to Jews as Yithro and to Arabs as Shu’ayb), who was Moses’ father-in-law. In other words, the Druze consider themselves to be followers of an ancient Abrahamic religion. They do not proselytize (one can only be born a Druze), and they keep their holy scriptures closely guarded. The Druze have a reserved and stubborn nature. They are outstanding and fearless fighters, in every way the equal of those other consummate warriors, the Kurds.
The Druze are well-known for their undivided loyalty to the country in which they live, a quality that seemingly stems from their instinct for self-preservation. The 100,000 Druze who live deep inside Israel are wholehearted patriots of that country, serving in the army where they attain high-ranking positions. However, the approximately 50,000 Druze of Syria’s Golan Heights, which is under Israeli occupation, have been holding tight to their Syrian passports for 60 years and, despite all the promises made to them, have no wish to trade them in in exchange for Israeli citizenship. In total, there are approximately two million Druze living in the Middle East, about 800,000 of whom are in Syria. They reside mainly in the southern parts of Syria, in the province of as-Suwayda, on the Mountain of the Druze (Jabal al-Druze), where they now number about half a million, and in the province of Quneitra, bordering the Golan Heights. There are also smaller Druze enclaves in the northern regions of the province of Idlib and in Damascus.
At the onset of the civil war in Syria, when it was not yet clear how events would play out, the Druze attempted to stay neutral. The government’s attempt to mobilize as many as 30,000 men from that area into the army did not succeed. Even the well-known leader of the Lebanese Druze, Walid Jumblatt, spoke out against Bashar al-Assad at that time. In addition, Jumblatt carelessly expressed his sympathies «in the fight against the regime» with the Jabhat al-Nusra Front, which later declared itself to be affiliated with al-Qaeda. He later acknowledged that he had lost the support of many of his fellow Druze because of this. As a result, a big question mark now hangs over his own political future in Lebanon. Some Druze sheikhs in Syria were also treading carefully, believing that the Druze should avoid fratricidal confrontations. However, the logic of war meant that it couldn’t be kept at arm’s length. The Druze were imperiled by every opposition faction. Only the official government in Damascus rose to their defense.
The Druze well remembered how at the very start of the war, their small Sultan el-Atrache Brigade joined the opposition Free Syrian Army (FSA), and then were annihilated by Jabhat al-Nusra for «religious heresy». The American-backed FSA, together with al-Nusra, captured major parts of the province of as-Suwayda, which then experienced ethnic and religious cleansing, the taking of hostages, and the killing of civilians. In the Druze enclave of 18 villages known as Jabal al-Summaq in northern Idlib, the jihadists forcibly converted 25,000 Druze to Wahhabi Islam, compelling them to destroy their own shrines, which for the Druze is tantamount to a death sentence. Plus their lands were handed over to the local Turkmen who are under the protection of Ankara. More than two dozen Druze were then publicly executed and the rest condemned to starvation.
Now the overwhelming majority of Syria’s Druze are staunchly on the government’s side. Of their militia units that are loyal to Damascus, the best-organized is the Saraya al-Tawheed, which is associated with the Lebanese Druze who oppose Jumblatt. No less popular is the Jaysh al-Muwahhideen («Army of Monotheists»), which has declared jihad upon anyone «who invades the Druze lands» (it is actually an alliance with Damascus). Also well-known is Dir ‘al-Watan («Shield of the Homeland»), which is active throughout the country, but has a branch in the province of as-Suwayda that is led by Sheikh Yusuf Jerbo, who is one of the most significant local figures supporting Assad.
But the figure who commands the most respect among the Syrian Druze is the charismatic Major General Issam Zahreddine, who in his youth served as an officer in a special-forces unit. He commanded both the 104th Brigade of the Republican Guard, which was besieged in Deir ez-Zor, as well as the city garrison. His son Yarob assists him. Interestingly, the 104th Brigade was also once commanded by Bashar al-Assad, before he became president. According to some reports, that brigade consists mostly of Druze who have been tenaciously beating back incessant attacks by Islamic State (IS) units for three years now. During the years of the siege, the guardsmen of the brigade have killed up to 5,000 militants, although they themselves number fewer than half that many. And with each day of this heroic defense, the authority of their leader, Issam Zahreddine, grows. For the 104th Brigade, this is a fight to the death: these combatants know very well what sort of fate lies in store for them should they surrender to the mercy of the hated «infidels» and «apostates» of the Islamic State.
Although they usually carefully plan out their operations, the American strategists handling the Druze were clearly «caught napping». Throughout the entire Syrian war, the Pentagon and its «field» headquarters in Amman decided to focus most of their efforts on the southern regions, so that’s where the majority of the resources went. The Kurds who ended up winning so many battles were only «discovered» by the Americans relatively recently, to a large extent only since Trump took office. In the south, they, along with the FSA forces the US had taken under its wing, found themselves handcuffed to the Druze they «hadn’t noticed».
The turning point was the opposition’s southern offensive in the summer of 2015, which was supported from Jordan by the advisers and intelligence agencies of the US, Israel, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Jordan itself. The goal was to capture the provinces of Quneitra, Daraa, and as-Suwayda, with a subsequent sortie toward Damascus. It was tough going for the government army, but the Druze came to the rescue. Their troops first decimated the enemy on Mt. Hermon in Quneitra, then defended the critical Thaaleh airbase in as-Suwayda after four days of nonstop fighting. And two Damascus suburbs that are heavily populated by Druze – Jaramana and Sahnaya – have played a significant role in the defense of the capital.
At that point the opposition was pretty run-down and its offensive sputtered out. So until recently a strategic zugzwang situation has prevailed, in which any move is to the mover’s disadvantage. Fearing a threat to their flank by the Druze, in the spring of 2017 the Americans moved the FSA not northward toward Damascus, but eastward through Jordan toward Deir ez-Zor. However, they again miscalculated. The Druze did not sit by idly, but instead almost completely liberated their province of as-Suwayda, while the government troops skirted the Islamists from the north. Some reports claim that General Zahreddine, who was «on leave» at that time and had to be flown in from Deir ez-Zor on a specially chartered plane, inspired his fellow Druze to take decisive action. After the Americans bombed the columns of government troops advancing toward the Iraqi border, the FSA tried a counterattack on the Druze positions in eastern as-Suwayda, very near the Zuluf Dam, but after heavy losses was forced to retreat even farther.
Generally speaking, as the Syrian war is winding up and all its exhausted participants are most in need of additional manpower, the Druze can play an even greater role. They still have about 30,000 fighters of all types who could potentially be mobilized and whom the Druze are prepared to offer to the government. Of course the Kurds, who are considered to be the «heavyweights» on Syria’s military and political stage and have occupied over 20% of Syria due to a confluence of factors, could rally and arm about the same number – as many as 30,000. But the Druze, who still keep themselves «behind the scenes,» are an equally weighty factor, and this issue, which is becoming increasingly significant, is something with which all parties involved in the conflict, both inside and outside of Syria, must reckon.