Thursday, March 29, 2012

Could the Druze Minority Tip the Scales of Syria’s Revolution

Mona Alami-
BEIRUT, Mar 26, 2012 (IPS) - The Druze stronghold of Sweida, Syria, witnessed
several pro-democracy protests last week. While the movement remains marginal,
it is charged with symbolism: the Druze have long been considered the "spiritual
cousins" of the Alawites, the religious group to which the Assad family
belongs.The question now on the table is whether or not the recent
outbursts of Druze opposition to the regime could be a tipping point in favour
of the Syrian revolutionaries. Over the centuries the Druze minority,
which make up about three percent of the Syrian population and are located
primarily in the Sweida area, also known as Jabal al-Druze (the Druze mountain),
has spearheaded various Syrian revolutions, including battling Ottoman rule and
the authority of the French mandate system. Over the last decade, the
community developed excellent relations with president Bashar al-Assad, who
could sometimes be spotted visiting local Druze families. These close
ties, however, did not make Sweida immune to the pro-democracy uprising, which
has claimed almost 7,500 lives in Syria since Jan. 2011. "Demonstrations
are taking place more frequently although on a much smaller scale than in other
regions. Last week, fifteen protests took place in several Druze villages," Rima
Fleyhan, a member of the Syrian opposition, told IPS. Protests are
mostly taking place in the Sweida capital and Qraya – the birthplace of the
historical Druze revolutionary figure, Sultan Pacha al-Atrash, who led the
Syrian Revolution from 1925–1927 – and springing up more regularly in Chahba,
another city in the Druze region. "While still marginal, the protest
movement is essentially comprised of students, lawyers and engineers as well as
leftists. Since its inception, it always consisted of the community’s elite,"
acknowledged Talal el-Atrache, author of ‘When Syria awakes’, who spoke to IPS
over the phone from Sweida. Conversely, elsewhere in the country, the
overwhelming majority of protestors have been from farming communities and
impoverished areas, with the movement slowly expanding into the upper echelons
of society. "When the pro-democracy movement first started, Bashar
al-Assad met with the (Druze) community’s three (highest ranking) sheikhs
(clerics) and warned: ‘We are both Druze and Alawites, minorities in this
country. Do not get involved in the protests’," activist Muntaha al-Atrash,
daughter of Sultan Pasha al- Atrash, told IPS. According to several
sources, Druze sheikhs tried to contain the movement before things got out of
hand by intervening personally to quell demonstrations in order to avoid violent
repercussion from the government. In spite of such efforts, two local
‘popular committees’ have been formed, affiliated with the opposition’s Local
Coordination Committee (LCC). "We have also formed a unit comprised of Druze
military men," added colonel Aref Hamoud from the Free Syrian Army (FSA), who
spoke to IPS on the phone from Turkey. According to a post by the LCC,
the FSA’s Sultan Pasha Al-Atrash Brigades attacked a military outpost yesterday,
resulting in the killing of one officer from the national army and the defection
of 28 soldiers, though this information is difficult to verify independently,
due to the media ban enforced in Syria. Several obstacles continue to
hamper the Sweida-based pro-democracy movement. Security police and "shabiha"
(thugs) loyal to President Assad have been able to disperse most protests
rapidly. According to Fleyhan, the absence of religious centres poses a major
logistical problem for the Druze, since mosques have served as convenient
rallying points for protestors elsewhere in the country. Another factor
accounting for lower turnout at protests can be attributed to the massive
emigration of Druze youth, leaving the region devoid of a group that has been at
the very core of the revolution in other parts of Syria. Experts like
Talal el-Atrache cite several other reasons as possible causes, "mainly, the
ongoing militarisation of the rebellion resulting from repression, which is
diverting the popular uprising from its initial goals," he said. Ashraf
Jaramani, a local resident also involved in politics believes that the deadly
threat of civil strife as well as the Islamist dimension of the protests may
have discouraged the Druze from plunging into the movement. "If Syria
follows Egypt and Libya, who will guarantee the Druze that the Muslim
Brotherhood will not govern the country? What will happen to minorities rights
then?" Jaramani asked IPS. The community is also wary of an
internationalisation of the conflict, in which Syria could become a battleground
for the rivalry between Shiite and Sunni countries. "The Druze do not
want Syria to follow in Lebanese footsteps," stressed Talal el-Atrache,
referring to the decade and a half long civil war that plagued Lebanon from 1975
to 1990. The Druze community in Lebanon has attempted to inflame their
coreligionists. In several editorials in his weekly newspaper, Walid Joumblatt,
the most prominent leader of the community, urged the Druze in Syria to take the
side of the revolution. "Beware you Arab strugglers in the Druze
Mountain against yielding to the Shabbiha in confronting your brothers in
Syria," he said. The Druze leader had also previously called on young Druze
soldiers in the Syrian army to "disobey military commands to kill their
brothers." The Center for Documenting Violations in Syria, run by
activists in the LCC, puts the number of slain soldiers from Sweida at 31, as of
Jan. 25. Others believe the most recent figure is likely closer to 80.
For Muntaha al-Atrash, the Druze playing a larger role in the protests
will be a major drawback for the regime, as Sweida, together with the Daraa
province, form the District of Hauran. The Assad regime, wary of the
threat such a united front might pose, is still attempting to court the
minority. Security forces have avoided killing any Druze demonstrators while
activists say that detained prisoners were given preferential treatment. The
regime is avoiding a violent crackdown in regions inhabited by religious
minorities, in order to preserve the ‘Islamic label’ given to the Syrian
revolution, said Fleyhan. But some activists believe that security
forces are losing patience and will end up making tactical mistakes, which will
backfire as pressures mounts in the region. "When (the whole) of Hauran
rises," predicts Muntaha al-Atrash, "it will be difficult to bring it down."

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