By Catherine Philp, Beirut, and Sara Elizabeth Williams, Amman
A minority Islamic sect in Syria fears being massacred and enslaved after the pullback by the Assad regime left them open to the attacks of extremist militants who regard them as infidels.
The Druze, an esoteric offshoot of Islam considered heretical by Sunni extremists such as Islamic State, are scattered throughout Syria, Lebanon, Israel and Jordan. A group of its adherents has recently been shot dead by fighters affiliated to al-Qaeda in northern Syria.
Now, with the Assad regime pulling back from the south of Syria, they are being left to their fate, raising fears that the 700,000-strong Druze population in Syria may end up being victimised like Iraq’s Yazidi tribes, which Isis killed or put to work as slaves.
In their southern heartland of Swaida, Druze leaders have appealed for weapons and support to help them against a threatened offensive by Isis fighters who are massing to the east with weapons and tanks captured after they overran the central city of Palmyra last month.
“They are abandoning us to be slaughtered, like the Yazidis,” a Druze activist in northeastern Swaida said. “To Isis we are infidels and will be killed.”
At the same time, the regime has begun moving heavy artillery out of Swaida, causing fears that it plans to withdraw entirely, as it did from Palmyra, leaving the province open to an Isis invasion. Moderate rebels, attacking regime positions in the west, have vowed to respect the Druze’s neutrality.
President Assad has little loyalty towards the Druze because of that neutrality in the Syrian conflict. The regime is angered by the widespread refusal of Druze youths to submit to compulsory military service. Until now Druze have also shied away from joining the rebellion, however.
In the northwest, at least 20 Druze villagers have been shot dead in Idlib province by fighters from the Nusra Front, Isis’s rival affiliated to al-Qaeda, who accused them of being “infidels” after forcing others to convert. The Nusra Front fights alongside rebels that have vowed to defend the Druze.
The killings arose from a dispute in Qalb al-Lawzi village, according to local residents, when a Nusra commander tried to take possession of the house of a Druze villager who was accused of fighting alongside the regime.
The new threat from Islamist extremists has opened up splits in the community over which way to turn for protection.
In Israel, Druze MPs and activists have called for intervention from the Jewish state to stop what they say is an existential threat to the community. There are 130,000 Druze in Israel, with many living near the country’s northern Golan Heights border with Syria.
The community generally has a good relationship with Israel, with 80 per cent of the men agreeing to serve in the army, several of them in senior roles — a far higher number than Israeli Arabs.
Israeli media reported, however, that the government had ruled out any military intervention to protect the Druze for fear of becoming embroiled in Syria’s civil war.
Druze protesters blocked the main road leading to Damascus last weekend to prevent the removal of artillery batteries. Sheikh Wahid Balous, an influential Druze cleric, accused the Assad regime of seeking to punish the community for failing to answer conscription calls by abandoning it to the militants.
Sheikh Hikmat Hajari, another leading Druze cleric in Syria, has urged young Druze men to join army ranks to protect Swaida from the “impending danger” of an Isis invasion. Swaida’s fate has raised alarm in Druze communities beyond Syria’s borders.
In Lebanon, where 200,000 Druze live, their leader, Walid Jumblatt, called this week for Syrian Druze to join the anti-Assad rebellion, calling the regime “finished”. Wiam Wahhab, a pro- Damascus Druze politician in Lebanon, has called on the regime and the wider Druze community to arm those in Swaida for their own protection.
Druze communities in northeastern Swaida have begun organising themselves into militias after Isis killed five Druze in an attack last month on Al-Huqf village on the provincial border, described by residents as a test for a future offensive. Since then, the jihadists have beefed up their presence with vehicles and weapons captured from the regime in Palmyra.
The Southern Front, the moderate rebel coalition moving against the regime in Swaida, condemned the Idlib killings by Nusra as “a crime against Syrian coexistence and the future”. Distrust remains high, however, among the Druze community, given the links between Nusra Front and the moderate rebels on the Syrian battlefield.
“They say they will protect us against Isis but can they? Will they protect us against Nusra too?” Fahad, a resident of Swaida city, asked. “These are just words. Not just Assad but everyone is abandoning us to our fate.”
The Druze are a minority religious sect with 1.5 million adherents around the world, concentrated mostly in Lebanon (200,000), Syria (700,000) and Israel (130,000). Their religion, created about 1,000 years ago, is an offshoot of Islam, incorporating beliefs of other faiths, and it is considered heretical by Islamic State and al-Qaeda.
The Druze made up about 3 per cent of Syria’s population before the uprising began in 2011. Marriage outside the faith is forbidden and only a selected number of “initiated” Druze, or sheikhs, are allowed to pray and read the faith’s holy text, the Kitab al-Hikma.