6/19/15 The Crisis of the Druze May Ensnare Israel in the Syrian Civil War

by Marc Schulman

For the past four years Israel has successfully managed to stay out of direct involvement in the Syrian Civil War. While, it has been horrifying sitting still, as hundreds of thousands of Syrians have been getting slaughtered over the past four years, Israelis are united in their understanding that any intervention by Israel in Syria would most likely backfire. In lieu of intervening, Israel has quietly been providing humanitarian and medical assistance to the Sunni opponents of the Assad regime. Though as Assad’s regime really starts to fall apart, staying out of the Syrian conflict has become ever more difficult.

A few months ago, there was concern the arrival of Hezbollah forces along the Syrian-Israeli border might force Israeli involvement in the conflict. However, Israel took targeted action and eliminated the Hezbollah/Iranian leadership that had come to the Golan Heights. Israel’s actions, together with local Syrian opposition to the Hezbollah operating in the area, effectively ended the immediate Hezbollah threat on an additional Israeli border.

Now, a new crisis threatens to drag Israel into the morass – the plight of the Syrian Druze community. The Syrian Druze are now threatened by the Al-Nusra Front, (the “moderate” Sunni opposition group, previously tied to Al-Qaeda.) The Al-Nusra Front has been on the offensive, pushing Assad’s forces out of the areas they have held in Southern Syria, including the areas where the Druze live. Syrian government forces have been withdrawing from Southern Syria and concentrating their efforts around Damascus, as well as in the Alawait Coastal area, preparing for what observers believe will be the final fight for the Assad Regime. Abu Mohammad al-Julani, the leader of Al-Nusra, was recently quoted, saying their group has nothing against the Druze – as long as they give up their support for the Assad Regime, renounce their heretical religion, and return to the true faith of Islam. Those were not assuring words to the Druze.

The Druze are a small, community of 1,500,000 people, located mostly in Syria, Lebanon and Israel. Druze are (primarily) ethnically Arab. However, Druze are not Muslim. Druze practice their own monotheistic religion, whose main prophet is Jethro. Other than a very short period when there was an independent Druze state, (in parts of Syria), the Druze have successfully maintained their separate identity, while being loyal citizens in whatever country they live.

The Druze community has always been exceptionally loyal to the State of Israel. Druze serve widely in the IDF, not as volunteers, but are drafted by law. (Christian and Muslim Arabs are not obligated to serve, but are permitted to volunteer). There are approximately 140,000 Druze living in Israeli villages across the Galilee. Of course, like everything in Israel, the State’s relationship to the Druze community is complicated. On one hand, Israelis unanimously express their appreciation for the loyalty of the Druze. On the other hand, as Professor Yitzhak Reiter, a Middle East expert from Ashkelon College says: “Israel declares its Druze citizens, ‘Brothers in Blood’; the State’s relationship with the Druze is a ‘Blood Alliance’. Yet this alliance does not always translate into practical civil rights, when it comes to government investments in the Druze towns and villages".

The Druze who live in the Golan Heights (an area captured by Israel from the Syrians in the Six Day War) have not opted to become Israeli citizens, and continued to profess their loyalty to Syria – both because of their concern that Israel would eventually return the Golan Heights to Syria, and the fact that most Druze there have first degree blood relatives living just a few miles away, just over the Syrian border.

In recent days, (as the Druze community in Syria has been threatened), there has been an outcry to mobilize aid for the Druze. There are currently 700,000 Druze in Syria. Most Druze live in Jabel al-Druze (a mountainous area in Southwestern Syria.) The Syrian army has pulled out of this predominantly Druze area. Although the Druze area is not under immediate threat of being overrun by rebels, that could change at any time. ISIS has been pressing on the North and Al-Nusra pushing on the Southwest.

In the area closer to the Israeli border, the Druze town of Khader is in immediate danger of being captured by Al-Nusra. As a result, the Druze communities – both in Israel, as well those on the Golan Heights have been demanding Israel take whatever actions necessary to avert a massacre of the Druze in Syria. To further complicate the incendiary situation, many Israeli Druze veterans of the IDF have indicated they would – without question – enter Syria to fight on behalf of their brethren.

The Israeli army and government have indicated they would not allow a massacre to take place. Israel Defense Forces Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Gadi Eisenkot stated on Tuesday before a Knesset Committee that Israel will do everything in its power to prevent a massacre of Druze in Syria.

At least for the moment, it is hoped that the threat of a potential Israeli intervention, along with quiet diplomacy will be enough to deter Syrian Rebels from taking any action against the Druze. However, events over the course of the past three years have taught all parties that the unexpected is likely to happen – more often than not. So, the I.D.F. is ready to take action if necessary. The fear in Israel remains the effects of “the law of unintended consequences.” No one can predict what impact Israeli intervention of any kind might have on Israel, or Syria. However, if a massacre is imminent, Israel will reluctantly take that risk of finding out. Israel knows it has a moral obligation to the Druze.