Between a Mountain and a Hard Place by Ryan Peisner

February 02, 2015 0 Comments


The Druze communities of hilly southern Lebanon and southeast Syria have, until recently, succeeded in remaining relatively uninvolved in the civil war which has devastated the latter country and now threatens to engulf the former as well. On both sides of the border, Druze communities have generally been able to maintain internal unity and focus on the defense of their own localities. But that unity, as well as the Druze community’s neutrality in the Syrian conflict, are increasingly menaced by events outside of their control— advances by radical Islamists and the weakening of loyalist positions in southern Syria. If both — or either — of these trends continue, the Druze policy of nonintervention in the Syrian war is likely to become untenable.

Walid Jumblatt photo by Reuters
The Lebanese Druze, like most other ethno-religious communities in that country, are split politically between supporters of what could broadly be termed a pro-Syria/Hezbollah alignment (the “March 8” coalition) and an anti-Syria/Hezbollah, pro-Western grouping (confusingly called the “March 14” coalition.) Among the Druze, the dominant political force is Walid Jumblatt’s Progressive Socialist Party (PSP), which currently opposes Bashar Assad’s continued rule in Syria, though it has taken a somewhat tortured path to arrive at that position. From his rise to political prominence after his father’s death in 1976 until late 2000, Jumblatt was a supporter of Syria’s military presence in Lebanon; since that time, he has shifted his allegiance three times—and may be doing so again today.[1] For now, at least, the PSP is not formally a part of the March 14 alliance, but has nevertheless called for Assad to step down, condemned Hezbollah’s involvement in the Syrian war, and welcomed Syrian refugees even as fear of infiltration by Islamist radicals has increased The PSP’s (less popular) counterparts supporting the Assad regime are the Lebanese Democratic Party (LDP), a component of the March 8 coalition.[2] The LDP is led by Talal Arslan, who last year hailed Assad’s “reelection” in the Syrian presidential campaign as a model of democracy,  and has called “defending Syria” — meaning, of course, defending the regime — a duty of the Druze people. [3]
Lebanon's Progressive Socialist Party (PSP)


Despite their differences, there is in fact much that unites these two factions. Although PSP leader Jumblatt has repeatedly called for Assad to step down, he has also warned his supporters against entering Syria and joining those attempting to force him to do so. And though their preferred outcomes may differ, both Jumblatt and the LDP’s Arslan have called for a negotiated solution to the Syrian conflict.  More importantly, both groups agree that the greatest threat facing  Lebanese Druze today is that posed by incursions from radical groups such as the Islamic State and the Nusra Front from Syria into Lebanese Druze communities near the border. The best illustration, however, of the ability of the Druze community to overcome its political differences comes from 2008, when open fighting erupted between Hezbollah and PSP supporters. In those clashes, the LDP sided against its March 8 ally, instead fighting alongside its coreligionists and erstwhile political opponents, the PSP. [4]
If a similar conflict were to erupt today, that past cooperation is powerful evidence that the Lebanese Druze would maintain a united front.

Lebanese Democratic Party

Relations with their Syrian counterparts might prove to be a bit hairier, however. Since the civil war began, the Druze community has combined a generally pro-Assad stance with a desire to stay out of any fighting not directly affecting their home governorate of As-Suwayda. Reasons given for the Druze community’s support for Assad range from viewing him as the protector of Syria’s minorities—posited by Talal Arslan—to the belief that they are simply siding with the strongest actor in the conflict to guarantee their own safety.[5] Accordingly, while most Druze who have taken a side have fought on behalf of the regime, they typically do not wish to be sent to fight in another part of the country, instead preferring to join separate Druze militias dedicated to protecting their own communities.[6] Though the Islamic State(IS) and the Nusra Front advances in the area have increased fears of possible attacks among the Druze, this has led not to enthusiasm for joining the Syrian Army but rather to demands that the government arm Druze militias, a request that has largely gone unmet.[7] 

Additionally complicating matters for the Syrian Druze is the increasing weakness of loyalist positions in the south. Daraa governorate, directly west of As-Suwayda, featured probably the most spectacular rebel successes over the past year, leading to speculation that Assad’s forces might at some point be forced out of the area altogether. In that case, there is a fear that the moderate rebels would not be strong enough to consolidate control over the evacuated territory, leaving an opening for IS and/or the Nusra Front, and multiplying the threat to Syria’s Druze.[8] Whether a hypothetical loyalist withdrawal opened the door to these radicals or not, in either case it would clearly reduce Assad’s value to the Druze as an ally against IS and the Nusra Front. The Druze would then have a choice largely between attempting to go it alone against potential attacks from the radical Islamists—not likely to look favorably upon the Druze’s unique theology and roots in Shia Islam—and allying with the moderate rebels. Those same rebels, have of course, been engaged for the past few years in a desperate struggle with Hezbollah, an ally of the Lebanese Democratic Party.

In the meanwhile, the Nusra Front and IS incursions into Lebanon in recent months have prompted renewed cooperation between Hezbollah and Jumblatt’s PSP.[9] Not only has Jumblatt seen fit to tone down his criticism of Hezbollah’s intervention in Syria, but PSP and Hezbollah forces are also reported to have begun staging joint patrols south of Beirut in order to combat rising radical Islamist forces there, and the parties are additionally said to have established a joint operations room for the same purpose.[10]

Given that Jumblatt has been a bit indecisive (to say the least) in the past, and that he is still forecasting—and presumably hoping for—the fall of former Hezbollah patron Assad, it’s difficult to foresee where these new Hezbollah-PSP ties may lead.[11] But Jumblatt seems clearly to have concluded, at least for the time being, that IS and the Nusra Front are a bigger threat to his community than Hezbollah. At the same time, even if few concrete moves have been made as of yet, the Syrian Druze appear closer than they have ever been to moving out of the orbit of Hezbollah’s ally Assad. If that happens, the prospects for Druze unity look to be about as rough as the land they live on.




[1] http://www.wrmea.org/2001-january-february/syria-loses-its-former-ally-in-lebanon-druze-leader-walid-jumblatt.html; http://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/opinion/2011/01/2011122114332223683.html; http://english.al-akhbar.com/node/17426; http://articles.latimes.com/2011/jan/22/world/la-fg-lebanon-jumblatt-20110122
[2] See https://www.ndi.org/files/Lebanese_Elections_Report_2009.pdf, p. 82 for most recent election results for the PSP and LDP.
[3] http://www.dailystar.com.lb/News/Lebanon-News/2014/Nov-12/277369-arslan-druze-bound-to-fight-plots-against-syria.ashx
[4] http://www.dailystar.com.lb/News/Lebanon-News/2014/Aug-28/268742-dragged-into-syrian-conflict-druze-seek-unity.ashx
[5] http://www.joshualandis.com/blog/druze-militias-southern-syria/
[6] Id.ˆ
[7] http://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/142173/firas-maksad/the-druze-dilemma
[8] http://www.alaraby.co.uk/english/politics/5be7f5f2-64d4-4f72-aa90-3dfddf6006fc
[9] http://www.i24news.tv/en/news/international/middle-east/50430-141110-will-lebanon-s-druze-get-involved-in-s
[10] http://www.dailystar.com.lb/News/Lebanon-News/2014/Aug-15/267351-jumblatt-christian-divisions-weakening-lebanon.ashx; http://www.dailystar.com.lb/News/Lebanon-News/2015/Jan-12/283762-lebanon-entered-dangerous-security-stage-reports.ashx
[11] On Jumblatt’s past, for example, see http://www.wrmea.org/2001-january-february/syria-loses-its-former-ally-in-lebanon-druze-leader-walid-jumblatt.html; http://www.dailystar.com.lb/News/Lebanon-News/2014/Aug-15/267351-jumblatt-christian-divisions-weakening-lebanon.ashx

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