Syrians from the Druze religious minority are at a crossroads in the ongoing civil war, stuck between the Syrian government’s brutal attacks, on the one hand, and an increasingly sectarian Sunni armed opposition on the other.
Remaining neutral in the civil war has become increasingly difficult for Syrian Druze, particularly in Sweida, a city in the country’s southwest, where an influential Druze religious leader who openly opposed the Syrian government, Sheikh Wahid Balous, was killed by a car bomb on September 4.
Another car bomb that same day killed dozens more and left over a hundred injured, according to media reports.
Abu Salem, a 46-year-old local resident and shop owner, accused the Syrian government of being behind the attacks, pointing his finger at local director of military intelligence Wafiq Nasser. “He is a criminal who has been trying to incite disorder for a long time,” Abu Salem told Syria Deeply. “But they can’t scare us.”
The attacks came just days after anti-government protests had broken out in the city. Demonstrators blamed the government for the rising cost of living, deteriorating public services and corruption. The government responded by cutting the city off from internet services, according to local activists.
Yet, the protests grew and locals clashed with security forces, resulting in the deaths of six military officers. Demonstrators also tore down a statue of former Syrian president Hafez al-Assad and desecrated photos of his son, the current president Bashar al-Assad.
Previously, Sweida had been largely unaffected by the bloodshed engulfing most of the country and many local residents sought to main a neutral position.
Syrian government forces have launched a sustained crackdown on Sweida’s residents since the bloody demonstrations spread across the city. Lama, a 23-year-old Arabic literature student at a local university, worries that Sweida could become “like other cities” across the country.
“All the parties involved in the recent conflict should calm down,” she told Syria Deeply. “We don’t want to end up homeless and displaced like people elsewhere in Syria. What happens in the Syrian civil war isn’t our battle.”
Thousands of their displaced compatriots have sought refuge in Sweida over the past four years, according to Lama, who adds that neither the Syrian government nor armed rebel groups represent the Druze. She argues that the Druze should seek to establish an autonomous region in order to protect their community. “We understand that becoming an entirely autonomous region like the Kurds in the north is probably unlikely, but it might be the only way to stop the fighting here.”
Hussam, a 31-year-old cell-phone salesman from the nearby village of al-Qurayya, says the Druze community can no longer afford to be neutral and should begin arming for self-defense. “We all know the regime killed Sheikh Balous,” he told Syria Deeply. “The regime keeps threating us by evoking ISIS. As Druze, we should leave our fear behind and stand with our Syrian brothers against the regime.”
Religious and ethnic minorities have been targeted by Islamist armed groups in Syria throughout the past four years of bloodshed, and the Druze community is no exception. Back in June, fighters from Jabhat al-Nusra, the Syrian wing of al-Qaida, killed “dozens of Druze men” in Qalb Lawzah, a Druze village in the country’s northwest, including elderly people and a child, the U.K.-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported at the time. The bloodshed stopped only when other rebel groups intervened.
Jabhat al-Nusra’s leadership denounced the killings and promised to reprimand the fighters, but few Druze have faith in the hard-line Islamist group’s commitment to protecting religious minorities.
Although many Druze are scared of potentially living under the control of the Islamic State or Jabhat al-Nusra, they also fear that speaking out against the government could lead to even harsher measures, such as the Syrian army putting their communities under siege or launching an arrest campaign targeting activists and leaders.
“I don’t want my son to be ruled by Bashar al-Assad,” Hussam remarked, explaining that he doesn’t expect the government to further intensify its crackdown on Sweida and the surrounding areas. “I know that the regime is capable of attacking us or besieging us, but it doesn’t have the justification to do it. It simply cannot claim that the Druze Syrians in Sweida are terrorists or extremists, so I don’t think it could even try to justify targeting us with missiles or barrel bombs.”
Photo: Lebanese Druze gather at a memorial service for Sheikh Walid Balous in Beirut on September 10, 2015. (Associated Press/Hussein Malla)