Tony Badran

Assad wants the Druze for cannon fodder

Why a Druze alliance with the regime and Iran would be a disaster for the community in Syria

As Assad

Apologists for the Assad regime and its dupes in the West claim the regime is the protector of minorities. Nowhere is it more evident that this is a fallacy than in southern Syria, where the regime and its Iranian patrons are pushing the Druze community in Suweida to enlist in an anti-Sunni military campaign the long-term consequences of which would be potentially devastating for the Druze community.


Assad is critically short on manpower. He and his Iranian patrons are frantically trying to find pools of recruits who can shore up the regime's dilapidated forces. What’s more, as Assad's position in the south continues to deteriorate, the potential threat to the capital is increasing. Therefore, Assad and the Iranians have turned their sights to the area's Druze. 


Over the past year, Druze soldiers, reflecting demands from within the community, have refused to take part in operations outside Druze areas. Some 27,000 soldiers have refused to report for duty, exacerbating the regime’s manpower problem. As the regime struggles to ensure even Alawite conscription, it desperately wants to get its hands on those Druze soldiers. It has resorted to punishing the community by withdrawing heavy weaponry from the district, and threatening that the Druze would be left to fend for themselves against any possible raids by ISIS from the northeast.           


An incident last week in the north of Syria provided the regime with valuable ammunition for its propaganda. When elements from Jabhat al-Nusra led by a Tunisian commander murdered more than 20 Druze men in Qalb al-Lawzeh, Idlib, Assad and his allies misrepresented the event as part of a general Sunni extremist campaign against the Druze—not just in the north but also in Suweida, in the south. Assad’s propaganda reverberated among Druze everywhere, including in Israel. Concerned Israeli Druze have spoken loudly, demanding Israel take action to prevent any slaughter of their co-religionists across the border. The domestic clamor was enough for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to make a statement about how he was keeping a close watch on the situation and would take unspecified action should the need arise.


In reality, however, the southern rebels and Jabhat al-Nusra are not about to massacre the Druze. In fact, since the Qalb al-Lawzeh incident, southern rebel factions and tribal elders have gone to great pains to reassure their Druze neighbors. Even Nusra’s leadership issued a statement distancing itself from the murder, which it described as an aberrant act of individual members.


What’s more, the situation of the Idlib Druze is quite different than that of their southern kinfolk. Not only is the community in the north much smaller, it also lacks the proximity to Israel, Jordan and Lebanon that the southern Druze enjoy. In other words, the Druze of Suweida have political leverage.


In addition, Nusra’s considerations in the south are quite different than those of its northern faction. The make-up of the group’s rank and file in Daraa means it cannot be deaf to social (tribe/clan) considerations, extending from Syria to Jordan. Likewise, its geopolitical considerations differ markedly in the south, where Nusra has to be attuned to the concerns of the two states bordering its area of operation: Jordan and Israel. 


Thus, the Druze are being pulled in two opposing directions. Lebanese Druze leader Walid Jumblatt understands that Assad and Iran are pushing the Druze down a suicidal path. Jumblatt, who has maintained a channel of communication with Nusra, immediately moved to contain the fallout from the Idlib massacre, and he has been urging the Druze of Suweida to reach an understanding with their Sunni neighbors in Hauran. Jumblatt’s direction is echoed in Suweida by the movement of Druze sheikh Wahid Balaous


On the other side, Lebanese Druze figures allied with Assad and the Iranians are claiming that the community's fate is inextricably tied to the Iranian camp, the only side capable of protecting them. In truth, this option is disastrous for the Druze, as it would pit them against all their neighbors, both local and regional. 


Iran’s designs for the Druze go beyond using them as sandbags to shore up Damascus’s defenses. Enlisting the Druze region in the Iranian project means acquiescing to being Iran’s forward post on the border with Israel and Jordan. Indeed, the Druze featured prominently in Tehran’s plan to set up an infrastructure in southern Syria. The Iranians recruited Druze men for operations against Israel. In April, for example, two Druze who were working for Hezbollah attempted to plant explosives along the Israeli border fence in the Golan Heights.


In March, Iran and Hezbollah were reportedly attempting to form a Druze militia in Suweida on the model of the Shiite “popular militias” they have set up in Iraq. The Jordanians responded to the threat by pushing the Iranians and Hezbollah out of the areas near their border. If the Iranians manage to draw the Druze directly into their axis, the Jordanians and Israelis would begin to see the entire community as a security threat—and this at a time when the Assad regime’s position in southern Syria is on the decline.


For these reasons, it is unlikely that the Druze will fall on their sword for Assad or Iran. Instead, they will negotiate in an effort to balance the competing pressures on their community. Presumably, a solution would include a non-aggression pact with the rebels, along with some security guarantees. Jumblatt’s trip to Jordan and outreach to Turkey should be read in this context.


Should such a pact materialize, the regime would likely retaliate. It has already given a preview by assaulting Druze students elsewhere in the country. Aside from stripping it of weapons, some reports claimed the regime pulled money and wheat from the district. It has also attacked it with mortar shells.


But such retaliation cannot obscure the fact that what Assad and Iran are demanding of the Druze amounts to madness, from a Druze point of view. The Druze have centuries-old, well-honed survival instincts. Assad’s power is on the wane. In reality, not only is he not a protector of the Druze, he’s actually asking them to serve as cannon fodder to protect him and to further Iranian regional designs. If the Druze stay true to their historical instincts, Assad and Iran will come away empty handed.


Tony Badran is a research fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. He tweets @AcrossTheBay



As Assad's position in the south deteriorates, the regime and the Iranians have turned their sights to the area's Druze. (AFP/File)

If the Iranians manage to draw the Druze directly into their axis, the Jordanians and Israelis would begin to see the entire community as a security threat."

  • Hanibaal-Atheos

    Oh, it's not Obama directly orchestrating this time? It's just "dupes" and "apologists" in the West? But for 40 years people like Badran were the self-censored dupes or paid mouthpieces who endorsed the West's support of the Assad regime, with the backing of all the Sunni Arab dictatorships around, in its destruction of Lebanon, its violations of human rights, its purveyance of terrorism around the world, its scuttling every efforts at reaching a solution in Palestine-Israel.... Why suddenly the change of heart? The US has not made any change in its policy vis-a-vis Syria and the Syrian regime: Obama continues a long tradition initiated by Republican neoconservative criminals like Nixon, Kissinger, Reagan, Bush Sr. and Bush Jr..... It is the Arab and Sunni bazaar merchants of death and treason and assorted religious fundamentalists who now see Assad's knife on their necks and Iran's dagger in their flank. They still have plenty of money to pay people like Badran to cry wolf, when they should have seen it long time ago. It is funny to see a Christian like Tony Badran serving Sunni fundamentalists like the Saudis, these so-called "friends" and "allies" of the US.

    June 19, 2015

  • tabbaasco

    When an article begins "Apologists for the Assad regime and its dupes in the West"; one stops reading.

    June 19, 2015