The politics of the Druze in the Syrian revolution have witnessed serious developments over the last couple of months, as evidenced by the escalation in the rhetoric of Lebanese Druze leader Walid Jumblatt. Jumblatt made headlines two weeks ago when he called for a “radical change of regime” in Syria, and then again last week when he apologized for the delay in “joining the convoy of change.” This decisive stance on the side of the uprising carries important implications for the positioning of Syria’s Druze in the struggle against the Assad regime.
Tensions between Jumblatt and the Syrian regime began to surface in public last October, when the Syrian ambassador to Lebanon jabbed at the Druze leader, after the latter urged the Syrian president to enact “quick reforms.” Reflecting the regime’s irritation, the ambassador angrily retorted that “some comments sound like lecturing, but maybe it is others who need lecturing.” In other words, the regime expected nothing less than total, unquestioning support from Jumblatt.
Things would only get worse. One month later, Jumblatt took one step further, condemning the practice of kidnapping Syrian dissidents in Lebanon. This issue, in fact, was significant in shaping Jumblatt’s decision.
In May, a mere couple of months after the start of the uprising, the security apparatus of the Syrian Embassy in Beirut, in concert with local allies (allegedly the SSNP and Hezbollah), orchestrated the kidnapping in Aley of Shibli al-Aysami, a former Syrian Baath Party official, because of his son’s activism in the US.
The incident indicated several things to Jumblatt. First, that the Assad regime and its Lebanese allies had no compunction about running operations in Jumblatt’s stronghold. And second, that Assad sought with such action to effectively embroil Jumblatt, and consequently the Druze, in the regime’s campaign—as part of Assad’s policy of lining up Syria’s minorities behind him.
The second point is of particular importance, as it signified a dangerous attempt by Assad to play minoritarian politics at the Druze’s expense, imposing certain choices on them in a manner that imperiled them vis-à-vis the Sunni majority.
This theme was at the heart of Jumblatt’s next major statement, which, rather tellingly, was made to a Saudi magazine in December. Jumblatt noted that the Assad regime was using Druze conscripts in the violent repression of Sunni protesters in Daraa, Hama and Homs, dubbing this a “historic mistake.” “We must avoid being part of an axis against the majority,” Jumblatt added, “in order to avoid future political repercussions.”
Then in his weekly editorial earlier this month, he called on Syrian Druze soldiers “to refrain from participating” in the clampdown. Recognizing in particular the tensions in southern Syria around Daraa, which is adjacent to the Druze region—tensions that the regime tried deliberately to stoke—Jumblatt added that “popular memory has no mercy,” in an unambiguous message to his co-religionists across the border.
This responsibility for the wellbeing of his community is the defining factor driving Jumblatt’s behavior. He is, ultimately, the unrivaled patriarch of the community—a fact that has always infuriated Bashar al-Assad, who has tried to treat Jumblatt not as the leader of the Druze, but as one of several Druze chiefs, on equal footing with the likes of Talal Arslan or Wiam Wahhab.
Jumblatt’s uniqueness was evident in veteran Druze activist Muntaha Atrash’s reception of his message, where she noted that this call was long awaited, precisely because of his undisputed leadership position.
Assad has tried to counter Jumblatt’s stature with the lesser figures of Arslan and Wahhab, whom he tried to use to shore up Druze support for his regime. For instance, Atrash accused Wahhab of paying and arming people in the Druze areas to fight alongside the regime. Whether that’s true or not does not detract from the fact that Wahhab has been a constant feature on pro-regime outlets defending Assad and cursing all his opponents.
Similarly, last month Assad orchestrated a theatrical reception in Damascus of a delegation of Druze sheikhs led by Arslan, which first made a stop in the Druze district of Suweyda, in another bid to show Jumblatt that the Syrian president has Druze cards of his own.
However, despite these choreographed shows of solidarity, another incident likely gave Assad pause. Back in October, a Druze lieutenant defected from the Syrian military. The regime tried to get the Druze religious sheikhs to issue a public denunciation of his defection. They refused.
Needless to say, the Assad regime has severed all contacts with Jumblatt. In addition, threats have been made against him and leading officials in his party. And while Jumblatt has maintained open channels with Hezbollah, in order to calm the domestic situation as much as possible for fear of the repercussions of Sunni-Shia tensions, his relationship with Hezbollah and Iran is bound to deteriorate further as a result of his anti-Assad stance.
As with the Kurds, the Druze have trans-national extensions beyond Syria, with established leadership centers and figures, like Jumblatt or Massoud Barzani in Iraqi Kurdistan, wielding influence beyond Assad’s control, frustrating his policy of aligning Syria’s minorities against the Sunnis.
As a result, Assad views Jumblatt as a threat—an instigator of Syria’s Druze against the regime, as the pro-Assad Al-Akhbar put it last month. So far, Druze military defections have been limited, but that could change down the road, and depending on developments and possible international action that could change the current dynamic.
Jumblatt offered a hint of his potential influence—and of what might lie ahead for his community in Syria as the revolution progresses. “Am I asking the Druze soldiers to defect?” he said in an interview yesterday. “No. I’m just telling them to stay home.” That is, for now at least.
Tony Badran is a research fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. He tweets @AcrossTheBay.