This week, Alpher discusses why Israeli Druze leaders are lobbying the government to help the Syrian Druze; does Israel have any special reason to get involved; if the Syrian Druze friendly to Israel; what Israel should do; and if there are other minority issues in Syria that should concern Israel.
Q. Israeli Druze leaders are lobbying the government to help the Syrian Druze, who are increasingly under military pressure from the Sunni jihadists. Why Israel?
A. Not only Israel. Israeli Druze leaders have asked the West Bank-based PLO leadership to intervene with Syrian President Assad. They have appealed to Jordan, which is directly south of Suweida and Jebel Druze, located in Syria about 80 km. east of the Golan border. Israel last week reportedly asked US Chief of Staff Martin Dempsey to look into American aid for the Druze. And Lebanese Druze leader Walid Jumblatt, who is famous for his political flip flops, appealed to the Syrian Druze to make their peace with the Islamists, some of whom have vowed to kill the Druze as heretics.
Q. What’s the commotion about? Why the Druze?
A. The Assad regime, with its Alawite minority base, has always attracted the loyalty of Syria’s many other minorities—Christians, Druze, Shiites, Ismailis—who traditionally fear Sunni Arab extremism. Religious leaders of most of Syria’s two million or so Christians recently publicly reaffirmed their support for Assad. The Sunni Jihadists consider Druze, Alawites and Ismailis, all offshoots of traditional Islam like the Yazidis in northern Iraq, to be heretics. While Syria’s two million or so Alawites are still safe in their Mediterranean coastal enclave and some 300,000 Ismailis in Salamiya between Homs and Hamat—both cities vital to the regime’s link between Damascus and the Alawite coastal homeland--are also still relatively well protected by the Iran-Hezbollah-Syria-Shiite “volunteer” alliance that is keeping Assad in power. But the Druze are less well off from a geo-strategic standpoint.
Around 500,000 Druze are concentrated in Jebel Druze and in a few Druze villages closer to Israel on the Syrian Golan. The Syrian army, increasingly in tatters, has withdrawn northward from the area to protect Damascus. Islamic State forces are closing in on Jebel Druze from the east, and Qaeda-linked Jabhat al-Nusra from the west. IS reputedly demands that Druze either convert to Sunni Islam or die; al-Nusra reportedly demands total loyalty, meaning “protected” second-class status. In recent weeks, more than 20 Druze were slaughtered in northwest Syria by Jabhat al-Nusra.
Syrian Druze appeals to Assad to send military forces to protect them in the south have encountered anger in Damascus at the Druze for avoiding military service. Indeed, in view of Assad’s increasingly poor chances for political survival, the Druze are hedging their bets. Here and there, some have sought to ally themselves with the more moderate anti-regime rebels. The Jebel Druze leadership says the area can defend itself if it gets more weapons.
Q. Does Israel have any special reason to get involved?
A. Israel has a tradition of protecting regional minorities. In the 1960 and 1970s, Israel extended military and medical aid to the Christian and animist population of South Sudan and to the Kurds of northern Iraq. Both groups were suffering horrifically from Arab state oppression directed from Khartoum and Baghdad, respectively. I was involved at the time in these operations, which were managed by the Mossad. I recall that I and many of the Israelis involved had a strong sense of mission: Israel, the only Middle East ethnic-national minority that had achieved self-determination in its historic homeland, should extend a hand to other beleaguered minorities. This policy culminated in Israel’s aid to the Lebanese Maronites beginning in 1975. There, Israel made the mistake of introducing its own military into the fray on Lebanese territory in 1982. It was betrayed by the Maronites, suffered heavy losses, finally withdrew the last of its forces in 2000 and still has to deal with a hostile Shiite Hezbollah on its northern border.
Since the fiasco with the Maronites, Israel has avoided further entanglements with regional minorities. Confronted with civil war in neighboring Syria, it has developed humanitarian and security ties with various militias across the Golan border in order to secure that border, but has carefully avoided intervention. This policy is based on the wise assumption that even the impression of intervention will make Israel more enemies than friends in Syria. But Israel’s own Druze community is a minority with influence: in the Knesset, in the army, and among the Jewish public which highly regards the Druze commitment to the country’s security. And Israel’s Druze want Israel to intervene.
(The story of Israel’s involvement with Middle East minorities is related in detail in my book, Periphery: Israel’s Search for Middle East Allies, published this year by Rowman & Littlefield.)
Q. Are the Syrian Druze friendly to Israel?
A. Not particularly. Until recently they supported the very brutal Assad regime, which itself has always been hostile toward Israel even though it has endeavored to maintain the two countries’ ceasefire agreement. In general Druze, who do not seek anything but ethnic-religious autonomy anywhere, are loyal to the state they live in. The Druze on the western part of the Golan that Israel conquered in 1967 and annexed more than a decade later are divided in their loyalties between Israel and Syria. But the Druze are definitely loyal to one another, whatever state they live in.
Some Israeli strategists have had their eye on Jebel Druze for decades. In the 1950s, Israel trained Druze units to parachute into Jebel Druze. In 1967, former Palmach commander Yigal Allon suggested to PM Eshkol that Israel invade Syria beyond the just-captured Golan Heights and link up with Jebel Druze, thereby ostensibly providing both Israel and Jordan with a partial buffer against Syria. None of these plans was ever acted on. Moreover, the timing of the IDF’s recent decision to disband its single all-Druze unit and disperse the soldiers among regular units seems suspiciously to reflect fears that the Druze unit might try to take matters into its own hands.
In the current highly complex constellation, Jordan plays a key role because of its proximity to Suweida. Jordan has absorbed hundreds of thousands of refugees from Syria, and has been the training venue, in collaboration with the US, for some of the more moderate Syrian rebels. The last thing Jordan needs is for battles pitting the Druze against the Syrian Islamist rebels to be taking place a stone’s throw away. Yet were Israel to provide arms to the Syrian Druze, it would almost certainly have to coordinate the operation with Jordan.
Q. What should Israel do?
A. Israel and its supporters must think seriously about what, if any, obligations the Jewish people have to an increasingly threatened minority located not far from the Israel-Syria border. Israelis can take pride in their role, decades ago, in helping South Sudan to formal independence and Kurdistan to a broad degree of autonomy and self-determination. But the fiasco with the Maronites provides an important lesson to avoid over-committing ourselves.
In the past, the Arab states tended to see Israel as being somehow committed to a conspiracy of fragmenting them by clandestinely supporting their mistreated minorities. Today, with so many Arab states, including Syria, already fragmented without any connection to Israel and so many minorities in danger of being slaughtered, the Arab reaction appears not particularly relevant. Moreover, unlike the South Sudan, Kurdistan and Maronite cases of decades past, the Druze have an important presence in Israel whose views must be taken into consideration.
If it can persuade the US and/or Jordan to supply weapons and possibly training to the Syrian Druze, Israel can maintain its thus far very successful policy of non-intervention in Syria while it watches and waits for events to unfold. If it can’t, it may have to provide the weapons and training itself. At all costs it must avoid IDF “boots on the ground” on Syrian territory--a step that would have highly problematic and unpredictable consequences. Still, it could well confront a demand by Israeli Druze IDF veterans to volunteer to defend Jebel Druze.
One way or another, the ongoing collapse of Syria is liable to be the occasion for greater and far more complicated Israeli involvement in that civil war.
Q. Are there other minority issues in Syria that should concern Israel?
A. No other Syrian minorities are near enough to Israel or have a rationale for asking for its help. But if the forces protecting the Assad regime continue to sustain losses and withdraw, the Ismailis could also soon be threatened by IS. Here it is interesting to note the large Ismaili immigrant community in Canada. There is a Canadian military contingent on the ground in northern Iraq that could conceivably become involved in assisting the Syrian Ismailis.