The Druze shift of stance in Syria will worry Bashar al-Assad

Makram Rabah
Makram Rabah
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As all eyes turn towards the military escalation on the Russian Ukrainian border and the impending invasion, the world is less interested in following the events transpiring in southwestern Syria in the predominately Druze province of Sweida. The masses have taken to the streets to protest the Bashar al-Assad regime’s failure to address the economic collapse, rampant corruption, and lack of civil liberties.

On the outside, these protests were triggered by the regime’s recent decision to pass new regulations that lifted subsidies from over 600 thousand families using subsidy cards to purchase provisions such as fuel and bread. In reality, these protests are a culmination of different local and international factors, which start with the changing priorities of the Syrian Druze and end with the Iranian-Russian fight over Syria.

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Since the start of the Syrian revolution in 2011, the Druze - a heterodox sect that branched out of Ismaili Islam - have risen against the Assad regime on several occasions.

Yet, their protests have never gone all the way to qualify as a full-scale rebellion against the regime, which was, in turn, careful to appease them and contain them by allowing them some quasi autonomy. Traditionally, as one of Syria’s minorities, the Alawite Assad regime has relied heavily on the support of the Druze, who have served in the regime Special Forces units and have allowed Assad to project legitimacy as a protector of minorities against a supposed extremist brand of Sunni Islam.

The Syrian revolution changed this reality. The Druze, and their Syrian compatriots, revised their unlimited support for the dictator Assad while their conscripted children fought and died in distant parts of the country.

The Druze of Syria has responded to the political and economic challenges of the country’s crisis by leaning back on their traditional sectarian and tribal identity, which time and again kept them relatively shielded. Ongoing political protests have visibly taken on a new direction this time around.

A boy from the Druze community holds a Syrian flag with the image of Syria's President Bashar al-Assad during a rally marking Syria's Independence Day. (File photo: Reuters)
A boy from the Druze community holds a Syrian flag with the image of Syria's President Bashar al-Assad during a rally marking Syria's Independence Day. (File photo: Reuters)

While the protesters have been publicly asking for introductory provisions, the underlying tone and adoption of new political rhetoric reflect a noticeable maturity in their self-perception of the crisis.

The speeches and the slogans heard on the streets of Sweida no longer talk about the Druze as a separate religious group but rather as part of a perceived Syrian nation whose sons and daughters demand fundamental human rights and dignity. They are not isolated from the broader national scene.

Druze clerics from different ages groups appeared on various social media outlets demanding “a democratic, just and a pluralistic civil state which is ruled by law, not by sects and political parties.” These new political values are not merely a cliché but rather a clear indication of the mindset of the Druze, whose survival has always depended on them negotiating their own private space from the regime, a formula that seems to have become obsolete.

The Assad regime has tried to keep the Druze under its wing by bribing them with subsidies and allowing them to run their affairs, yet with the state’s coffers empty, these tactics are no longer feasible. Consequently, the Assad regime and its Iranian allies and the various militias it operates have been actively trying to intimidate the Druze by empowering local pro-regime gangs and paramilitary groups who control smuggling and other illicit activities. It is spreading chaos and violence.

As a result, the Druze have tried to leverage their relationship with Russia, which is equally interested in containing the expanding Iranian influence. By gaining the support of the Druze - who would agree to actively participate in the restructuring and the rebuilding of the Syrian Army - Russia will naturally build its control.

The Russian-Iranian struggle for Syria is evident in Sweida. The lifting of subsidies at this particular moment when Russia is fully immersed in its preparation to invade Ukraine is no coincidence. Iran and its main executive arm in the Levant, Hezbollah, know well that Russia’s military Ukraine incursion will allow it to bully the Druze and other Syrian factions who seek Russia’s dwindling support.

The revolution in Syria will reignite shortly. The protests across Sweida will eventually peter out as the Druze realize that regional and international factors are not to their advantage. What will remain is a visible transformation within the Druze and seeds of real change. Other Syrians have become aware of this and cannot contain barrel bombs or violence.

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