The recent resurgence of the protest movement across Druze areas in Syria reminded everyone, including the Druze themselves, that the Bashar al-Assad regime is feebler than it appears, and that Iran is the real existential threat that Druze face as they are used as pawns in the ongoing struggle between Russia and Iran over the south of Syria.
The Druze of Syria, like the rest of their compatriots, have been victims of a perpetuating cycle of violence that has exposed them to physical harm, and as Assad’s economy collapses, they now face poverty and the UN has recently warned of possible famine.
Since the onset of the Syrian revolution in 2011 to topple Assad, the regime has labored to maintain its grip on the Druze, keeping them in the regime’s apparatus of suppression to be levied against other Syrian communities. However, thousands of Druze escaped military conscription and refused to join in the massacres taking place across Syria, something which has earned them the wrath of the regime and its main ally Iran. In the summer of 2018, the regime allowed the Druze areas to be targeted by ISIS gangs that left hundreds dead and tens of women and children held hostage, later to be conveniently liberated through the Assad regime’s not so good offices.
At first glance, the recent demonstrations in the Druze heartland of As-Suwayda governorate in southwest Syria, close to the border with Jordan might pass as a continuation of earlier dissident movements. The current Druze rage, however, is not merely directed toward Assad, but rather toward his real handlers, Iran and its various militias that have infiltrated the Druze and have used coercion and economic pressure to subjugate them and win them over.
The majority of the Druze who have taken to the streets recently are from the post-2011 generation that grew up during the war and thus have no fear nor respect to the ruling establishment and are unwilling to carry arms under Iranian auspices and command.
On the other hand, Iran has worked to establish itself within these Druze areas through recruiting local hoodlums, many of whom were already implicated in a number of illicit activities such as narcotics and arms dealing. Iran went even further by trying to convert the Druze, who are a heterodox Muslim group, to Shia Islam, something which the Druze forcefully opposed.
Equally, Russia has tried to counter Iran’s move by arming the Fifth Legion, which is composed of local fighters who they hope will be part of the nucleus of fighters to rebuild the Syrian Armed Forces. Russia went as far as to appoint Russian liaison Intelligence officers to communicate with dissident armed factions as well as the religious authorities.
The Russia-Iran rivalry also extends into the adjacent Sunni region of Daraa, a region that historically had blood feuds with their Druze neighbors, which the regime and its allies have tried to exploit time and again. The leaders of the current Druze uprising are fully aware of the above-mentioned factors, and they refuse to play any part in the advancement of any of these projects and also want to avoid being perceived as in line with the Turkish push to establish a sturdier foothold in Syria.
These young men and women wish for their movement to return to the essence of the Syrian revolution and to be removed from the dichotomy that has emerged over the past nine years – an autocratic fascist Assad regime or alternatively a radical Islamic state. Alternatively, this new generation of activists wish for a return to the core demands of the revolution, the establishment of a secular and an inclusive structure that allows all Syrians to partake in governance regardless of their gender or status as an ethnic minority.
While this might come across as perhaps too utopian, especially with the world crumpling, it nevertheless is a very dangerous message to the regime and its allies that forewarns of a new breed of activists who refuse to partake in violence and believe that change can still be achieved through peaceful means.
As we speak, the leaders of the new Druze uprising are incarcerated in Assad’s prison and they have been transferred to Damascus and their fate remains unknown. However, the reaction from their compatriots and the following demonstration by women that ensued demanding their release reveal that Syrians are aware of the real hurdle that remains to regain their freedom. The primary challenge is not the tyrant Assad, but rather an Iran that will stop at nothing to keep itself bunkered in, even if it means the further destruction of Syria and its people.
The Druze uprising might be a separate incident and it may well fizzle out, yet it reminds all people involved that violence and underhanded tactics, like the ones employed by Russia and Iran can never be a way out of a comprehensive political settlement that would see Assad and his cronies out of power, and people like the brave, peaceful activists empowered to lead a new Syria.
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