A Dilemma and an Opportunity: Syria’s Civil War Knocks at Israel’s Northern Gate

Roughly 20% of Israel’s population is not Jewish. While the vast majority of her non-Jewish citizens speak Arabic as their native language, to assume that this makes them all “Arabs” is a vast over-simplification. Israel is home to numerous minority Christian denominations as well as Muslims, and the world headquarters of the Baha’i movement is to be found in the port city of Haifa.

Another major minority is the 140,000-strong Druze community, mostly inhabiting a string of villages in the far north. The Druze are practitioners of a distinctive, monotheistic religion all their own (though foreigners call them “Druze” after one of their early preachers, they ordinarily call themselves Muwahhidūn, “Unifiers” or “Unitarians”).

The Druze spill over the Israeli border, and there are many more of them living in southern Lebanon (some 250,000) and southern Syria (some 700,000), as well as a smaller number of Jordanians (ca. 32,000). Regarded as heretical by orthodox Muslims and heathens by Christians, the Druze have often been the focus of discrimination, suppression, and massacre at the hands of both. This has tended to make them a very tight-knit society, and has also given them a certain sympathy for the Jewish majority in Israel. The Druze gladly serve in the Israel Defense Forces (where some occupy senior positions) and Israeli police.

Throughout the Syrian civil war which is now stretching though its fourth year, the Syrian Druze have generally been loyal to the Assad regime, which is based upon adherents of a minority Shi’ite spin-off sect, the ‘Alawites, largely because of the fanatical jihadi element amongst the rebels. Forty-five years of relatively stable, if viciously oppressive, rule by the Assads (Bashar’s father Hafiz seized power in 1970) fostered this loyalty to the Assad regime, but that regime has suffered major reversals in recent weeks, which have badly shaken Assad’s forces, as well as his Hizbullah allies.

According to Israeli Druze sources, the Syrian Druze are now hiding their young men from Assad’s recruiters, because they want them at home to defend the Jabal ad-Durūz, the mountain enclave along the Israeli-Jordanian border, which has now been coming under attack by the forces of Jabhat an-Nuşra. In particular, the large village of al-Hadir (population ca. 25,000), only about a mile from the Israeli border, was assaulted and subjected to serious artillery barrages.

This has prompted demands from Israeli Druze for the state to do something. Ayyub Kara, a member of Likud and, as deputy minister of regional coöperation, the most senior Druze politician in Israel, has been demanding that Israel arm the Syrian Druze so that they can defend their own homes.

This eventuality presents Israel with both a dilemma and an opportunity.

On the one hand, it is inevitable that if Israel does nothing and continues its studied neutrality in the conflict raging in Syria, potentially hundreds of thousands of Druze refugees will flood into the country. Already, in the aftermath of the fighting around al-Hadir, Israeli ambulances carrying wounded Syrian fighters who managed to reach the border and sought treatment were attacked by Israeli Druze, resulting in the death of one of the Syrians, because they were suspected of having been involved in the assault on the Druze village. Local leaders have restored calm, and Israeli police have arrested the suspected perpetrators, but this is only a harbinger of things to come.

On the other hand, the relatively compact area of Jabal ad-Durūz presents Israel with an opportunity. If the local Druze can be helped with arms and some judiciously supplied close air and artillery support, it might be possible to reestablish the Druze state which existed as a semi-autonomous entity within French mandatory Syria from 1925-1936. It is an idea which has had a long gestation period in Israel, and whose time may now finally have come.

Such a Druze republic would have the advantage not only of obviating the flow of destitute refugees into Israel itself, but could also provide a buffer between the Israeli border and the other forces contending for control of Syria. It would also obviate the current Israeli policy, which has been reported by various foreign news agencies, of tacit cooperation with some of the inherently unstable jihadi groups fighting against Assad, which could turn on Israel at any time, in favor of a much more stable, long-term solution. As Kara notes, the Syrian Druze lack arms and expertise, both of which Israel possesses.

Most recently, there have been reports that the Jordanians might set up such a buffer zone with its capital as as-Suwaida, the largest town in the Jabal ad-Durūz and former capital of the aforementioned semi-autonomous “state” in French mandatory Syria. Though the Americans have denied any such reports (there have also been rumors of the Turks carving out such a buffer in the north which, not coincidentally, would include all of the Syrian Kurdish enclaves), the suggestion makes both military and political sense from Jordan’s point of view, as well as Israel’s.

One possible fly in the ointment is the Lebanese Druze leader Walid Jumblatt. Jumblatt has been a master, since the days of the Lebanese civil war which resulted in Israel’s intervention in 1982, at playing off Christians against Muslims and Sunnis against Shi‘is in the complex interdenominational politics of Lebanon, and has also repeatedly tried to influence the Israeli Druze. For instance, in the recent parliamentary elections, Jumblatt called on Israeli Druze to support the Joint List, composed of parties which identify with the “Palestinians” (he was largely ignored). Now, he appears to be trying to play a role in Syria as a “spoiler” of any Israeli influence with the Syrian Druze. If so, then working through the Jordanians might be a better option.

Will Kara and Netanyahu play Baron von Steuben and Comte de Lafayette to some as-yet unidentified Druze Washington, possibly with Jordan’s King Abdullah as the state’s mid-wife? Time will tell.