By Hugh Naylor
BEIRUT — During four years of civil war, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad could count on the country’s Druze to keep quiet. Like other religious minorities, the Druze community tended to back the strongman, fearing their fate could be worse under the rebels, who are mostly Sunni Muslims.
Recently, however, the Druze have been defying Assad’s government. Many are refusing compulsory military service. Increasingly, Druze spiritual leaders are criticizing the embattled president and urging their community to adopt a neutral stance in the conflict.
The Druze are a tiny group in Syria — about 700,000 people in a country with a pre-war population of 24 million. But their pivot away from Assad is a sign of the mounting difficulties facing the authoritarian ruler as the war drags on.
In northwestern Syria, a coalition of rebels known as the Army of Conquest has made startling advances in recent months. Along the southern border with Jordan and in more central areas like Palmyra, other opposition groups including the Islamic State have pushed deeper into government-held territory. Now, analysts and many Syrians speculate that Assad’s hold on power is slipping.
Druze leaders do not portray their shift as a total break with Assad. Most Druze have refrained from joining the rebels, fearing that their ranks are filled with radical Sunni Islamists.
But analysts say the Druze population’s changing attitude is significant because religious minorities have formed an important part of Assad’s base, with many of their members serving in the military and government-run paramilitary groups. Assad belongs to a minority Muslim group, the Alawites, in this majority Sunni Muslim nation.
“What the Druze are showing is that groups that have been in the regime’s orbit are feeling they’re on their own in this war, that they can’t rely on the government,” said Andrew Tabler, a Middle East expert at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
The Druze are a small but influential community spread across Syria, Israel and Lebanon. Their faith, which dates to the 11th century, includes elements found in Islam, Christianity and Buddhism, and they have long been targets of extremist Muslims. Known as tough mountain dwellers, the Druze have a history of rebellions, including revolts against their former Ottoman and colonial French rulers. In Syria, most of them reside in Sweida, a province south of the capital, Damascus, that borders Jordan.
The Druze are not a monolith; after the uprising against Assad began in 2011, some joined the rebels. But the majority have remained effectively aligned with Assad.
Over the last year, however, the Druze have become increasingly disillusioned with Assad as the war has taken a growing toll on the population and in particular on the armed forces. More than 230,000 people have died in the conflict.
The Druze have bristled at the government’s campaign to shore up the army — which has included large-scale mobilizations of reservists and mass arrests of draft-dodgers. Large numbers of Druze have refused military service, according to analysts. That has deprived the military of manpower at a critical moment.
Desertions and draft-dodging are also increasing among other minorities that usually side with the government, such as Christians and Alawites, an offshoot of Shiite Islam.
The Druze, as well as other minorities, are increasingly nervous that the government will be unable — and perhaps unwilling — to protect them from the advancing rebels.
In Sweida, a Druze spiritual leader, Wahid al-Balous, has raised a militia of thousands of men that is independent of the government and is intended to defend the Druze, according to analysts and local residents. Such a move would have been almost unthinkable a year ago, when momentum in the war appeared to be on Assad’s side.
Attempts at reconciliation
The government has responded gingerly to the acts of defiance. Last month, Assad issued a decree guaranteeing that if Druze men from Sweida joined the military, they would only have to serve in the province, which has been mostly peaceful.
Balous, however, rebuffed the president’s offer, saying in a speech that military service is “strictly forbidden for young men.” The spiritual leader could not be reached for comment.
Kheder Khaddour, a Syria analyst and visiting scholar at the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut, said the government has not retaliated against the Druze because it doesn’t want to make new enemies at a moment when it is already under intense pressure on the battlefield.
In other conciliatory steps, Assad’s government has scaled back efforts to dragoon men in Sweida into the military and has provided arms and training to other recently formed Druze militias, according to residents and analysts.
But the aid seems to have won the government little gratitude from the militias.
“The Druze of Sweida and in Lebanon only need themselves to defend their land, homes, families and dignity,” said Ismat Aridi, 60, a leader of a militia in Sweida that has received government support.
The Druze have good reasons for their concerns about their safety. The rebels have advanced so much that analysts and diplomats believe the government may soon have to pull back its defenses from outlying areas like Sweida to a strategic corridor linking Damascus with key government strongholds along the western coast and the border with Lebanon.
Assad’s main allies, Russia and Iran, are pressuring him to focus on securing that corridor, even if that means abandoning other areas, say analysts and diplomats.
Druze leaders are calling for neutrality in order to signal to the rebels that they are not their enemies while also not alienating the government, said Malek Abou al-Kheir, a Druze journalist from southern Syria who is critical of the government.
“They know that the regime is not a true ally,” Kheir said.
A group of moderate rebels, known as the Southern Front, says that it has assured the Druze that it will protect them should government forces withdraw from Sweida.
“They know that we will do more to protect them than Assad ever will,” said Marwan Ahmad, a Druze and former colonel in the Syrian army who is now a member of the rebel coalition.
But declarations of neutrality may not save the Druze if extremists from the Islamic State or Jabhat al-Nusra — Syria’s al-Qaeda affiliate — seize their ancestral lands. Both groups condemn the Druze as apostates. Last month, militants from Jabhat al-Nusra gunned down more than 20 Druze in northern Syria in what was said to be a property dispute.
Hugh Naylor is a Beirut-based correspondent for The Post. He has reported from over a dozen countries in the Middle East for such publications as The National, an Abu Dhabi-based newspaper, and The New York Times.