Syria’s Druze Have Run Out of Patience With Assad

While recent protests in Sweida seem like a radical break, they are part of a community's long tradition of resisting oppression

Syria’s Druze Have Run Out of Patience With Assad
A recent protest against the Bashar al-Assad regime in Sweida, Syria. (Sam Hariri/AFP via Getty Images)

In mid-August, Syria’s Bashar al-Assad regime announced the doubling of public sector salaries and the lifting of subsidies, including its last remaining subsidy on gasoline. The measures drove up prices, added to Syria’s hyperinflation and made life yet harder for the 90% of the country living below the poverty line. The regime’s decision was expected to invoke nationwide protests, which would eventually peter out, leaving the disgruntled masses with the choice of returning to their homes or facing repression.

Yet the regime’s wishful thinking did not factor in that the lifting of subsidies left public servants totally exposed, including those in the armed forces and security agencies, with a minimum monthly pay that would buy them only seven shawarma sandwiches, with nothing left for rent, transportation or any other worldly needs. As a consequence, disgruntled Syrians, including the Druze inhabitants of Sweida province in the southwest, reacted by taking to the streets to protest these liberalizing economic measures and to demand the government’s reinstatement of the financial safety net that, in one way or another, had kept the majority of them docile up to that point.

A few days into these protests, the chants and slogans demanding better pay, economic reform, education and other simple rights were brushed aside. A more militant and revolutionary rhetoric replaced them, demanding the overthrow of the tyrannical Assad regime. The main public square in the city of Sweida, dubbed Sahat al-Karama (Dignity Square), was transformed into a bastion of anti-Assad slogans and iconic chants revived from the first days of the Syrian uprising in 2011. Druze from different villages around Sweida trickled into the square, chanting, “Long live Syria and down with Bashar al-Assad!” and “Freedom! Freedom! Freedom!” They then tore down and burned pictures of both Bashar and his late dictator father, Hafez al-Assad, even going as far as to shut down all branches of the ruling Baath Party in the area.

The sudden shift among the Druze left the regime, as well as the wider public, bewildered and guessing at the trajectory of these protests, which have been crescendoing in recent weeks and could potentially spill over to other parts of the country. Yet a sober reading of the history of the Druze of Syria over recent decades can unravel the supposed mystery surrounding the current demonstrations, and reveal the strengths and limitations of this dissident movement.

The province of Sweida, in the southwest of Syria and adjacent to the Jordanian border, takes its name from the volcanic rocks and soils that make it a fertile agricultural site. Established by the Nabataeans — the ancient Indigenous people of northern Arabia and the southern Levant — Sweida was a vibrant site of commercial activity and an important entry point from Syria into the Arabian desert. The Druze settlement in the area began in the 18th century and was brought about by the battle of Ain Dara in Lebanon, in which the Qaysis and Yemenis, the two main rival Druze factions at the time, faced off, resulting in the former’s victory and the subsequent eviction of the Yemenis into Syria. Following the Druze settlement of Sweida, the region was rebranded as Jabal al-Duruz (the Druze Mountain), and its inhabitants were tasked by the Ottomans with policing the area and disciplining the rowdy Bedouins of the Syrian desert, a job they carried out meticulously and with fervor.

The Druze, or al-Muwahhidun (people who affirm the unity of God) as they prefer to call themselves, form a heterodox sect of Islam that traces its roots to the cult of al-Hakim bi-Amr Allah, the sixth Fatimid caliph who, in the 11th century, led a revisionist movement within the Ismaili faith that ended in the conversion of many of the heterodox tribes of Syria, including the ancestors of the Druze.

In the 20th century, Sweida was pushed to center stage when it provided the spark of the nationwide rebellion against the French occupation, led by the Druze dignitary and tribal chieftain, Sultan Pasha al-Atrash, who was later joined by other notables from other areas in Syria in an uprising that lasted two years, from 1925 to 1927. The Great Syrian Revolt, as it was popularly called, was ignited by the French mandatory authority’s arrest of a Lebanese Shiite dissident, Adham Khanjar, who had sought refuge at the home of Atrash in the town of al-Qurayya, though Atrash was away at the time. Upon returning home, Sultan Pasha was informed of the French crime against him and his tribe’s honor and dignity, after which he instructed his own family to vacate the house, which he set on fire, shouting, “A house that cannot protect our guest is useless to us.” He then took his men and started the two-year rebellion.

This revolt solidified the perception and identity of the Druze as brave anti-colonial Arab nationalist warriors, something that would subsequently fit well with Baath Party propaganda surrounding its power grab in 1963.

It is through this lens that the current Druze uprising for honor and dignity needs to be seen. And while many look at the ongoing uprising as a departure from the Druze’s somewhat lukewarm support for the 2011 Syrian Revolution, many of the Druze activists who have taken to the streets see it simply as a return to the nonviolent protest movement of 2011.

According to Bassima al-Akbani, a retired government employee from the village of Imm al-Riman, “Sweida was never docile, but the forms of protest took on different forms which more or less went through rapid bursts, which for one reason or another unfortunately would eventually peter out.” Bassima, who has been active throughout the past decade, confirms that the Druze of Syria simply did not wish to partake in the violence of the Syrian revolution, as it included “the spilling of Syrian blood,” something that drove many of the young men of the province to refuse to serve as conscripts in the Assad army. If they did serve, they would do so only within their own region.

For Kinan al-Brihi, a 30-year-old activist and journalist from Sweida, the protests that he and his Druze coreligionists have embarked on “returned the Syrians to the essence of the 2011 revolution” and have reminded them that “the road to salvation does not go through economic reform, and that the main cause is above all a political one.” While Brihi does not deny that the main catalyst for this protest was the lifting of state subsidies, the people of Sweida have a major problem with the Assad regime itself. Along with its assortment of “gangs,” the regime has been using Sweida as a hub for the manufacture of Captagon (an especially powerful amphetamine that has been officially banned for decades) and its export to neighboring Arab countries.

According to a study conducted by Etana, an independent anti-Assad nongovernmental organization, “Up to 79% of Sweida’s total drug network is affiliated with Military Intelligence, compared with 63% of the total drug network in Daraa.” Many of these armed gangs, some of whom are sponsored by Hezbollah and Iran, have expanded their scope of work to include other illicit activities such as arms smuggling, human trafficking and even taking hostages for ransom. Brihi confirms that many of the people who were previously delusional about the capacity and willingness of the Assad regime to reform have now joined the masses in demanding his removal.

Over recent decades, many of the pro-Assad Druze have either defected or simply vanished into the background, as successive attempts to petition the Syrian government led to empty promises, and succeeded only in adding to the province’s resentment. The breaking point came in July 2018, with an attack on Sweida by the Islamic State group, which left over 258 dead, while 14 Druze women were captured and later ransomed. The majority of the Druze, many of whom had remained neutral until that time, blamed the regime for facilitating, if not directing, the Islamic State attack by moving its heavy weapons out of Sweida a few weeks before the offensive.

The Islamic State attack, as well as other factors, have fully transformed the Druze, as Shadi Azzam sees it. Azzam, who was one of the early conscientious objectors who refused to serve in the Assad army, fled Syria in December 2011 and has been living in Lebanon ever since, heading the Nuon Organization for Peace-Building. Azzam could not believe his eyes as he saw his neighbors and family from the village of Tara, west of Sweida, take to the streets, shouting for the removal of the dictator. A few years back, these same people, including his own brother-in-law and immediate family, used to brand him a traitor. Now those days are long gone.

Equally, the Druze of Sweida are alarmed by the continuous attempts by Hezbollah and other Iranian proxies to expand into their territory, both to establish a political power base and to protect logistical lines into southern Syria, a challenge which the Druze have been extremely vehement in opposing. Over the past few years, Hezbollah, using local Druze proxies, has tried to purchase land and establish paramilitary groups under the premise of fighting the Islamic State, and has recruited some of its Lebanese allies for this purpose, among them the Druze politicians Wiam Wahhab and Talal Arslan. Before the start of the 2011 revolution, Wahhab went to al-Qurayya, the hometown of Atrash, and visited the drawing room (guest diwan) of Hassan al-Atrash in an attempt to portray the Syrian Druze as fully subservient to Assad and the so-called axis of resistance.

Hassan al-Atrash, a direct maternal descendant of Sultan Pasha, is an outspoken critic of the Assad regime and was unusually inhospitable as he expelled his Lebanese guest and drove him out of his house and from the village, something that later led to his arrest. These various existential threats led the Druze to take a step back, to reassess the many challenges they face and to seek the advice of their elders and their clerics.

Consequently, the Druze protest has the open support of the community’s religious establishment and its top spiritual leader, Sheikh Hikmat al-Hajari, who has identified the Assad regime as the reason for his compatriots’ plight. Hajari, who previously touted a pro-regime line, did not hold back in declaring, “Silence does not mean consent. The state’s actions and procedures have affected our livelihoods. The time has come to suppress those who cause these harms and those who issue unjust and destructive decisions, and uproot them from our land; every stranger, every abuser and every infidel, before they steal our resources.” Hajari, one of a long-established triumvirate of Syrian Druze clerics, who commands considerable respect and allegiance, has supplied the most potent incentive to many Druze who would usually stay home when previous calls for protest were issued. As a result, Noura Azzam, a journalist and active member of the ongoing protest movement, sees Hajari’s blanket support as a primary reason for the protesters “burning their boats” and replacing calls for bread and water with demands for regime change. Both Azzam and Akbani, who belong to different generations of women activists, confirm that the active participation of their women comrades goes beyond the ceremonial, and conveys the deep commitment of both the secular and religious elements of the Druze community not to leave anyone behind, even those who in the past collaborated with the regime. Azzam affirms that, if needed, “Druze women are willing to take up arms, as they did in 2018, to defend themselves and their families from the Islamic State or any other threat, both foreign and domestic.”

Hajari’s regional counterparts in both Lebanon and Israel were cautiously supportive of his stance. Their endorsement underscored the unity of the Druze and their legitimate demands, while stressing their “deep roots with the Syrian nation.” Walid Joumblatt, considered to be the preeminent political chieftain of the Druze and a staunch opponent of the Assad regime, was equally vocal in affirming the patriotic and inclusive nature of the uprising. Yet the veteran Lebanese politician was careful not to issue any statements that would burden the protest movement and garner further accusations of treason.

Many have scrambled to understand the real motives of Hajari, even suggesting that his abandonment of the sinking Assad regime was brought about by implicit support from international and regional players, ranging from Jordan to Saudi Arabia and even Russia, who have simply given up on resurrecting what remains of Assad. The majority of the Arab countries who accepted to normalize with the Assad regime in the recent past did so with the explicit assumption that the regime would curtail the production and export of drugs into their countries, and would possibly entertain limiting the growing influence of Iran and its Revolutionary Guard Corps. Yet months have elapsed since the start of the normalization process and no concrete steps have been taken toward drug enforcement, prompting countries such as Jordan and Saudi Arabia to double back on their decision, and thus support the Druze of Sweida in their uprising. While there is no hard evidence to support these theories, it is certain that Hajari has become more outspoken following the embarrassment that the regime has caused him in his interactions with his own people. On multiple occasions, Hajari used his moral capital to defuse earlier protests or simply framed them as internal calls for reform, yet this time around, his tone and messaging, according to the activists who have visited him, is far from conciliatory toward Assad and his associates.

In an echo of the French insult to Sultan Pasha almost a century ago, Assad refrained from punishing his regional chief of military intelligence, Brig. Gen. Luay al-Ali, who insulted Hajari during a phone call, prompting the latter to abruptly end the conversation. Ali, a member of Assad’s Alawite community, was never reprimanded. Nor did he offer a public apology, which, in the tribal traditions of the Druze and of Syria, is unforgivable.

In the initial phase of the current protests, the Assad regime practiced restraint and refrained from using lethal force to suppress them, resorting instead to its media networks and mouthpieces to discredit the protestors and suggest the protests are the work of foreign intelligence services, part of a global conspiracy hatched against the Syrian people by the West and, naturally, Israel.

On Sept. 13, however, the regime changed its methods and opened fire on crowds protesting in front of the Baath Party headquarters in Sweida, injuring a number of them. Consequently, Hajari lashed out against the regime. While he forbade any spilling of Syrian blood, he went as far as to ask the Druze to take up arms against those who wished to harm them. Speaking to a large crowd, Hajari ordered the Druze to “keep your rifles shiny and clean like a beautiful bride and locked and loaded, yet do not fire the first shot, and only do so in self-defense,” going further to declare jihad (holy war) against Hezbollah and the Iranian militias, which the Druze elder branded as “forces of occupation that we do not condone anywhere on Syrian soil.”

Along these lines, perhaps the main point to consider from the Druze uprising against Assad is the shattering of the myth that the regime has peddled since the days of Bashar’s father of being a modern, secular nation-state that offers protection and rights to minorities against the hegemony of Sunni Islam and its various political manifestations. According to this narrative, the secular Baath, under the leadership of the Assads, is the only protector of Syria’s Druze, Shiites, Alawites, Christians and even the Maronites of Lebanon. The proponents of this union even stretch to the assumption that Israel, as a Jewish state, is an organic member of this alliance and benefits from having a secular regime protecting its borders from a presumed radical Sunni alternative. The Druze of Syria have never been an active element in these alliances of minorities, yet they have refrained from challenging the regime’s rhetoric and, for a time, the regime was careful not to use force or intimidation against them, trying instead to neutralize any form of protest by giving them a form of quasi-autonomy and trying to bribe them with economic subsidies, measures it was ultimately unable to sustain.

The Assad regime has not resorted to violence for a few obvious reasons. Its regular armed forces, as well as the paramilitary groups, are depleted, and the economic hardship has affected their morale and fighting spirit. More importantly, Assad cannot mobilize his army, like he did against Sunni Muslims, because attacking a religious minority, especially one like the Druze, will officially end his guardianship of the minorities and might also cause the Druze of Lebanon, and more importantly Israel, to come to the aid of their Syrian brethren. Contrary to the way the Assad regime dealt with the dissident Sunnis in Homs, Aleppo, Idlib and across Syria, using death squads, chemical weapons and barrel bombs to punish the Druze is not an option. Yet this does not mean that the use of violence is off the table.

Having failed to keep the Druze under control, the Assad regime has resorted to a bag of tricks ranging from scaring the Druze with the Islamic State to simply accusing the protestors of aspiring to clone the minority-run Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria, which is under the control of the Syrian Democratic Forces, and has virtually seceded from the Syrian republic. Hassan al-Atrash confirms that such accusations do not really hold water, since the Druze of Syria have a strong sense of ownership of modern Syria and regard it as “a product of the Druze and the struggles of Sultan Pasha who unified Syria under the banner of the revolution.”

Atrash also confirms that while there is a small section of the Druze who have officially established links with the SDF, the mentality of the majority of protesters does not entertain any form of secession. Similarly, for Brihi, such calls are unrealistic, as the economic and political infrastructure is nonexistent. Nor is there any Druze appetite for such a perilous venture. According to Brihi, the Druze simply wish to live under a viable decentralized local governance model, a concept enshrined in the laws and practices of the Syrian republic.

Atrash also defends his peoples’ uprising as being nonsectarian, saying, “It wishes to save the entire country, not only Sweida.” While the Assad regime accuses the Druze of sectarianism in hoisting their five-colored banner during the demonstrations, Atrash insists unequivocally that this banner is simply a tool for unity, as they wish to avoid using the flag of the regime or that of the revolution, so as not to cause any sort of rift among the ranks of the protesters.

Despite the imminent dangers that both the Assad regime and the Islamic State pose to the uprising, many activists agree that the real challenges lie within the uprising itself. As they near the two-month mark, the protests are at risk of getting bogged down by the perhaps unrealistic demand of toppling Assad, and thus signs of discord are likely to arise and ultimately lead to the implosion of the movement. This fear is made more ominous by the fact the Assad regime likely has loyalists lurking on the inside, waiting for the optimal time to strike and divert the course of the protest movement. Therefore, the real challenge moving forward is for the leadership to generate a slogan that everyone can rally around, a theme that would allow the movement to expand to include all sectors of the Druze.

Equally, while the Druze need to underscore the continuity of the 2011 peaceful protest in their ongoing uprising, they also need to move beyond this conventional framework and realize that the regional and global situations have changed, and that the protest movement thus needs to establish a solid network, including different elements of the Syrian people, and also to secure the legal and — above all — the military protection of the international community. Druze activists are naturally too afraid or perhaps embarrassed to publicly inquire about the stance of the Biden administration in the case of a possible future attack against Sweida. The U.S. military base at al-Tanf is less than 100 miles away and could be a potent deterrent against any attempt by Assad or the Islamic State to punish the Druze for their uprising.

Another important intrinsic challenge for the Druze is to realize that they are not alone in demanding a life of dignity and honor and to live in a nation governed by the rule of law, not by the whims of a tyrant and his oligarchs. Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness are values shared by the majority of the Syrians and their neighbors. These can never be protected unless a long-term strategic vision that includes other segments of the Syrian nation is put into practice.

The fate of the current Druze uprising is precarious and impossible to predict, but it is clear that Sweida, which over the last six decades has been docile, not to say complicit with the Assads, has now shed any belief that its dignity and honor can be protected by what Assad calls a state.

When all is said and done, 12 years of dissent and living in limbo have engendered a generation of Druze youth who are immune to the strand of Arab nationalism propagated by the Baath Party, and to the narrative that equates modern Syria with its founding father, Hafez al-Assad, and his so-called legitimate successor Bashar. More than ever, the voice of Abdul Baset al-Sarout, the iconic rebel leader who died fighting for freedom and change, echoes across the streets and villages of Sweida: “Syria wants freedom, Bashar it is time to go.” The picture of Sultan Pasha al-Atrash has replaced the statues of antiquated Baathist ideology — an ominous reality that Assad and his Iranian allies cannot simply ignore.

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