Is independence from Syria the best way to ensure security for the Druze – and for Israel?
By Yisrael Ne’eman
The article was originally written for Mideast on Target.
Continuing turmoil in the Arab/Muslim World dwarfs the importance of the Israeli election results and whether the country has a “stable” government or not. Israel’s neighbors are either slowing sinking into a social and economic abyss such as Egypt or they are shattering – the Damascus regime being a case in point. All of those discussions about a “negotiated end” to the crisis are naïve. With over 70,000 confirmed deaths and close to a million reported refugees the facts on the ground are horrendous.
Syrian refugees are fleeing in every direction but for the moment not towards Israel (excepting a handful that arrived just recently). With Jihadist rebel forces battling the pro-Iranian Assad regime along the Golan cease-fire line one cannot rule out a serious spillover into Israel. The usually quiet frontier may erupt into cross border terror raids, refugee flight or worse. The question is whether Israel can pre-empt. On the international scene any military move would be condemned. Paradoxically Israel is in the same situation as the Turkish government when relating to border security on Ankara’s southern front. There are differences however. As Syria disintegrates one can expect the primordial ethnic groups making up the population to take the future into their own hands. Last year in these columns such an idea was floated concerning the possibility of a mini-state of “Alawiyah,” the mountainous northwest region where the ruling Alawite clique is dominant and controls the ports of Tartus and Latakiya.
Southwest Syria including the eastern Golan and especially the region of Jabel Druze (just southeast of the Golan plateau) is inhabited mostly by the Druze population, who like the Alawites are a minority in Syria (3.5%) and are considered heretics by Islam. In general the Druze support the secular Baath regime and are known for their loyalty, especially as concerns military service. Such loyalty may collapse as the Sunni rebels get the upper hand. Like the possible Alawite scenario the Druze, many of whom live in the larger city centers, could withdraw into their own enclave in southwest Syria and fully extend control along the border with Israel. Call the new entity “Druzia” sort of akin to Alawiyah, just that here there will be a direct Israeli interest in its success and stability. Israel can afford neither Jihadi nor Iranian backed forces such as Hezbollah on the Golan. Much preferred is a neutral ethnic entity with an interest in self preservation. This could provide a stabilizing element. Such an idea was floated in the wake of the 1967 Six Day War and the seven years until the post Yom Kippur War disengagement agreement was signed in June 1974. Since then for 38 years Israel had quiet on the Golan excepting for a few minor incidents.
In 2012 the game changed. There is no one to speak to in Damascus, nor anywhere else. The Druze may find their existence threatened and their proximity to the Golan border could force a confluence of interests with Israel. Let’s recall that Israel also has a loyal Druze minority comprising somewhat over 1% of the population. Those living in the Galilee are Israeli citizens while those in the Golan were offered citizenship in 1981 when Israel extended civilian law to the region, but the vast majority turned it down preferring to retain loyalty to the Syrian regime while considering themselves living under Israeli “occupation.” Such is the official reasoning.
More to the point is the fact that many Druze feared retaliation against their kin in Syria should they be seen as collaborating with the Jewish State. Now that all are endangered such fears about Syrian relatives are irrelevant. Recent events in Syria have brought requests for discussions with Israeli interior ministry officials – functionaries whose job is to deal with one’s legal status including citizenship. The said to be pro-Assad (at least declaratively) Golan Druze appear to be surveying possibilities for legal integration into Israeli society, following on the heels of economic development and social acceptance.
A logical step would be the consideration of how best to help the Syrian Druze to the east once Assad and the regime they support goes under. Israel’s interest in a buffer state or autonomous province is of paramount importance. Prior to solidifying any direction the Syrian Druze need to be fully in favor of such a solution as it is a break with the Syrian State. On the other hand Syria is breaking apart and the new Syria, quite possibly run by Jihadi elements will have little tolerance for Druze (or Alawite) heretics.
Before an Assad downfall all is theory and the Syrian Druze leadership cannot be expected to fully engage in any discussions, however there is no reason not to check out future possibilities for keeping the border quiet. The collapse of Syria’s Baathist regime will certainly bring massive change, in particular concerning minorities. Building ethnic enclaves with international support as a hedge against massacre may be their best bet at least in the short term. In the Druze instance it will also serve Israel’s need for stability.
Many analysts believe Syria ceased being a nation state entity over the past few months. That means ethnicity and religion become overwhelming factors in loyalties. This is a game breaker whereby several minority groups may begin behaving as semi-state actors. We are speaking of the Alawites in the northwest, the Kurds in the northeast, tribal groupings in the east and most important as far as Israel is concerned, the Druze in the Syrian southwest. The first have Russian (and Iranian) support, the Kurds generally have American sympathies as are found in Iraq and the Druze may shortly need a sponsor. Obviously Israel cannot fit the bill even should there be joint interests.
Going a step further to greater powers a Druze ethnic mini-state would reach out to the US, Europe or both leaving behind previous loyalties to the Assad regime. Syria may be divided up faster than most imagine.
Yisrael Ne’eman is an historian and political analyst focusing on the development of the Israeli State, its ideologies and policies both in the past and in real time. He has lectured on these topics at the University of Haifa International School since 1991 and writes for Mideast on Target.
Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons