This is How Israel Could Be Drawn into Syria’s Civil War: To Save the Druze

[This post is adapted from an article originally written by Yossi Melman, co-author of Spies Against Armageddon (a history of Israel’s security and espionage agencies), for The Jerusalem Report — and in recent days, Druze citizens of Israel have taken part in demonstrations demanding action by the Israeli military to rescue and protect their Druze brethren in Syria.]

A “Druze State” existed in Syria from 1921 to 1936 located in the Jebel Druze – which means Druze Mountain ‒ region: part of the volcanic heights in southwest Syria, around 40 miles from the Jordanian border and a similar distance from the Israeli 1973 ceasefire line with Syria along the Golan Heights.

Today, as pressure grows from the advancing forces of the Islamic State (ISIS), the Syrian Druze community is preparing to establish and defend its own autonomous zone.

For the first time since Syria’s civil war began over four years ago, it can be said that Israel may be sucked deeply into the bloody Syrian quagmire — because of pressure by Israel’s 130,000 Druze citizens.

The Druze State was an autonomous district during the days when the French ruled Syria and Lebanon between the two world wars. Its capital and central city was and still is As-Suwayda. During the state’s brief period of “independence,” the Druze led by Sultan al-Atrash rebelled in 1925 against the French.

The revolt spread to engulf the whole of Syria, but it was quashed within two years by the French. Still, the revolt did ensure that autonomy lasted until 1936, when the area’s special status was cancelled, and it was incorporated into Syria as part of the Franco-Syrian treaty signed the same year.

The Druze dream of independence vanished.

Yigal Allon, the late Israeli strategist

Yigal Allon, the late Israeli strategist

Thirty years after that autonomy ended, Yigal Allon — an Israeli cabinet minister and former general considered a hero of the 1948 War of Independence, entertained the notion of helping the Druze in Syria reclaim their independence.

Allon revealed that he had maintained contacts with the Atrash family, considered to be the main leaders of the Druze in Syria, and even had made a secret visit to Suwayda.

Allon’s idea was part of a larger geo-strategic concept, known as the Peripheral Alliance, which dominated Israel’s foreign and security policy from the 1950s to the ’70s. It was based on the old dictum of “my enemy’s enemies are my friends.”

Carried out covertly by the Mossad (as a kind of alternative foreign ministry) the Peripheral concept succeeded in forming secret ties with non-Arab states in the Middle East and its periphery – Turkey, Iran and Ethiopia – as well as non-Arab ethnic and religious minorities in the hostile Arab states. The secret relationships included mutually beneficial contacts with the Kurds in Iraq, Christians in Lebanon and Sudan, and the Druse in Syria.

During the Six-Day War in June 1967 ‒ before Israel captured the Golan Heights on the sixth and last day of the war‒ Allon lobbied then-prime minister Levi Eshkol, defense minister Moshe Dayan, his cabinet colleagues, and the chief of staff Yitzhak Rabin for an extended campaign that would intrude more deeply into Syria.

Allon urged an effort to conquer not only the Golan Heights, but also the Suwayda region.

“I dreamed the dream of the Druze republic” Allon recorded in his memoirs, “which would spread in southern Syria including the Golan Heights and would serve as a buffer state between us, Syria and Jordan.”

His proposal was rejected.

Moshe Ya'alon, Israel's Defense Minister

Moshe Ya’alon, Israel’s Defense Minister

Today, the Druze question is again being discussed in closed-door meetings of the IDF (Israel Defense Forces) and senior cabinet ministers and officials. They have all taken note of the fact that the regime of Bashar Assad and his army loses more and more territory, and the forces of the Islamic State advance in the direction of Suwayda and its nearby villages.

Israeli policy has so far been consistent and reiterated on numerous occasions by retired military chief of staff Minister Moshe Ya’alon — who has kept his job as defense minister despite major cabinet changes after Israel’s election this year.

The policy Ya’alon voices is non-intervention, though with clear “red lines” that no party in Syria should ever cross.

The aim is to maintain quiet and tranquility along the 100-kilometer (62-mile) border in the Golan Heights, stretching from Mount Hermon in the North to the Jordanian border in the Southeast — and to defend Israel’s broder security interests, such as not allowing the Lebanon-based Hezbollah (funded and basically commanded by Iran) to acquire advanced weapons such as ground-to-air missiles.

Reports that are not officially confirmed by Israel credit the nation’s air force with bombing — on at least 10 occasions in the past two-and-a-half yars — convoys and storage depots meant to be used to transport Iranian and Syrian missiles to Hezbollah.

To achieve its goals, Israel has even allowed, without any interference, the radical Islamist group Jabhat al-Nusra (the Nusra Front) — which is practically a Syrian branch of al-Qaeda — to take over almost the entire border area from the Syrian army.

According to foreign reports (with full discussion within Israel discouraged by officials including the military censor), Israel has maintained secret ties with the Nusra Front to coordinate the successful execution of this policy. In return, Israel is said to supply some humanitarian aid; and Israel accepts and treats — in a field hospital near the border — wounded civilians and combatants from Syria (reportedly from villages and families associated mostly with the Nusra Front).

The secret ties led also to an understanding that Nusra Front guerrilla fighters would avoid clashing with Druze living in several villages – the biggest being Hader ‒ on the Syrian side of Mount Hermon.

When Hezbollah tried to gain a presence in the area by transferring in 500 militiamen from Lebanon and other parts of Syria, the local Druze communities — with Nusra and Israeli forces looming in the background — expelled Hezbollah from the neighborhood.

Not so incidentally, the militia that tried to take hold was commanded by Samir Kuntar — a Hezbollah terrorist of Druze origin who in 1979 murdered four Israelis (including a 4-year-old girl whose skull he crushed wit a rifle butt) on the beach at Nahariya after landing there with three other members of a Palestinian guerrilla group.

Kuntar was sentenced by an Israeli court to life imprisonment, and he served 29 years in an Israeli prison until he was exchanged in 2008 — with other Arab convicts — for the bodies of Israeli reservist soldiers Eldad Regev and Ehud Goldwasser (whose kidnap on the Lebanon border sparked the 2006 war with Hezbollah).

Israel’s reasonable, though perhaps not highly moral policyof cooperation with Islamist groups on the Syrian side of the border, may soon change, however.

Ayub Kara, a Druze member of Israel's cabinet

Ayub Kara, a Druze member of Israel’s cabinet

“The situation of our Druze brothers is rapidly deteriorating,” said Israel’s Deputy Minister for Regional Cooperation Ayub Kara, the only Druze member of Benjamin Netanyahu’s government. “I am very worried.”

Kara, who is one of the leaders of the Druze community in Israel and a member of Netanyahu’s Likud party, says he is in constant communication with Druze leaders in Syria.

In early June, political and religious leaders of the Israeli Druze community met to discuss the situation.  It is clear that they will not be able to stand still and ignore events on the other side of the border in the event of atrocities against their Syrian brethren.

“I am a bit more relaxed about the situation in the Mount Hermon area, but much more worried about what happens in Jebel Druze,” says Kara.

On the Syrian side of Mount Hermon, there are approximately 25,000 Druze; but in the mountainous Suwayda region there are around 800,000.

“Until recently,” the deputy minister stressed, “ISIS didn’t dare to approach the Druze concentration in the Suwayda district, but now they are advancing with tanks and armored cars and are threatening our community.”

According to reports that have reached Israel, Islamic State terrorists in early June were still 30-40 kilometers away from Suwayda, but they already started to activate their brutal tactics. Dozens of Druze men and women were ambushed and abducted ‒ most of them burned alive or beheaded.

Suwayda prepared for battle: declaring a nighttime curfew, accumulating food, and organizing a militia to hold key defensive positions.  The Assad government showed no willingness to send its army to defend the Druze.

Druze, wherever they live, usually do rely on local governments for safety and prosperity. This has been evident in Israel, where they serve in the IDF and police, and also in Lebanon and Syria (in normal times). In return the Druze show their loyalty to the government protects them.

However, this reality is changing in Syria. The Assad army legitimately feels overstretched and perhaps cannot do much to protect the Druze. But the other reason is political: The Assad regime recently demanded that the Druze community send 27,000 young men to serve in its army — as though to replace the dead, the wounded, and those who have deserted.

The Druze have refused to comply with the demand.

Feeling less secure than ever, the Druze are using Syrian army veterans in their community to organize a determined militia.

“But they lack proper equipment and expertise,” says Kara the Israeli politician, “and they are eager to receive support from anyone.”

Gen. Amir Eshel, commander of Israel's air force

Gen. Amir Eshel, commander of Israel’s air force

Including from Israel, he was asked?

“I am in a very sensitive position to answer that question, because I am a member of the Israeli government and whatever I say will be echoed and repeated. So I have to be cautious. However, I can say that they need help from any source.

“I can also add that we are their brothers and cannot be complacent and stand aside when their fate is at stake. We will work hard with all measures available to us to help our brothers if their lives are in peril. We will not let them be annihilated.”

Kara points to a declaration last September by the commander of the Israel Air Force, Gen. Amir Eshel. While meeting the spiritual leader of the Israeli Druze, Sheik Muafaq Tarif, Gen. Eshel assured him: “Our alliance with the Druze doesn’t end at the border.”

One can assume that if worse comes to worst and indeed the Syrian Druze community finds itself facing an existential threat, Israel will have to act in its defense — probably using its air force. And if it hesitates to do so, Israeli Druze will force the government to do so and fulfill Eshel’s promise.

June 16, 2015

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