Israel Should Change Course in Syria: The Case of the Druze

Bashar Assad and his regime are doomed, and no Iranian-Hezballah and/or Russian help can change that, so the Syrian dictator is on his way to be the provincial ruler of Alawistan; it is just a question of time when it will happen. The die has been cast, but the problem is that the disintegration of the regime can and will have implications over neighboring countries, and with it some possible major trouble spots are looming -- largely, and sadly, not all of them are getting enough, if any, attention outside of Syria.

One of these has to do with southern Syria -- and its Druze community -- an area of major strategic importance because it is close to the Syria-Israel and Syria-Jordan borders. While much attention is given to the possible regional implications of the Kurdish situation in northeast Syria, involving Iraq and more importantly Turkey, the situation in the South is potentially even more explosive.

First some introductory data on the Druze, one of the least known though significant among the minorities which constitute the impossible country called Syria.They are a non-Muslim heterodox religious group, whose early history goes a thousand years back, being one of constant struggle for communal/religious survival in an environment not well known for its tolerant religiously... and this is in understatement. They number about 1 million in Syria, mostly in the south, but also in Damascus and in the mountainous region near Aleppo; about 300,000 in Lebanon; and 125,000 in Israel. They have played interesting, and at times major, political roles in both Syria and Lebanon, and in Israel they are [alongside the tiny Sunni Circassian minority] drafted by law to serve in the Israeli army [IDF]. This arrangement has been in force since 1957, reflecting the survival instinct of a small minority that acts no different than the Jewish tradition of "Dina the Malchuta dina" [the law of the land is our law].

But then, Druze service in the Israeli military, loyal, brave and gallant as it is, has become their entry ticket into Israeli society at large -- into Israeli politics and into the hearts and souls of the vast majority of Israeli Jews. The first IDF unit to enter Gaza during the 2014 summer confrontation was commanded by a brave Druze colonel, who was injured. He fled from the hospital where he was taken so as to rejoin his troops, which were mostly Jewish youngsters.

Put simply, the State of Israel cannot and should not stay indifferent when Druze people are facing an existential threat on the other side of the border. Israel cares naturally enough about the plight of Jews wherever they face a danger of physical extinction, and provides safe haven for these Jews, as well as flexing all its diplomatic muscles [they are not too strong though....] in order to support them. It HAS to do just as much to help the Druze -- and help they need. South Syria is one of the regions where the actual control of the Assad regime is becoming nominal, and it has been a zone of battles between Sunni rebels, mostly from the more moderate Free Syrian Army[FSA], the militant Jabhat al Nusra and others.

So far so bad, but now bad turns into much worse, as ISIS is tightening its grip over large parts of Syria, and is fast approaching the Southern provinces, including the Hauran, which is the Druze heartland. ISIS views the Druze as a double enemy. First, because until now they have not joined the Sunni rebellion against Assad; and why would they? They have no reason to believe that the Sunni rebels will be tolerant toward them. ISIS's second source of deep hostility toward the Druze is that they are considered heretics, almost infidels, though the Druze religion is strictly monotheistic (in fact, the Druze call themselves the Muwahidun [the believers in one G-D). The ISIS threat is taken seriously by the Druze, who organize local militia and, according to some reports, have taken over large depots of arms left behind the retreating Assad army. But, the Druze may not have sufficient power to stem the flow of ISIS's advance.

This is where Israel enters the picture Israel cannot tolerate two things happening so close to its border: First, a victory to militant Islamists, surely not to al-Qaeda sympathizers like al Nusra or ISIS; second, Israel cannot allow a Druze defeat, as it will change the overall demographic balance near its border, and will arouse justified tensions and agitation among Israeli Druze. The Israelis have rightly and patiently evaded any overt intervention in the Syrian civil war until now; in fact, many Israelis feel that Bashar Assad was the best of all evils, so far as the Israeli interest is concerned -- and evil he has been. Yet, now we are nearing the post-Assad era, surely the post united Syria era. It's time to reconsider and revise policies and options with regard to the Druze of south Syria. It must mean a clear-cut statement of red lines: no Jihadists on the other side of the border, no attempt to attack the Druze, obviously no takeover by Sunni jihadists of Druze territory.

There are more ways than one to make good on a statement like that, short of overt ground and aerial military intervention. The Israelis can try and co-opt Jordan in their planning about south Syria, as this is a Jordanian interest, as it is Israeli, to stop ISIS from establishing a foothold so close to the border; but I doubt whether King Abdullah will take the plunge. I doubt whether PM Netanyahu will take the plunge; but may have to, and possibly in the very near future.