HAIFA, Israel – The latest religious minority to be caught in the Syrian crossfire are the Druze, who have long enjoyed the protection of the Assad regime, but now find themselves under attack from the Al Qaeda-linked Al Nusra Front and could soon look to Israel for help.
“We do not plan to sit idly by while our brothers are being slaughtered in Syria.”
- Ayoob Kara, Israeli official and Druze
The slaughter Wednesday of more than 20 members of Syria's Druze community, a monotheistic religion that incorporates elements including philosophy, Judaisim, Christianity, Hinduism and Buddhism, could signal a coming humanitarian crisis, according to officials in Israel, which has a sizeable Druze population of its own. With embattled President Bashar al-Assad pulling forces back to defend Damascus, the nation's estimated 700,000 Druze have no protection should the terrorist groups fighting to take over the nation turn their attention to them, as they have Christians and Kurds.
"What is going on just now is intimidation and a threat to the very existence of half a million Druze on the Mount of Druze which is very close to the Israeli border," said Israeli President Reuven Rivlin at a press conference of the potential humanitarian crisis.
Wednesday's attack on Druze in Qalb Lawzi, in the northern province of Idlib, came after a Tunisian leader of Al Nusra seized the home of a Syrian Druze soldier loyal to Assad, according to the London-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. A crowd gathered and the Al Nusra leader was killed under circumstances that remain unclear.
“Reinforcements [took over] the village,” the Observatory reported. “After that, Al-Nusra opened fire on the civilians, leading to the death of 20 people.”
Some reports now suggest up to 24 were killed, including a young girl and several elderly villagers.
The incident occurred as Al Nusra continues to gain ground in the north, and set alarms off among Syria’s large Druze community living in the south of the country. They fear being left on their own to face ISIS and other jihadi militias in the Golan Heights that border Israel, a country that itself has more than 130,000 Druze residents, many of whom have family members across the border.
On Friday, members of Syria's Druze minority fought with Syrian government forces to help repel an Al Nusra attack on an army base.
ISIS has made large territorial gains in the south despite fierce opposition, weakening both Syrian forces and Hezbollah, both of whom are backed by Iran. Reports suggest that ISIS is increasing its hold over the strategically crucial Syrian side of the Golan Heights that look across to northern Israel.
Israel, whose Druze community is generally well-regarded, has so far stayed out of the Syrian war. But recent events have prompted speculation that Israel could move to aid Syria's Druze population considering the faith's status in the Jewish State.
“We are the only non-Jewish minority that is drafted into the military, and we have an even higher percentage in the combat units and as officers than the Jewish members themselves,” Israeli Druze poet Reda Mansour, currently Israel’s ambassador to Brazil, said in 2008. “So we are considered a very nationalistic, patriotic community.”
It was a Druze police officer, Zidan Saif, who fought and died trying to save the lives of four rabbis who were killed in a Jerusalem synagogue last November by a Palestinian gunman. In an unprecedented move that followed the killings, the chief rabbi of the Ultra-Orthodox Jewish community from which the murdered rabbis came insisted that a fleet of buses be commandeered to take the religious Jews to the Druze cemetery in the north – something normally forbidden in Jewish law – to pay their respects to the fallen officer.
Druze tradition encourages loyalty to whichever state offers them residency and allows them freedom to practice their religion, a religion that originally stemmed from Islam but which is seen as heresy by radical Islamists. Any intervention by Israel, either by sending arms to Syria’s Druze to defend themselves or by opening the border to grant then sanctuary, could draw Israel into the ever-widening regional crisis.
Most Israeli officials have been tight-lipped about the situation north of the border, but Ayoob Kara, an Israeli Druze member of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s governing Likud party and currently a deputy minister for regional cooperation, said the Israeli Druze community will defend its Syrian brethren.
“We do not plan to sit idly by while our brothers are being slaughtered in Syria,” Kara told Israel’s NRG website.
A U.S. official told Reuters the Druze community in Israel is lobbying hard for arms shipments to help the Syrian community defend itself against a possible onslaught from the jihadis.
“The Druze of Israel have been raising it with Israel, with the U.S., with Jordan - everyone,” the official told Reuters.