Israel Asks U.S. to Increase Aid to Druze in Syria

Request made to U.S. Gen. Martin Dempsey after Israel ruled out direct involvement.

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Lebanese Druze clerics are pictured after a meeting in Beirut to discuss the situation of their co-religionists in neighboring Syria, Friday, June 12, 2015.
Lebanese Druze clerics are pictured after a meeting in Beirut to discuss the situation of their co-religionists in neighboring Syria, Friday, June 12, 2015.Credit: AP

Israel has asked the United States to increase its aid to the Druze in Syria, where they are under attack from Sunni rebels in the Jabal al-Druze region of southern Syria. The request was made during a visit to Israel by the chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Martin Dempsey.

A file photo of a tank decorated with the Nusra Front flag near al-Zahra village in Syria.Credit: Reuters

As reported in Haaretz on Friday, Druze leaders in Israel recently appealed to the political and military leadership here to help their brethren in Syria, in light of recent rebel attacks on the town of Khadr on the Syrian side of the Golan Heights and a massacre that took place in a village in Idlib Province, northern Syria, last Wednesday.

Israel is prepared to offer humanitarian aid to the residents of Khadr, near the Israeli border. However, after consultations between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon and other senior security officials, intervention to assist the Druze in the Jabal al-Druze region, deep in Syrian territory, was ruled out as it would be perceived as direct intervention in the Syrian civil war and could entangle Israel in the fighting there.

According to reports that ran on Saturday evening, a delegation of Israeli Druze officers is scheduled to meet Sunday with Prime Minister Netanyahu to discuss events in Syria. Deputy Minister of Regional Cooperation Ayoub Kara, an Israeli Druze MK from Likud, did not confirm the meeting but told Ha'aretz that he himself has met with Netanyahu regarding the Druze in Syria. "It is important to emphasize that we are working in this context as a [ethnic] community, not as the government of Israel,” said Ayoub, adding that “all assistance that will be given [to Syria’s Druze] will be by fellow Druze, and I know that the Druze of Syria know how to defend themselves.”

Kara also criticized statements made on Friday by the leader of Lebanon’s Druze community, Walid Jumblatt, and called on him to send soldiers to Syria, saying: "Jumblatt has the option of sending troops, since the border is open. We [in Israel] cannot do that, and it’s preferable that he acts instead of just talking.”

Jumblatt said on Friday that Syria’s Druze population didn’t intend to ask Israel for assistance. “We don’t need [Bashar] Assad or Israel,” said Jumblatt, during a press conference in Beirut. “Both sides are speaking in sectarian terms, which only perpetuates sectarianism and divides the country.”

Jumblatt, one of Assad’s biggest critics, added that the future of Syria’s Druze lies in an internal political agreement that would guarantee the safety of government institutions in a transitional government. He added that the Druze in Syria are part of the Syrian people, and should not be dealt with separately.

Dempsey was making a farewell visit to Israel before ending his term on October 1. He met with President Reuven Rivlin, Netanyahu, Ya’alon, Israel Defense Forces Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Gadi Eisenkot and army brass. At the meetings, Israeli officials raised concerns over the situation of the Druze in Syria and the possibility of offering military and humanitarian aid through the border with Jordan.

Dempsey apparently did not commit to U.S. action, although it is believed the issue may be considered positively in Washington. According to reports in the Arab media, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states have in recent months increased coordination and assistance to the anti-President Bashar Assad groups fighting in Syria.

Under attack

Nearly 450,000 out of the estimated 700,000 Druze in Syria live in the Jabal al-Druze region. The Druze there are concerned over assaults by the Sunni rebels from two directions: from the Southern Front – an alliance of rebel groups that includes the extremist Nusra Front – in the west; and, mainly, from Islamic State (also known as ISIS or ISIL) from the east.

Last week, after the takeover of its large military base west of Jabal al-Druze, the Syrian army’s 52nd Brigade collapsed and most of its forces fled the region and withdrew toward the capital, Damascus. Over the past few days, battles have been fought around the Sweida military airfield in the Jabal al-Druze area. The Druze are now trying to organize themselves in self-defense militias, utilizing weapons in the hands of local residents. However, these militias lack a command level and organization, as well as heavier weaponry. It seems that some of the defense efforts will rely on soldiers and officers who deserted the Syrian army.

The more extreme factions among the Sunni rebels are hostile to the Druze both because of their religion and the long-standing good relations between the Druze and Assad’s regime. The Druze hope they will be able to persuade the Southern Front not to move beyond Jabal al-Druze.

However, most of the concern among the Druze in Jabal al-Druze involves Islamic State to the east, in light of previous massacres carried out against the Yazidis in Iraq and the Kurds in Syria and Iraq.

Following last week’s massacre of some 20 Druze in a village in Idlib Province, the Nusra Front released a statement of regret over the weekend.

The group said it had received, with “great sorrow,” news of the incident in which “a number of Nusra Front members” had taken part without consulting their leaders.

All those involved would face trial in an Islamic court, it added. “Everyone involved in this incident will be presented to a sharia court and held to account for blood proven to have been spilt.”

The statement was circulated on a Nusra Front-affiliated Twitter feed. It did not give a casualty toll or describe what had happened in the incident.

Jumblatt also spoke about the Idlib incident. He claimed that the incident was connected to a local conflict and was not a focused attack on the Druze by the Syrian opposition.

Like other Lebanese leaders in the March 14 Alliance, Jumblatt expressed support for the opposition against Assad as the conflict began. As groups like Nusra Front and ISIS got stronger, however, these Lebanese leaders found themselves under attack. Now they are calling for a diplomatic solution.

With additional reporting by Reuters

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