Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Hizballah's Syria branch

In case you didn't know, Lebanese Hizballah has branched out in Syria. Now the Syrian branch has received a kinda official status by the regime-another sign for the rising influence of Iran on the regime. Ancient diplomat Ignace Levierr provides an analyses for Le Monde, where he operates the blog Un oeil sur la Syrie (which you should read on a regular basis if your French is better than mine).

Le Hizbollah syrien prend un caractère officiel by Ignace Leverrier, Le Mond Blog / Un oeil sur la Syrie

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

The Idlib Druze: An Example of Positive Coexistence? Really?

An article from The Syrian Observer about the Idlib Druze was sent to me by different sides last week. Information on this tiny community is rare these days - in fact I have not read a piece about them since the piece I published on MENA Minorities with Rami About Diab a year ago. Since then I have refrained from writing an update - the information is too vague. So I was looking forward to read about it in the Observer, even though the title made me raise an eyebrow.

The Druze of Idleb: An Example of Positive Coexistence
by Yahya Alous, The Syrian Observer

Idleb's Druze decided to stay and adapt to the newly emerging situation and go on with their day-to-day life like before
Life in the Druze villages in Idleb goes on nearly as normal. This reality has put an end to fears about the impossibility of coexistence under the new conditions arising in the area since the regime lost control of it. The Druze are traveling between opposition and regime-held areas through the security checkpoints of both parties, and are rarely harassed because of their religious affiliation or neutral position in the conflict. While it doesn’t appeal to the regime, the Druze people’s neutral stance allows them to live in acceptable conditions while in the middle of a kind of minefield that has surrounded them since the outbreak of events more than three years ago.
What exactly are the acceptable conditions here? What Alous is not telling us, is that the villages are supposed (I am lacking confirmation) to be at least mainly under the control of Jabhat an-Nusra since the SRF got kicked out of the region last October. What is nearly normal? Since one year Wahhabi preachers are active in at least one of the villages and hold friday prayers in the Druze prayer house. This is not normal at all. In fact it is a process of an attempted conversion to Sunni Islam.
Limited Emigration
Dozens of Druze families left the area for Suweida, the primary stronghold of the Druze in Syria.  But the vast majority of these villages’ residents decided to stay and adapt to the newly emerging situation and go on with their day-to-day life like before. Of course, many of the kidnappings and ransom demands made against the region’s sons were unrelated to any issues of sectarian affiliation, but were motivated by money. In fact, these events did not cause the residents to abandon their villages or evacuate en masse. That choice, in turn, paved the way for choices other than emigration, especially since thousands of displaced people from neighboring villages found these villages to be a place of refuge to escape the conflict, and they were received with great interest. 
Druze (like other minorities) are very much attached to their land-if whole families leave, they are likely to feel seriously endangered. Dozens of families leaving is a major blow to the structure of these small and economically weak villages.
Islamic Hijab as Substitute for the White Head Kerchief
Usually, religious Druze wear a white kerchief [on their heads], while for some it's not even a problem to leave their forehead visible.  The commitment to wearing the kerchief and the style of dress varies by age and region. In the villages of Idleb, it's rare to see an unveiled women because the religious teachings there are more extreme and conservative compared to other Druze areas. Since the outbreak of events in Syria, there have been a lot of changes concerning certain behaviors. For example, female students who used to have more freedom of dress and movement have now been obliged to wear the Islamic hijab instead of the white kerchief as a way of adapting to the new reality.
Taghreed, an 11-year-old girl, says that she prefers the white kerchief she used to wear on her head to the veil, but her family convinced her to wear the veil. Many of her friends did the same, and started wearing the veil younger than she had.  Makram, a university student from the region said that, “Since the start of events, Druze villagers have tended toward more fundamentalism, maybe as a reaction to sensing the growth of fundamentalist religious forces in their immediate vicinity. It is no longer possible to see an unveiled girl—whatever her age—or a girl going out alone, because severe restrictions have been imposed on the movement of people in these villages. Moreover, some women have been prevented from going alone to work or to universities for fear of being kidnapped.” Makram continued, saying that, “Before ISIS was expelled from the region, some of its members delivered messages saying that the group intended to force people in these areas to destroy some of the Druze villages’ holy shrines. This got people thinking about ways to move the shrines to avoid such threats. But a solution soon came at the hands of the Free Syrian Army factions that expelled ISIS from the region and took its place.”
Alous tries to explain the change in the clothing and the veiling of girls with "Druze villagers have tended toward more fundamentalism maybe as a reaction to sensing the growth of fundamentalist religious forces in their immediate vicinity". Really? The same people who a year ago felt compelled to abandon parts of their religion? It may have something to do with the radical Sunni fighters in the area… Btw Jabhat an-Nusra is not mentioned once in the whole text, neither the effect of the expulsion of the SRF, which had publicly reached out to the local Druze. Also missing is the context of the events a year ago, which have been widely published.
These villages were not living in a state of openness and freedom in the past. Rather, they were tightly controlled by traditions and customs, sometimes in the extreme. Many people see this fact as having enabled, in part, the residents to accept changes to their former lifestyle. Up to now even, this does not seem to be final. The region is still vulnerable to significant changes with developments of conditions in Syria in general. But for the moment it's still proof of the possibility of some kind of coexistence between the minority and the majority. It’s true that it’s not a perfect experiment, but at least it could lead to other developments, and to more openness and genuine coexistence.
With all respect to Yahya Alous, who's work has been cited here a few times, but in this regard his approach is selective and euphemistic. There is a difference between coexistence and submission. 
The Assad Regime Under Stress: Conscription and Protest among Alawite and Minority Populations in Syria by Christopher Kozak, Institute for the Study of War

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Vice report from Majdal Shams in the Golan Heights

The comeback of the SSNP as a "Christian party" in Syria

Syria Comment has an interesting piece about the Syrian Social Nationalist Party (SSNP) by Joel Veldkamp. The auther provides much information I have  been totally unaware of myself and portrays the party much as a Christian militia nowadays (even though the party is secular and one of its two main branches is led by Alawite state minister ʿAli Haidar). I really hope for a part 2 since many questions about the SSNP in contemporary Syria remain.

Resurgence of the SSNP in Syria: An Ideological Opponent of the Regime Gets a Boost from the Conflict by Joel Veldkamp, Syria Comment

Friday, December 12, 2014

Israel's Druze are drawn into the Israeli-Palestinian conflict

Recently the Israeli Druze have gained the attention of national and international media. This has mainly two reasons: The tragic death of two members of the community in the recent terror attacks in Jerusalem and  Muslim-Druze violence in the Galilee village of Abu Snan

Jadan As'ad (who is related to former Knesset-member As'ad As'ad), a border policeman from the village of Bait Jann, was killed when a Palestinian driver slammed into a light rail station on November 5. The other, Zidan Saif a policofficer from the village of Yanuh, was killed while he tried to rescue the inmates of the synagogue in Har Hof during the terror attack on November 18. His funeral was that of a national hero with hundrets of Haredim and President Reuven Rivlin in attendence.

Additionally, in the mixed village of Abu Snan (one of the few with a Muslim majority and a Druze minority) clashes between Muslim and Druze youth occured, which led to wounding 41 people. The Druze side was using live ammunition, including a hand granade. 

Caught between two worlds, Israeli Druze struggle for equality amid rising tensions 
by Ben Hartman, Religion News Service
Two weeks ago, more than 40 people were injured in a brawl between the two communities, most of them by a grenade thrown into a group of Muslim rioters.
Abu Snan, which is about half Muslim and a third Druze (the remainder Christians), has seen rising tension between Muslim Arab citizens of Israel and their Druze neighbors — adherents of a monotheistic and secretive religion whose roots lie in Islam, but today forms a distinct faith. (...)
Locals in the village were reluctant to speak on the record or acknowledge that there was rising tension between the two communities. Local Council Head Nuhad Mishlav, a Druze, said relations were fine and the brawl was simply a personal dispute between two local men — one Druze and one Muslim — that spiraled out of control after one stabbed the other at a local cafÃ5/8. When asked about Druze-Muslim fights in the local high school, which have reportedly broken out for political reasons, he blamed Facebook and other social media, which he said students use to spread gossip and insults among their classmates.
“For generations we’ve had great relations with each other here, but this younger generation is violent,” he said. “There is real fear here and more so at night.”
The fear was palpable at the home of Bilal Taha, a Muslim man whose son Najib was badly wounded by shrapnel in his legs, groin and back after the grenade was thrown into the crowd of Muslims. Neither Bilal nor Najib admitted that there are frayed ties between Druze and Muslims. One of Bilal’s relatives was the Muslim man stabbed in the cafÃ5/8 fight that sparked the brawl and Bilal said he saw it as a personal dispute that spun out of control.
But he added that if police did not arrest the man who threw the grenade and if the Muslim man still hospitalized in critical condition dies, things would again become violent, possibly worse than before. (...)
Druze, Muslims clash over ties with Israel
Shlomi Eldar, Al Monitor

An explosion waiting to happen in Abu Snan
Yaron London, Y-Net

Analysis || Israeli Arab society is splintered, without any room for hope
Jack Khoury, Haaretz

Abu Snan Residents Demand Arrests Over Grenade Incident
Noa Shpigel, Haaretz

Friday, December 5, 2014

Two reading tips on Alawites in Syria

The first is a mere brief article in Foreign Affairs, which aims to present the Alawite community as a non-monolithic. The author argues, that even though discontent is growing "Assad still has the support he needs from Alawite families". I want to add that reports about sporadic tensions are circulating are not so new, they have been circulating at least for over two years.

Not Alright With Syria's Alawites by Oula Abdulhamid Alrifai, Foreign Affairs

The second is a recent academic article, which pretty much summarizes the existing scholarly work and discusses the change of Alawite identity from the Ottomans over the French to the current state. There is not much in depth  research on the Alawites, which makes this piece even more valuable (found on Twitter via @aron_ld).

Sectarianism in Alawi Syria: Exploring theParadoxes of Politics and Religion by Aslam Farouk-Alli, Journal of Muslim Minority Affairs, Vol. 34, 3 2014.

Thursday, December 4, 2014

Conference Videos: Where is the Middle East heading?

Below are the videos (it's both English and German) of the recent conference "Where is the Middle East heading? Ethno-religious minorities between persecution and self-determination" which was jointly organized by the Moses Mendelssohn Center at the University of Posdam, the Orient Institut Beirut and the Lepsiushaus Potsdam. The conference was hold at the European Academy Berlin:

My presentation in German about the current situation of the Druze in Syria starts at 2:35:00

Keynote: Nationalism, nation-states, minority rights, and historical identities in the post-Ottoman space

Panel I: Frühes 20. Jahrhundert, Erster Weltkrieg und Neugliederung des Nahen Ostens/Early 20th century, World War 1 and new order in the Middle East

Panel II Part1 & Part: 2 Minderheiten, Verfolgung und politische Interaktion/Minorities, persecution and political interaction

Panel III: Minderheiten, Konflikte und neue Einflüsse/Minorities, conflicts and new impacts

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

First hand account of situation in Suwaida

An interesting series of first hand reports about the developments in Suwaida between 2011 and 2013 can be found at Al-Jumhuriya. It‘s a rare source and strongly recommended for everyone who has an interest in Syria's minorities. The articles are a preview of a forthcoming reader on minorities in Syria since 2011 by the German Friedrich Ebert Stiftung, which will present accounts from members of various communities.

Sweida: The Static Revolution by Mazen Ezzi part 2 part 3

Sunday, November 30, 2014

Conference on minorities in the Middle East, in Berlin November 30 - December 2

Today starts the very promising conference "Where is the Middle East heading? Ethno-religious minorities between persecution and self-determination" at the European Academy in Berlin. The very promising program features many household names as speakers including Shlomo Aveneri (political science professor and once director-general of the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs) and scholars whose work was already mentioned on this blog like Thomas Scheffler, Birgit Schäbler and Friederike Stolleis. I will present a paper myself about the current situation of the Druze on Tuesday.

The whole conference can also be viewed via livestream.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Ebenfalls zum Thema Minderheiten in der Türkei gibt es eine interessante Reportage des zenith-Chefredakteurs Christian Meier. Zusammen mit dem Fotografen Andy Spyra hat er den Tur Abdin, eines der wichtigsten Zentren des frühen Christentums, besucht. Wie die Christen hatten auch die Jesiden diese Gegend an der Grenze zu Syrien und dem Irak fast vollständig verlassen, jetzt gibt es wieder Jesiden im Tur Abdin - sie sind vor dem IS aus dem Irak geflohen.

Flucht ins Land der frühen Christen von Christian Meier, Welt-Sichten

Monday, November 17, 2014

Ein Artikel über die aktuelle Situation des orientalischen Christtentums im Allgemeinen und der Situation in der Türkei im Speziellen kommt vom Standard-Kolumnisten Hans Rauscher, der schon öfters sein Interesse an der Materie angedeutet hat. Auch wenn sich ab und an ein paar kleine Unschärfen eingeschlichen haben auf jeden Fall lesenswert, besonders weil schlüssig veranschaulicht wird warum Erdogan von den Christen vorsichtig positiv bewertet wird:

Christentum im Nahen Osten: "Ganze Zivilisation wird entwurzelt" von Hans Rauscher, Der Standard

Monday, November 3, 2014

An in deph report about the current dynamics in Lebanon's Bekaa-valley (covering the Situation in both Shia and Christian villages) can be found at the NYT:

Sectarian Wedge Pushes From Syria Into Lebanon by Anne Bernard, The New York Times 

Thursday, October 30, 2014

Interview with Arab-Christian Knesset-member

Interview with Basil Ghatas at Al Monitor, who represents the Arab-nationalist Balad-party and is one of two (the other being Hanna Swaid/Hadash) Christian MK's. Btw, I had no idea that he is related to Amzi Bishara, the controversal founder of Balad, who now lives in Qatar after he was investigated for spying on behalf of Hizballah.

Friday, October 24, 2014

German TV on Syriac Military Council

A German Tv-team embedded with the chief the the Syriac Military Council (SMC) in Syria's Hasaka province, where the militia fights alongside the Kurdish YPG (in fact the SMC is part of the PYD) against the self proclaimed Islamic State. The militia-chief is a Swiss national of Assyrian heritage (from the Tessin, where many Assyrians live) by the name of Jacob Kosar. He is the former Swiss soldier in charge of the SMC's military training, who was mentioned before on this blog. Kosar estimates the manpower of the militia at 500 and you can also get an idea while watching of how antique the weapons of the SMC are.

Edit: Here you can find the article in the German weekly Die Zeit which was produced during the same journey. 
Suwayda residents speak out against military service 
by Syria Direct 
ENOUGH IS ENOUGH: Pro-regime activists took to the streets of the Druze-majority city of Suwayda to distribute pamphlets condemning the mounting death toll among Suwayda's young men performing mandatory service in the regime army, reported pro-opposition Orient News Wednesday.
Here, a pamphlet reads “Enough is enough...the sons of Suwayda are being murdered in A-Raqqa and elsewhere...for whose sake...until when...the chair [of power] is for you [Bashar al-Assad]...and the tomb is for our sons,” while women in the picture to the left mourn over their deceased relatives.
The discontent with mandatory military service articulated in these pamphlets has surfaced in other pro-regime areas. Alawite activists—co-religionists of president Bashar al-Assad—distributed pamphlets in the Alawite-majority city of Tartus in August, reading “the chair for you [Assad], the coffins for our children,” referring to the disproportionate number of Alawites who have died in the war thus far.(...)
For an report from September about protests among Alawites see here

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Rare Article about Lebanon's Jewry

The prestigious Foreign Affairs has a rare report about Lebanon's Jewry and takes a look at the renovation of Beirut's oldest synagoge. The article features a lot of fascinating details and I strongly recommend reading.

Lebanon's Jewish Revival by Adam Rasmi, Foreign Affairs

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Christian Population Trends

I found this very surprising table by Philip Connor and Conrad Hackett from the Pew Reasearch Center a few days ago on Twitter via Daniel Neep. According to their work, the Christian population in the Middle East (Iran and Turkey are not included) is in fact growing in numbers but much slower than the Muslim majority. Of course the post-2011 events are not included here but I expected a different trend still. Btw who would have assumed that the share of Protestants among Middle Eastern Christians is as high as 7%?

Read the full piece here

Monday, October 13, 2014

The August events in Suwaidaʾ and their implications

After a period of relative calm in the overwhelming Druze province of Suwaidaʾ the situation dramatically changed in the middle of last August. The villages of Dama (and Dair Dama) were attacked by a group of local Bedouin.

Al Monitor reported that the attack came after local NDF members had responded with targeting Bedouin gatherings to the beheading of a Druze man. The Bedouin were allegedly joined by rebel elements, according to some reports from al-Qaʿida affiliated Jabhat an-Nusra. The number of the casualties on the Druze side differs from 12 to 24 and reportedly includes a high number of religious sheikhs (according to opposition outlet Zaman alWasl even seven). Harming religious people (ʿuqqal) is generally a red line for the Druze. This was illustrated in April 2014, when the arrest of a sheikh led to rare public protests in Suwaidaʾ and temporary a precarious situation for the regime. However, as Aymenn al-Tamimi has pointed out over at Syria Comment, the local Jaysh al-Muwahhidin militias are (I would add mostly) composed of sheikhs - therefore the high number of the latter among the casualties is easily explained.

A multidimensional conflict

It is important to note, that the attack was led by local Bedouin who were most likely only joined by elements of Jabhat an-Nusra or other groups. Therefore we should see the events of August in the context of a long pending conflict between (Druze) peasants and (Sunni) Bedouin. Secondly, this "classic" peasantry-Bedouin conflict obviously has also a sectarian dimension, due to the fact that the religious affiliation of both groups is clear cut. Thirdly, while the roots of the conflict are older, it had been again ignited by the civil war. Whereas in 2011 the first anti-regime protests were in Daraʿ, Suwaidaʾ, with it's Druze majority and small Christian and Bedouin minority, is until now seen as a regime stronghold.

Roots of the conflict: The year 2000 (1)

What I describe above as a classical peasantry-Bedouin conflict - i.e. Bedouin sheeps penetrating cultivation areas because of a dry period - turned deadly in the year 2000. Five to ten were killed and 150 to 200 wounded - most of them Druze - in clashes during that period. The 2000 conflict also clearly had sectarian features e.g. when a Druze graveyard was desecrated. The situation turned out the be the first real test for newly "elected" president Bashar al-Assad, who sent tanks to the province to enforce calm. To prevent a spreading of the conflict to the greater Damascus area, where a big share of Syria's Druze population lives, the regime closed the main road between Suwaidaʾ and Damascus. Analogous, in August 2014 Suwaidaʾ was cut off from the internet. Overall in 2000 the regime succeeded in freezing the conflict - especially because it was able to use its influence over the religious leadership.

It seems that after 2000 a widespread feeling of bitterness remained in Suwaidaʾ. Most of the casualties had been Druze and the regime was rather trying to calm the situation, than clearly siding with the Druze. As a consequence of the 2000 unrest, the regime and co-opted leaders increased control at all levels to a degree, which led to a brain drain to Damascus or overseas.

"Rebel" Daraʿ and "regime" Suwaidaʾ

When the protests against the regime of Bashar al-Assad turned into an armed uprising it quickly became clear that the majority of both populations were on opposing sides: It was in Sunni Daraʿ where the anti-regime protests started and were brutally oppressed, while in Suwaidaʾ no large scale anti-regime activity was taking place. Even though the Druze religious leadership, especially the three mashaykh al-ʿaqlrefrained from publicly voicing strong support for the regime, the Druze population became the target of kidnappings by rebel forces in Daraʿ. Although shaykh al-ʿaql al-Hinnawi had succeeded in negotiating an exchange of hostages with elders from the neighboring province and emphasized the historical ties between the two entities, the kidnappings have never fully stopped. These, together with sporadic rebel activity in Suwaidaʾ, especially in the border region, has contributed to a far-reaching animosity between Sunnis and Druze. In response to the attack on Dama, Bedouins have reportedly been driven out of several villages in Suwaidaʾ.

The Druze demand weapons

Hundreds assembled in Suwaidaʾ city demanding weapons from the regime to fight against the Bedoun. The demand was also supported by at least one of three mashaykh al-ʿaql. Armament of Druze militias was denied by the regime, which hinted that the Syrian army is free for everyone to join.

Private footage from the funeral, which looks more like a protest
video via Leverrier Ignace

Against widespread belief it turns out to be clear, that the Druze population of Suwaidaʾ is not under arms. Existing militias, which are mostly operating under the NDF umbrella, appear to be overstated concerning their manpower (it's no coincidence that most pictures of Jaysh al-Muwahhidin are from the Jabal Shaykh region and not from Suwaidaʾ). It is true that there are militias set up by some sheikhs but they are reportedly only possessing light weapons i.e. most likely some Kalashnikov rifles.

TV report about funeral ceremony

The regime's refusal of arming the Druze of Suwaidaʾ raises suspicion about its attitude towards the Druze. A militarized Druze body is not wanted - simply because the Druze sheikhs are not considered loyal enough. The events of April, when Druze sheikhs protested in Suwaidaʾ, have clearly illustrated that Druze loyalty is not for granted.

One doesn't have to be a prophet to predict, that the lack of military support will not contribute to increase the regime's popularity in Suwaidaʾ. My assumption that this is the low point in regime-Druze relations since 2011 is supported by the fact, that al-Assad's staunchest Druze ally felt so devastated, that he voiced his retreat from Syrian politics. We are talking about Wiʾam Wahhab of course.

Wiʾam Wahhab "quits Syria" and is brought back by ʿIssam Zahar ad-Din

The activities of Lebanese politician of Wiʾam Wahhab and his Arab Tawhid Party in Syria have been a subject on this blog before. It was this rather marginal Lebanese party, which last year officially acknowledged it's activities in Syria as the second Lebanese party to do so (the first was Hizballah of course).

On more than one occasion before the August events, Wahhab had threatened with arming the Druze of Suwaidaʾ if they were attacked. When the public demand for weapons was voiced after the attack, he couldn't deliver. He even desperately tried to involve Lebanon's Druze leaders Walid Junblat and Talal Arslan - an attempt which was rejected out of hand. Wahhab voiced his retreat from the Syrian scene to save his face and keep some reliability. In fact he declared that after the death of four members of the Tawhid Party during the attack on Dama his party will stop its activities in Syria and close its offices.

Major Gen. ʿIssam Zahar ad-Din (middle) 

What happened next is truly remarkable. The regime - my assumption - recognized that it still needs Wahhab, because he is the most reliable Druze leader. If he is gone, who knows who will fill the vacuum? To calm the situation in Suwaidaʾ and to iron out the differences with Wahhab, the regime draw for the only other trusted prominent worldly Druze, ʿIssam Zahar ad-Din, a Major General of the Republican Guard and native of Suwaidaʾ. Zahar ad-Din has the reputation of a warhorse and has fought on nearly every major frontline of the civil war. He enjoys broad popularity in pro-regime circles, especially among Druze. In 2013 the General was singled out by a group of minor Druze clerics, as someone who deserves death - a very unusual step. He currently commands the airport of Dair az-Zur, an enclosed enclave besieged by the Islamic State. The fact that he appeared in Suwaidaʾ, wearing civilian clothes caused suspicion that Assad might had given up Dair az-Zur. However, it became quickly obvious that the General was neither on a courtesy visit nor on furlough but mediating on behalf of Assad. At the end Wahhab declared to open his party offices again and everything returned to business as usual - at least for the moment.

 Wahhab with Zahar ad-Din in Suwaidaʾ and Wahhab after his "return" flanked by two mashaykh al-ʿaql Hikmat al-Hajari (left) and Yusuf Jarbuʿ (right)

A rather pessimistic outlook

The situation in Suwaidaʾ will get worse, because some Druze will seek revenge after the attack on Dama where several sheikhs were killed. There are reportedly both, members of the clergy and (minor) worldly leaders, who encourage such desire. To make things worse, two weeks after the attack on Dama a roadside bomb targeted a coach on the road between Dama and ʿAriqa. According to pro-regime media five civilians were killed and more wounded.

It will strongly depend on shaykh al-ʿaql al-Hinnawi's ability and willingness, if a
military mobilization among the Druze can be contained in the time to come. A mobilization would lead to an escalation of the situation between Daraʿ and Suwaidaʾ. So far a more moderate line seems to have gained the upper hand, also because a further escalation is not in the regime's interest. This might be mostly due to the fact that the men of Suwaidaʾ are badly needed on the front lines all over the country.

The Druze in Suwaidaʾ don't feel only threatened by Jabhat an-Nusra from Daraʿ in the west but also by the Islamic State from the dessert in the east. Even though the latter fear is mere diffuse and used by media close to the regime to keep the Druze in line. The Islamic State itself has other priorities for now and there is no evidence of its activity in Suwaidaʾ.

The Dama events have brought ʿIssam Zahar ad-Din into politics, by now one can not tell if his mediation was a single action or the start of a communal career but it is clear that he is a potential political force to be reckon with. It is also obvious that Wiʾam Wahhab is not coming out empowered of the whole affair. His image is certainly seriously damaged, which suggests that the already existing power vacuum among the Syrian Druze will only widen. The current situation poses an opportunity for figures from traditional families like al-Atrash and especially religious sheikhs other than the mashaykh al-ʿaql to gain more influence. A man to look out for is sheikh Abu Fahad Wahid Balus, who has emerged as a counterweight to the mashaykh al-ʿaql during the protests in April and seems to be somewhat of a milita leader as well.

Newly emerged Druze leader sheikh Abu Fahad Wahid Balus
(video via Rami Abou Diab)

(1) I'm following Birgit Schäbler's account of the 2000 events; see Schäbler, Birgit: Constructing an Identity between Arabism and Islam: The Druzes in Syria, in: The Muslim World, Volume 103, Issue 1, pages 62–79, January 2013.

Report about discrimination against Israeli Druze

An interesting feature about discrimination against Druze in Israel comes from Israeli international news channel i24news. It features two Druze personalities who had a successful career in the Israeli public: former diplomat and Shinui-MK Zaidan 'Atashi and former TV-journalist Rafiq Halabi, the current mayor of Daliat al-Karmal. Both are remarkably explicit in their criticism.


Thursday, September 11, 2014

Panic in Jaramana

The frontline in the suburbs of Damascus is coming closer to Jaramana, which is inhabited by a large number of Druze and Christians. The city had in 2009 around 190.000 inhabitants but the actual number must be way higher since many refugees live there. The city was also home to a sizeable number of mainly Christian refugees from Iraq but I don't know if they are still there. According to opposition site All4Syria many Druze have fled from Jaramana to still relatively safe Suwaida. 

A translated version of the All4Syria article can be found at The Syrian Observer:
The events of the night of Saturday, 6 September in Dweilaa, Kashkool and Jaramana, in Damascus, when opposition fighters entered the Dukhania neighborhood, were traumatic for all who witnessed them.
Thousands of people fled their houses minutes after the attack begun, running through the streets of Kashkool, carrying all that they could to Dweilaa or Jaramana.
Upon arriving in Jaramana, panic spread among the people of the neighborhood and they too also left their homes, heading to Suweida in the south of the country. The people of Dweilaa started to leave their homes as soon as those fleeing Kashkool arrived, joining crowds of those escaping the scene, which lasted for more than two hours.
Assad troops and People Protection Committees then intervened to calm those fleeing the assault. Despite the messages of reassurance sent through mobile phones, and the arrival of military reinforcements, as well as direct TV broadcasts from Jaramana intended to calm people down, many residents of the neighborhood were seen carrying their luggage and heading to Damascus and further.(...)
In fact, half of the people of Dweilaa and Kashkool have left their homes, and some are still leaving to safer areas. The people of Jaramana escaped to Suweida, the relatively safe Druze area.
In order to calm down people and encourage them to stay, water and electricity were not cut from these neighborhoods during the night.

Monday, September 8, 2014

More on Christian militias

Christians mobilize against Mideast menace by Associated Press

Current situation on both sides of the Golan Heights

Israel 'cooperating with Assad' in Golan Heights 
by Kate Shuttleworth, DW
The recent seizure of the Quneitra border crossing by Islamist extremists fighting Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's forces marked a major escalation in the impact Syria's civil war has had on Israel. Fighters from the Nusra Front, al Qaeda's branch in Syria, expelled Assad's forces from the area and abducted 43 United Nations peacekeepers in the process. That brought the Islamist extremists within yards of Israeli positions, forcing Israel to close their side of Quneitra crossing and order farmers off agricultural land on the border. (...)
Israel prepares to accept Syrian refugees
Until now Israel has largely refused to accept any Syrians displaced by the civil war, and neighboring countries Lebanon, Syria, and Turkey have shouldered the burden of taking in the now three million refugees. But Israel has treated a small number of Syrians in its hospitals, sending them back to Syria as soon as they have regained their health.
But there are indications that that policy could change. Doulan Abu Saleh, mayor of Majdal Shams, home to 20,000 Syrian Druze and the largest Druze town in Israeli-occupied Golan Heights, told DW that Israeli army officials had ordered him to begin preparing for the arrival of Syrian Druze refugees. The first refugees are expected to come from Syrian border communities such as Hadar, which lies right on the UN buffer zone just outside the occupied areas of the Golan Heights, he said.x
Life has become increasingly dangerous for the predominantly Druze community living under rebel control, and Hadar-based Druze have taken up arms to defend themselves against the Nusra Front.

"Sometimes we speak with our relatives on the other side of Syria and we hear that they're under pressure and there were some casualties among our Druze brothers in Syria," said Abu Saleh. (...)
Journalist Patrick O. Strickland presents a rather opposing approach at Middle East Eye arguing that Residents in occupied Golan Heights fear creeping Israeli presence.

Residents in occupied Golan Heights fear creeping Israeli presence - See more at:
Residents in occupied Golan Heights fear creeping Israeli presence - See more at:
Residents in occupied Golan Heights fear creeping Israeli presence - See more at:

Aramean nationalism in Israel

I have touched the phenomenon of Aramean nationalism among Israel's Christians population  - which is kinda connected with the attempts of recruiting Christians into the IDF - here and here already. Now Haaretz features an article about it but disappoints for mainly two reasons: No mention that Aramean nationalism in Israel is foremost found among the tiny Maronite community (not all Christians) and no discussion of the active part the state is playing in these regards.

Israeli Christian community, neither Arab nor Palestinian, are fighting to save identity by Judy Maltz, Haaretz

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Christian militias in Syria & Iraq

Readers of this blog might remember, that the case of Swiss nationals fighting in Syria for the YPG-affiliated Syriac Military Council had been a topic here already. Now German magazine Focus published a report about this approximately 10 fighters and the support they are receiving from the neutral country.

„Kampf ist christliche Pflicht“ Kreuzzug gegen den Terror: Schweizer Christen ziehen gegen IS in den Krieg by Focus Online

A very great article by Rania Abouzei for National Geographic deals with the current political situation of the Christians in northern Iraq, including it's leadership, plans for autonomy and the recent phenomena of Christian militias, even though their establishment is (so far) rather symbolic. The latter is a huge difference to the passivity of the Christians during the civil war after the fall of Saddam Hussain, when the Christians reacted with passivity to persecution. This shift is also reflected by the contacts of the Assyrian Democratic Movement with the Lebanese Forces, the primarily Christian militia during the Lebanese civil war:

Iraqi Christians Weigh Taking Up Arms Against the Islamic State          
by Rania Abouzei, National Geographic
(...)The Assyrian Patriotic Party, one of several Assyrian political organizations, has armed and dispatched a symbolic, rather than an active, force of some 40 members to join the Kurdish Peshmerga fighting the IS in the northwest of Iraq, according to party official Henry Sarkis.(...)
Still, it marks a significant shift in the attitude of Iraq's Christians, a shift that's fraught with peril.
Since 2003, Iraq's Christian community has been viewed by other Iraqis as a passive victim of the country's many conflicts, not an active aggressor.
Taking up arms will make the Christians direct participants, armed targets who pose military rather than just ideological opposition to ultraconservative Islamist groups.
Sarkis acknowledges this but said his party is prepared to accept the consequences. "We're being killed in our homes, so why not defend ourselves? Then even if we die, we die with dignity," he said. "We didn't want to reach this point—we just want to live in our areas."
Before 2003, Iraq held about 1.5 million Christians. The number today is fewer than 500,000, say community leaders, the majority having been driven out by war and all the trouble it inflicts and breeds, including corruption and insecurity.(...)
Long-term Plans
In another part of Dahuk, behind the high concrete walls of the Assyrian Democratic Movement's headquarters, the local branch leader, Farid Yacoub, 42, says his party too is moving to arm its men.
It is registering volunteers, having gathered more than 2,000 names from the Dahuk governorate alone. But unlike Assyrian Patriotic Party leaders, Yacoub is recruiting men to protect Christian areas after they've been won back from the IS and its allies.
The intention is not to participate in the battle to reclaim those areas. "We have lots who are volunteering, who want to fight, but we don't have the means to arm them," he said.
The party doesn't want Christian villages such as Al Hamdaniyah (Qaraqosh) to be controlled or protected by the Peshmerga after they've been reclaimed. "Our people don't trust them any more," Yacoub said.
There's a bigger issue here. Nineveh has long been caught in a conflict between the central government in Baghdad and the semiautonomous Kurdish region in the north.
Some Christians on the Nineveh Plains have pushed to govern themselves, but Kurdistan also has claims on their territory and wants to absorb it into its zone.
Earlier this year, long before the country descended into the current level of mayhem and fragmentation, Baghdad "agreed in principle" to turn the Nineveh Plains, as well as two other areas, Fallujah and Tuzkhurmatu, into provinces. This would enable the Christians to manage their own affairs and secure an independent share of the national budget.
The Assyrian Democratic Movement doesn't want the Nineveh Plains to be part of Kurdistan, but Sarkis said his Assyrian Patriotic Party does.
Sarkis's men are working with the Peshmerga, independent of the national government's recent call for volunteers to fight the IS.
"Let's be honest," he said. "When the [Shiite-led] government asked for volunteers, it's because the war is sectarian, between Shiites and Sunnis. They didn't volunteer to protect Christians. They did so to fight Sunnis."
Yacoub, on the other hand, is not working with the Peshmerga and said his men are waiting for the central government to train and arm them, though with the proviso that they return to their areas.
"Our men said they were worried because they didn't want to defend areas other than theirs. We want to defend areas where our people are, specifically the Nineveh Plains," Yacoub said. "We're nationalists, but the circumstances that Iraq is living through now necessitate that we have a safe place, a place for us."
Turning to Lebanon's Christians
Of all the dwindling Christian communities in the Middle East in recent times, only the Lebanese have picked up arms during civil turmoil. Lebanese Christians battled not only Muslims but also each other during their country's brutal 15-year civil war, which ended in 1990.
Duraid Tobiya, the adviser to the Nineveh governor, is also a member of Yacoub's Assyrian Democratic Movement. He said that since the fall of Mosul, his party had received a delegation from the Lebanese Forces, a militia turned political party, and had also sent representatives to Lebanon twice to meet with the party.

He didn't elaborate about the nature of the meetings, saying only that "we want to benefit from their experience. We explained our situation, and they explained their experience in Lebanon." He added, "We might proceed with some things, apply them on the ground."(...)

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Samih al-Qasim 1939-2014

Besides of Mahmud Darwish, Samih al-Qasim was the most prominent Palestinian "poet of the resistance" but far more radical and unforgiving than the former. He was born 1939 in az-Zarqa (then Transjordan) into a Druze family from Rama, a mixed village in the Galilee, where his family returned to prior of 1948. Some would argue his radicalism compared to Darwish is due to his heritage - which may kinda forced forced him to prove his nationalism even more because of the perception of the Druze as collaborators with Israel - but honestly I am not convinced.

Although al-Qasim was very secular and a long time member of the Communist Party, he had never hidden his Druze background. In 1960 he was one of the first Druze who were imprisoned for refusing conscription into the IDF and later he was very active to mobilize support for the Communist Party and the anti-conscription movement among his fellow Druze in Israel.

He died last week in Safad at the age of 75. Samih al-Qasim was one of the last, maybe the last, icons of the Arab left in Israel.

 with Yasir Arafat & George Habash in the 80's

 recent picture with poet and former Hadash-activist Salman Natur (left) and Rafiq Halabi, former TV journalist and now mayor of Daliyat al-Karmal

Friday, August 22, 2014

Is this Walid Junblat's very own answer to IS?

Analyzing and even just following the events concerning religious minorities in the MENA is not all fun these days-it's often depressing, but one man lately put a little badly needed humor in it: Walid Junblat. Lebanon's by far most influential Druze leader is not only the head of a socialist party, a former militia leader and a feudal lord - apart from these he has somehow the reputation of a playboy. Honestly, I am not really interested in such gossip especially since it dates back decades. However, in the light of all the domestic problems and the threat by IS, Junblat seriously took time to welcome the competitors of the Lebanese edition of reality TV series Topmodel to his castle of Mukhtara in the Shuf mountains.

Since Junblat had been referred to as Hugh Hefner on Twitter, it reminded me of one of his most interesting interviews, which was published 1984 in the Playboy Magazine. Junblat, it seems, loves to play with his playboy-image.

Edit: Junblat wrote a self ironic and bit hilarious letter to Now. about the visit of the models.

Thursday, August 7, 2014

The Yazidi tragedy in Iraq

In contrast to the case of the Christians, which is more an expulsion, what is happening now to the Yazidis clearly has genocidal features. Other minorities like the Shabak might be next.

One of the best overviews comes from Matthew Barber (also read his piece on the expulsion of Mosul's Christians) for Syria Comment:

Some round-up:

In a major defeat for Kurdish forces the Iraqi town of Sinjar was captured Sunday by the group known as ISIS, now calling itself the Islamic State. This is the Kurds first major loss to ISIS and a catastrophe for the religious minorities who had taken refuge in the area and are now at imminent risk of being slaughtered.
Reports from the region describe an unfolding tragedy with young women being abducted, religious monuments destroyed, and the ISIS flag now hanging over government buildings.
Without Western champions and sympathizers, the non-Christian religious minorities of Nineveh province are being slowly exterminated, driven off, or forced into hiding.
The Sinjar mountain area is a ring of villages and one of the few true homes for the Yezidi people. The Yezidi’s ancient faith, which combines elements of Christianity, Sufi Islam, and Zoroastrianism, is considered heretical by ISIS and puts them at great risk. Of the 300,000 who live in this district, most have left in the last 24 hours and the rest are desperately trying to find a way out with aid organizations in Iraq saying that a humanitarian disaster of epic scale is currently unfolding. (...)
Sinjar holds strategic importance to ISIS because it’s a border town that gives the group a direct line of attack against the Kurdish forces it is currently fighting in Syria. Caught in the middle of this struggle are the minority communities of Ninewa province: The Turkmen, The Shabak, The Christians, the Shia, The Kaka'i and, in the case of Sinjar, the Yezidis. (...)
Iraqi Yazidis stranded on isolated mountaintop begin to die of thirst 
by Loveday Morris, The Washington Post
Stranded on a barren mountaintop, thousands of minority Iraqis are faced with a bleak choice: descend and risk slaughter at the hands of the encircled Sunni extremists or sit tight and risk dying of thirst.
Humanitarian agencies said Tuesday that between 10,000 and 40,000 civilians remain trapped on Mount Sinjar since being driven out of surrounding villages and the town of Sinjar two days earlier. But the mountain that had looked like a refuge is becoming a graveyard for their children.
Unable to dig deep into the rocky mountainside, displaced families said they have buried young and elderly victims of the harsh conditions in shallow graves, their bodies covered with stones. Iraqi government planes attempted to airdrop bottled water to the mountain on Monday night but reached few of those marooned.
“There are children dying on the mountain, on the roads,” said Marzio Babille, the Iraq representative for the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF). “There is no water, there is no vegetation, they are completely cut off and surrounded by Islamic State. It’s a disaster, a total disaster.” (...)
Babille, UNICEF’s Iraq representative, said that U.N. agencies have offered the Iraqi government technical assistance with airdrops but have yet to be asked for help. At least 15 to 20 flights would be needed just to provide those stranded with enough water and supplies to survive for a week, he said.
“We need to get them out,” he said. “If we don’t, it would be catastrophic.
A good piece in German, which also briefly introduces main features of the Yazidi religion: 

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

At Syria Comment Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi provides a solid overview about current militia-related minority dynamics in Syria briefly touching Alawites (including muqawama as-Suriya), Druze and Christians (in a SSNP- and an Assyrian context).

Minority Dynamics in Syria by Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi, Syria Comment

Thursday, July 24, 2014

New Christian militas in Lebanon

Watchmen guard Ras Baalbek against attacks 
by Hikmat Samhan, The Daily Star 
“I haven’t gone up for three years,” he said. “There are no guarantees. Our east is occupied by Daesh.”
Samhan, a senior resident of Ras Baalbek, was using the Arabic acronym of the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS), the Al-Qaeda splinter group that has declared a “caliphate” last month in parts of Iraq and Syria.
Now the village, a few kilometers north of Arsal, has set up watch posts to track and guard against Syrian rebels hiding in the nearby hills on the border with Syria. If they attack, the village’s defenders can fight them off for a spell, Samhan said.
“Then the village will have woken and the Army would have woken, and maybe help would come from Hezbollah, because wherever they show up Hezbollah shows up,” he said.
Ras Baalbek is only a few kilometers from Syria, bordered by a lawless mountain range. Its 10,000 residents are overwhelmingly Christian.
But the village’s modest effort at self-defense and the anxieties of its residents shed light on the broader fears of Christians in the region, faced with ascendant extremism that threatens their ancestral homes.
It also offers a glimpse as to why many Christians in Lebanon are still allied with Hezbollah, despite, or because of, the party’s intervention in the Syrian civil war against radical Syrian rebel groups.
The defense of the village on a daily basis falls to men like Rifaat Nasrallah and other Ras Baalbek residents who have taken up meager arms to defend themselves against what they described as raids by ISIS.
Nasrallah, who was wounded in the first rocket attack to hit the village in January, is a member of the Resistance Brigades, an armed wing that was initially created by Hezbollah to incorporate non-Shiites who wished to join in the fight against Israel. (...)