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