Sinking Ship

Assad Is Losing His Troops

A major minority sect in Syria doesn't want to fight for an imperiled regime, and could be critical in deciding the next phase of the civil war.

06.21.15 4:01 AM ET

A quiet insurrection against the Assad regime has been building for the past year in the Syrian province of Sweida, home to the bulk of the country’s minority Druze population. The rebellion reached a crescendo this week when a prominent religious figure declared that the Druze were no long obliged to serve in the Syrian Arab Army—a development that poses a major threat to the teetering regime of Bashar al-Assad, which has long been losing soldiers to defections and desertions and more recently been losing ground to an increasingly more organized and effective rebel force.

Over the course of the Syrian civil war, religious minorities have proved instrumental to the resilience of the regime, which used the support of Alawites, Christians and Druze to bolster its claims of legitimacy inside and outside the country. While that remains true today, Druze seem to be pushing for a different reality than the one Assad imposed on minorities for his own survival. Depending on how the regime manages the situation, a mass Druze abandonment of the regime could prove pivotal in the how the war progresses from here.

The discontent in Sweida began in earnest during the sham presidential “election” held June 2014, when the regime sought to bolster its domestic support by cajoling minority groups to rally on its behalf. Clerics marched from the Ain al-Zaman shrine, one of the Druze’s most revered places of worship, to protest against the use of Druze religious imagery to promote Assad. The clerics asked for the sacking of the military security chief in the province and proclaimed that Druze represented only their sect and should not be labelled as backers of the regime.

Conditions only grew worse late last month when when locals in Sweida bridled at the arrests of young Druze to force them to serve in the military. Small-scale clashes with the security forces also took place in December in several towns over forced conscription. Last week, Assad issued a desperate plea for young Druze to defend their province from rebel attacks. The decree also stipulated that those who join the army from Sweida would not be required to serve outside their areas—a remarkable compromise from Damascus, which has rarely caved to popular demand.

If Assad was hoping that this conciliatory gesture would be sufficient to keep the Druze on side, he was badly mistaken. Sheikh Abu Fahad Wahid Balous, one of Sweida’s prominent religious leaders, defied the plea on Saturday and declared that no Druze should be obligated to join the army. “We have ended mandatory conscription,” Balous said to a cheering crowd in a video posted online. “It is strictly forbidden for young men to be picked up by force from their homes, a street or a checkpoint, whether they are of conscription age or wanted for desertion or for reserve duty.” In December, Druze opposition member Jabr al-Shoufi told the Saudi-owned newspaper Asharq al-Awsat that Druze clerics forbade funeral prayers for those who die fighting with the regime.

Estimates of the number of Druze who have deserted or refused to join the Syrian army vary from 12,000 to more than 26,000—a sizable figure given that the army’s losses throughout a four-year attritional war are thought to be 125,000. There are approximately 700,000 Druze in Syria and their refusal to serve in the army will deal a heavy blow to the regime’s badly needed resources. The rapid gains made by the rebels in Idlib, Aleppo, Hama and Deraa were mostly symptomatic of an exhausted army that suffers from deep internal issues. During the conflict, the army has lost dozens of its long-standing officers at leadership and operational levels, and suffered a drop in financial support as more attention has been given to the National Defense Forces, a paramilitary organization directly bankrolled by Iran.

Assad can still maneuver to keep the Druze on side. For one thing, their disaffection with the regime doesn’t axiomatically equal closeness to the anti-Assad opposition. On the contrary, the al Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra’s massacre of more than 20 Druze in the northwest Idlib province last Wednesday has convinced the inhabitants of Sweida that it might face a similar fate if the rebels take control of their areas.

The Druze also warred with the rebels after the latter overran the Thala air base in Sweida on Thursday. The rebels were forced to withdraw and have now vowed not push further into Sweida to avoid fomenting sectarian tensions. Still, the rebels insists that military bases near Sweida are being used to shell villages and towns in the southernmost province of Deraa. Druze religious leaders also warned Jabhat al-Nusra that they would defend their areas at all costs against any encroachment by the group or other anti-government forces.

The difficulty for the regime in managing the situation is complicated by the view in Sweida that the Druze cannot rely on the regime for protection, unlike Alawites and Christians. The Druze watched with horror as the Assad regime failed to come to the defense of Kobane last year after a withering siege laid to the Kurdish border town by ISIS militants. What would happen if ISIS came to Sweida?

More Druze are calling for a redefinition of their relationship with Assad. Many prefer to distance themselves from the regime to secure their future within an inevitable Sunni majority-led state—a position that echoes repeated calls to this effect from Lebanese Druze, particularly that community’s leader Walid Jumblatt. Other Druze have demanded that Assad offer guarantees for their future, namely by arming them. They’ve asked the regime to provide local militias with heavy weapons rather than rely on military bases that could be overrun by rebels or jihadists.

Even religious clerics who have stood with the regime, such as Sheikh Youssef Jarbou’, were clear about such expectations: “The Syrian army is capable of defending us and it still has the upper hand. Druze will not be fighting [the rebels] in Deraa or anywhere. We will only defend our areas. We have weapons but not enough to face all threats.”

Druze is the only minority group in Syria playing smart politics to ensure its survival regardless of the outcome of the war. It’s already won a major concession from the regime by exempting its youth from fighting beyond its immediate territory. If the Druze continue to write their own script for autonomy, they might be a rare success story in Syria, spared from the regime’s enmity, protected from rebel or Islamist assault, and free to carry on as they wish.