Protecting Syria’s Druze: Israel’s Risky Proposition

By Charles Bybelezer | The Media Line

November 13, 2017

An Israeli tank holds a position on the Golan Heights, on November 27, 2016, following an attack by the Islamic State. (Photo: JALAA MAREY/AFP/Getty Images)

While analysts believe Jerusalem will not put “boots on the ground,” any further involvement in the Syrian war carries risks

Israel made a public commitment over the weekend to protect Druze villages located beyond its borders in enemy territory. The declaration came after nine civilians were killed and dozens wounded in two terrorist attacks in the village of Hader, located some four kilometers inside the Syrian Golan Heights. During subsequent fighting between Assad regime forces and rebels, a resident of the Israeli Druze village of Majdal Shams was wounded by spillover gunfire.

The al Qa’ida-linked Jabhat Fateh al-Sham (formerly the al-Nusra Front) claimed responsibility for the Hader bombings and said it was launching a campaign to capture border towns under Syrian government control. In response, an Israel Defense Forces spokesman affirmed that “the [army] is ready and prepared to assist the residents of [Hader], and will prevent the harming or conquering of the village because of our deep commitment to the Druze population.”

In 1957, the Israeli government designated the Druze—who practice a monotheistic religion that evolved out of Shiite Islam in the 11th century—a distinct ethnic minority at the request of their communal leaders. Relations have long been good between Israeli Jews and the Druze, who are generally supportive of the state, serve in the military, contribute to all sectors of the economy and are represented across the political spectrum. Today, there are some 150,000 Druze living in Israel, mainly in the north.

But not all is rosy, as some 20,000 Druze were separated from their relatives in Syria when the IDF conquered half of the Golan Heights in the 1967 war. For many, this remains a source of contention that has manifested in a refusal to become Israeli citizens. Some Druze continue to openly identify as Syrian, although this trend has shown signs of reversing since the outbreak of the war there.

Evidencing the sensitivity of the matter, following Friday’s attack hundreds of Israeli Druze held a demonstration along the northern border in a show of solidarity with their Syrian brethren. For his part, Israeli Druze parliamentarian Akram Hasson lost four family members in the Hader violence.

In an episode two years ago, tensions boiled over when an IDF ambulance transporting wounded Syrian fighters was attacked by Druze residents in northern Israel, reportedly out of anger over the targeting by jihadists of towns along the border, which resulted in the killing of more than 20 Syrian Druze over a short time frame. While the assault on the army vehicle was widely denounced at the time—including by Druze community leaders—Jerusalem remains finely attuned to the precarious situation, which largely accounts for its pledge to defend the Syrian villages.

According to Israeli Communications Minister Ayoob Kara, who is of Druze origin, “protecting Hader is an Israeli interest—first, because the Druze in Israel are loyal citizens and also because it is important for the military to prevent extremists from operating along the border, including the Iranians, Hizbullah or Sunni terrorist groups.”

Kara does not believe that such a policy will necessitate direct military intervention, contending to The Media Line that “Israel has enough eyes to know what is going on around the border and therefore will not have any need to send forces into Syria.

“We will act carefully and with clever steps all the while being cautious,” he declared.

Eliezer Tzafrir, a former Mossad agent who headed the Israeli spy agency’s operations in Iran, Lebanon and Iraqi Kurdistan, agrees that the Jewish state has an “unwritten moral obligation” to the Druze because “they are a great partner in the nation.” Accordingly, he related to The Media Line, “if a situation arises whereby Israel needs to take action to protect those in Syria, then it will be done from afar, whether by tank artillery or air strikes.

“It is not illogical that Israel might even arm Syrian Druze communities,” he concluded.

Indeed Jerusalem’s decision may be a calculated risk in order to assert itself in Syria at a time when the future of the country is being shaped. “Israel has not been a player in the war and has little influence especially due to a lack of American involvement,” Israeli security analyst Yossi Melman explained to The Media Line. However, he highlighted, by transforming rhetoric into discernible action to enforce its “red lines” along the border, the IDF will be sending a clear message to the Iranians and its Shiite proxies that it will not accept their presence in the area.

While Melman revealed that the Israeli government has forged a tacit understanding with local Druze to defend their Syrian counterparts if they come under attack, he likewise does not envision the IDF putting “boots on the ground.” Rather, any intervention will likely take the form of ” artillery, rockets and air strikes if need be.”

But such a scenario could easily escalate, especially when viewed against the backdrop of two recent confrontations in which the Syrian army targeted Israeli warplanes conducting cross-border missions to prevent the transfer of advanced weaponry to Hizbullah. In another incident late last month, five rockets were fired from Syria into Israel in what Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman described as a deliberate act carried out by a Hizbullah cell at the directive of the group’s leader Hassan Nasrallah.

In response, the Israeli army struck three Syrian artillery positions, bringing into stark focus the fact that forces loyal to Iran and President Bashar al-Assad—who according to Liberman green-lighted the missile barrage—are to some degree entrenched along the border. This, in turn, raises the specter of a potential unwanted direct clash with the regime or Iranian proxies should Israel up its military activities in support of the Syrian Druze.

While the primary responsibility of all governments is to protect its citizenry, this has heightened significance in Israel given the perpetual threat of attack. But there is a fine line between defending one’s own population and communities abroad, even if there exists a deep affinity to towards the latter.

Israel, then, is perhaps walking a fine line, albeit the country is no stranger to conducting external military operations as well as providing its allies with weapons, intelligence and counter-terrorism support. As regards protecting the Druze in Syria, specifically, Jerusalem is now on the record and it may be that, in this case, humanitarian considerations have trumped strategic interests, a potentially slippery slope.

After all, there will be no plausible deniability, nor any buffer zone, should the unexpected—not unexpectedly—transpire on the chaotic Syrian battlefield.

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