Revolutionary Forces Throughout Syria condemn Nusra’s massacre of Druze Villagers
By Michael Karadjis
The second week of June witnessed two major events concerning the relationship between the Druze religious minority and the Syrian revolution.
In northern Idlib province, where Druze have taken an active part in the recent liberation of the capital and from the Assad regime and the other string of stunning rebel victories (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WhdTobHYw94&feature=youtu.be), a provocation against a Druze house by a unit of the Sunni-jihadist group Jabhat al-Nusra – aligned to the main rebel groups in the province – led to a massacre of over 20 Druze.
The exact details are still unclear, but it seems it was either a purely gang-related action by the Nusra unit (a unit led by a Tunisian known to be a “hard-liner”) which had been dealing in property of people absent from the region, or at best, an attempt to use an empty house to settle displaced people, in both versions, an action rejected by neighbouring relatives of the absent owners. An argument developed into shots fired; then before mainstream rebel forces arrived to try to mediate, the Nusra unit shot over 20 of the Druze.
Here are some relevant accounts, for my money the EAWorldview account (the gang-land account) seems the most convincing, but none of them deny that the Nusra unit was responsible:
http://eaworldview.com/2015/06/syria-daily-jabhat-al-nusra-unit-kills-23-druze-in-idlib-province/; https://yallasouriya.wordpress.com/2015/06/11/syria-idlib-the-true-story-of-the-massacre-in-qalb-loz-between-the-druzes-and-jan/; http://syriadirect.org/news/nusra-emir-to-idlib-druze-give-me-1000-rifles/
Major Rebel Groups in Idlib condemn massacre
This crime was condemned by all other rebel groups in the north, including, importantly, all the major Islamist groups. Due to Nusra’s military prowess in the region, and the fact that it has focused most of its energy on fighting the regime and ISIS rather than oppressing and terrorising people like ISIS does, these secular Free Syrian Army (FSA) and Islamist rebels in Idlib have been in a military alliance with Nusra called Jaysh al-Fatah (Army of Conquest).
However, this pact, while deemed necessary given the massively greater military might of the regime and ISIS, has never been as smooth as western media and its leftist echo often makes out; in fact it was formed in March following months of clashes between Nusra and other rebel groups (since November 2014) and dozens of demonstrations against Nusra repression throughout the province (I have analysed this here: https://mkaradjis.wordpress.com/2014/11/08/as-nusra-plays-at-isis-lite-the-us-excels-as-assads-airforce/). Its formation, with Nusra in a minority, yet important, position within the front, reflects the results of this shake-out and the necessity of focusing for now on the greatest purveyor of violence in the country first.
(As an aside: when Nusra launched unilateral armed aggression against the largest FSA coalition in Idlib, the Syrian Revolutionaries Front, last November, many observers said the SRF was “corrupt,” they tax people at checkpoints (!!) and so on, whereas Nusra may not be an ideal choice but at least they’re clean! If the EA Worldview story above is correct, then these events would appear an issue of outright corruption, gangsterism, theft etc, anything but “clean.”)
Following the massacre of the Druze, five of the largest militias in Idlib (and members of the Jaysh a-Fatah coalition) – Ahrar al-Sham, the Sham Front, Ajnad al-Sham, Thuwar al-Sham and Fastaqm Kama Umrat – issued a statement condemning the killing of Druze, in a statement declaring that “Islam forbids spilling people’s blood whatever their sect is” (https://twitter.com/Charles_Lister/status/609449774673211392). The statement explicitly refers to “sons of the Druze sect,” and hails their “support for the Syrian revolution and giving refuge to the sons of their homeland who have fled from all areas of Idlib province under pressure of the bombing of the Assad regime and its criminal actions.” It then calls for neutral arbitration, and promises to coordinate with all other sects to prevent such a crime from reoccurring in “liberated areas.”
It is extremely significant that these five are mostly major Islamist brigades, with the first on the list (Ahrar al-Sham) often referred to as “hard-line” by a western media that hasn’t caught up with its evolution over the last two years (and indeed it has been bombed by the US twice since the intervention began last year and is officially slandered as a “terrorist” organisation by the US government). The stress on not spilling the blood “whatever the sect is” seems clear enough to me, and leftists should avoid painting every “Islamist” brigade with the “sectarian” brush if ignorant of the specifics of each case.
For other statements condemning the massacre by the FSA Southern Front, the Syrian Coalition and even by Nusra itself, see below.
Southern Front Advances to Druze Borders in the South
Meanwhile, in southern Daraa province, the magnificent Southern Front (SF) of the Free Syrian Army, following a string of equally stunning victories over the last few months (including the ancient town of Busra al-Sham and the last Jordanian border post), this week drove the regime out of Base 52, the second largest military base in the south – acquiring a large amount of military hardware in the process. This brought them to the border of the Druze-majority province of Suweida.
While in the north the secular FSA shares the stage with some large Islamist militias, in the south the 35,000 troops in the Southern Front, consisting of some 54 brigades, absolutely dominates the struggle, with only a few thousand each of Islamic Front and Nusra fighters. Moreover, while in the north they are forced to deal with the reality of Nusra, in the south the Southern Front several months ago issued a declaration that it would refuse any further cooperation with Nusra, whether on a military level or on the level of “political ideology,” while insisting this was also no “declaration of war” (http://eaworldview.com/2015/04/syria-interview-why-southern-rebels-distanced-themselves-from-jabhat-al-nusra/).
Druze in Suweida: Open Revolt Against Regime
The Druze in Suweida have tried to maintain neutrality in the war, though their forcible resistance to regime conscription has led them into open conflict with the regime (https://now.mmedia.me/lb/en/NewsReports/565324-syria-druze-protest-regime-conscription, http://syriadirect.org/main/36-interviews/1946-defected-general-druze-do-not-represent-a-cog-in-the-regime-machine), and a militant anti-regime movement has emerged from among Druze sheiks (http://www.dailystar.com.lb/News/Middle-East/2015/Jan-31/285926-druze-sheikhs-sound-the-alarm-bell.ashx). Above all the Druze reject being sent anywhere else in Syria to help the regime slaughter other Syrians, insisting instead that their young men stay to defend Suweida against possible jihadist attack. As Hafez Faraj, a defected Druze Air Force general, explains:
“Popular anger has existed towards the regime since the beginning of the revolution, however the forced conscription and death of hundreds of Druze from the Suwayda area in recent months pushed people over the limit. Druze men have been forced to fight alongside the regime in an unjust war against the Syrian people since the beginning of the uprising, however now it has gotten worse” (http://syriadirect.org/main/36-interviews/1946-defected-general-druze-do-not-represent-a-cog-in-the-regime-machine).
With the hollow regime once again running away when ISIS took Palmyra in the desert west of Suweida, the Druze know very well they cannot rely on the regime, indeed many suspect the regime would not even try, indeed that the regime aims to withdraw to defend the Damascus-Qalamoun-Homs-Alawite coast undeclared mini-state, and leave outlying regions like Suweida to ISIS (http://www.syrianobserver.com/EN/News/29276/Regime_Paves_Way_ISIS_Capture_Suweida). As such, there have been indications of a possible breakthrough of an FSA-Druze alliance in the south, an eminently logical development, given that it has only been the FSA and its allies that have been able to defeat ISIS throughout Syria.
In recent weeks, Druze led by the openly anti-regime ‘Sheiks for Dignity’ movement has blocked attempts by the regime to move heavy weaponry out of Suweida to help defend Damascus (http://syriadirect.org/news/another-regime-convoy-reportedly-blocked-by-druze-from-leaving-province/). The Southern Front in Daraa and the Druze in Suweida have also met recently to iron out issues of bad blood related to a series of kidnappings, in the process declaring solidarity against the regime (http://syriadirect.org/news/southern-front-spokesman-on-suwayda-druze-%E2%80%98ball-is-in-their-court-now%E2%80%99/). Druze leaders even accused the regime of shelling Daraa in order to blame it on rebels to foment disunity (https://now.mmedia.me/lb/en/NewsReports/565426-druze-cleric-accuses-regime-of-shelling-suweida), and, although a pro-regime Druze leader called it a “religious duty” to join the regime forces, according to Druze political activist Noura al-Basha, “no one has joined yet” (http://syriadirect.org/news/joining-regime-army-religious-duty-says-suwayda-sheikh/). Then several days ago, Druze FSA fighter Abu Kamel urged Suweida Druze to take up arms against the regime (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8pWkz5nzYwk&feature=youtu.be).
Southern Rebels Vigorously Condemn Massacre
It was in this enormously critical context that the massacre took place in Idlib in the north. Naturally, the Southern Front, which has continually issued strongly worded anti-sectarian statements about the nature of the struggle and the revolution (of course ignored by the imperialist media and its “anti-imperialist left” echo), vigorously condemned Nusra’s crime:
“The Southern Front condemns in the strongest terms the horrible massacre that happened to our people in Luweiza in Idlib committed by the Nusra Front and considers it a crime committed against common living and Syrian diversity in general and announces its readiness to protect Druze villages in Idlib as an additional step to protect Syrian diversity and richness” (https://www.facebook.com/solidaysyria/photos/a.634790499897689.1073741830.625693980807341/913965731980163/?type=1).
To further reassure the Druze, seventeen major rebel factions in the south (15 FSA, one Islamic Front and one independent brigade) put out another statement condemning the killing and stressing that the FSA is opposed to the revolution becoming a sectarian war (https://twitter.com/arabthomness/status/610108858195935233/photo/1; https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OIEYvTruvmc).
In a notable development, the Southern Front called a temporary halt to its offensive to seize the al-Thala airbase. The airbase is close to Base 52 and was the next obvious target; the FSA launched its attack several days ago, but Nusra’s crime came in the middle of it; the airbase borders Daraa and Suweida, and many of the defenders were local Druze. Given the conflicting views within Suweida, the FSA made a political decision specifically in light of Nusra’s actions to negotiate with the Druze first. Sources told EA Worldview (http://eaworldview.com/2015/06/syria-daily-kurds-and-rebels-close-on-islamic-state-in-key-town-on-turkish-border/) that the Southern Front “had orders to retreat for two reasons”:
- The timing was bad, especially after Jabhat al-Nusra committed a massacre in Idlib, killing 23 Druze, given that most of the fighters defending al-Thala are Druze —- even though Jabhat al-Nusra is not participating in our offensive.
- There have been negotiations with the Druze in the south to withdraw their people from the airbase. These negotiations were ongoing as the offensive started.
This decision shows a strongly political mode of thinking by the southern FSA leadership, indicating how seriously it takes its continuous declarations about the anti-sectarian nature of the Syrian revolution.
Syrian Coalition Statement
The exile-based Syrian Coalition of course also condemned the massacre and clearly blamed Nusra (http://en.etilaf.org/all-news/news/al-nusra-front-attacks-druze-villagers-in-idlib-province.html):
“As the Assad regime continues to kill more Syrians and rain more barrel bombs on rural Idlib, where dozens were killed, the Syrian people are deeply shocked by news of the death of dozens of Druze young men at the hands of elements of Al-Nusra Front in the village of Qalb Lawzeh of Mount Simmaq in rural Idlib. The killings occurred during an armed clash between elements of Al-Nusra Front and residents of the village following an attack launched by Al-Nusra.”
Of course, the Syrian Coalition has a hostile relationship with Nusra in general, but it is notable that the Coalition thanked other Islamist brigades which are also outside the Coalition and in general in disagreement with it. The statement correctly noted that
“Revolutionary forces operating in the area acted quickly to contain the situation and have contacted with concerned sides at home and abroad, thus foiling attempts to further fuel the situation. We cannot but commend the role played by some of these forces, for example, but not limited to, Ahrar al-Sham, Al Sham Corps and other rebel factions and the provincial council in coordination with the Syrian Coalition. These contacts succeeded in containing the situation and in preventing more bloodshed.”
The Coalition “further stresses its commitment to preserving the unity of the Syrian people and Syria’s demography, calling for protecting all components of the Syrian society and for ensuring they are not forced out of their homes. It also calls for achieving security in the areas of religious and ethnic minorities and for working out mechanisms to ward off all forms of strife and sedition.”
Nusra Condemns Crime, Promises Punishment, However …
Back to the north, several days after the events, Nusra itself issued a condemnation of the killings, claiming that the unit in question had acted “in clear violation of the leadership’s views.” Claiming that it had immediately dispatched a committee to the village to “reassure the residents that what happened was unjustifiable,” Nusra promised that “everyone who was involved in this incident will be referred to an Islamic court and will be held accountable” (http://eaworldview.com/2015/06/syria-daily-kurds-and-rebels-close-on-islamic-state-in-key-town-on-turkish-border/#JAN).
Whether one decides this is genuine or merely a statement reflecting the pressure of the revolutionary masses and other revolutionary forces, Nusra’s statement itself indicates how incorrect it is to lump Nusra in the same camp as ISIS, as is done by the US (which regularly bombs Nusra) and the Assadists. And in particular it is up to the other militias in Idlib, which have condemned this crime, to see that Nusra carries through with its promise to hold the perpetrators accountable.
It is also significant that the massacre of 23 people by Nusra has been condemned by the entirety of the revolutionary forces in Syria, including by Nusra itself, whereas the fascist regime, which massacres 100-150 people every day¸ has of course never carried out a condemnation of itself. This is something for pro-Assadist leftists who like to carry on about “jihadi terrorists,” as well as those who see “a plague on both your houses,” ought to mull on.
On the other hand, while Nusra laying blame on an individual unit may seem straightforward enough, unfortunately the reality is somewhat different. In a recent interview with Al-Jazeera, Nusra Emir Abu Muhammad al Joulani, he tried to put on a moderate face by insisting that Nusra only fights those who fight for the regime, not ordinary civilians from non-Sunni minorities, stressing that “random Alawite non-combatants” have nothing to fear and that there are Druze villages right there in Idlib and they “are not being attacked but secured,” which he also offered to Alawites which reject the regime. However, he also said that “we’ve been calling them (the Druze) to Islam,” and specifically noted that Druze temples will not be tolerated, and that, only those Alawites and Druze who “abandon the regime and their beliefs” and “go back to Islam” become our “brothers.”
This double talk – we won’t physically attack you unless you fight for the regime, but you need to reject your religion to become our “brothers” can be held at least part responsible for the actions of the Nusra unit, alongside other criminal intentions. But more importantly, some Druze villages in Idlib are under Nusra control, and have been living under a regime of forced public conversion to Nusra’s version of Sunni Islam (http://syriadirect.org/news/idlib-druze-agree-to-forced-conversion-destroyed-shrines-under-nusra-rule/). In contrast, where Druze villages are in regions controlled by other rebel groups, “though allied with Nusra on the battlefield, they let them conduct their daily lives and customs” (http://www.nytimes.com/2015/06/12/world/middleeast/nusra-front-druse-syria-attack.html?utm_source=Sailthru&utm_medium=email&utm_term=*Mideast%20Brief&utm_campaign=New%20Campaign&_r=0).
This once again highlights the fact that, while the fascist regime – which is responsible for around 95 percent of mass murder in Syria – and its ISIS mirror are the open enemies of the revolution, once the regime is defeated, the main “internal” threat to the revolution will be the more die-hard elements of Nusra.
It also once again underlines a key contradiction of the revolution in its military phase: forced to fight by a fascist regime which slaughtered peaceful protest, military struggle brings with it great political problems. To win against such a regime, with such enormous superiority in mass killing power, alliance with groups like Nusra are an empirical advantage, even necessity, at this stage; yet this very fact is a major political impediment to dealing with the key strategic political issue of the revolution: bridging the sectarian divide which the regime has deliberately created.
Meanwhile, other actors outside may find the “”Druze question” just too much of a good opportunity; Israel appears interested in competing with Assad in the role of (bogus) “protector of minorities.” The fact that the Israeli-occupied Syrian Golan Heights is populated by Druze gives Israel a special interest. Aiming to use the jihadi (whether ISIS or Nusra) threat to the Druze to gain influence in Suweida, or to finally persuade the Druze in Golan that being “Israeli” is a better bet than being in a Syria where Assad’s “minority” state has collapsed, or to perhaps annex a further part of Syria, Israel is said to be “mulling the creation of a “safe zone” on the Syrian side of the Golan Heights in order to aid Druze refugees.” While Druze Zionist Council head Atta Farhat warned of an impending “holocaust” of Syrian Druze, Netanyahu urged US head of Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Martin Dempsey, to boost American aid to the Druze, and President Reuven Rivlin “told the general there is a “threat to the very existence of half a million Druze on the Mount of Druze” in Syria (http://www.timesofisrael.com/israel-weighs-safe-zone-for-syrias-embattled-druze/).
While ISIS and possibly Nusra may do their best (unintentionally) to help Israel pursue such a course, a southern non-sectarian FSA-Druze alliance, by contrast, might portend a future Syria that would have the exact opposite effect on the Druze in Golan to that which Israel intends. Whatever the small-scale manouvures, bits and pieces of evidence or non-evidence of miniscule aid by Israel to this or that group in the south against someone else within the military confrontation (or the absurd hype about Israeli hospitals looking after rebel patients), at the end of the day the worst thing for Israel would be a democratic secular non-sectarian Syria.
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