Syrian and Lebanese Minority Sects Prepare for Post-al Assad Syria
Though divisions persist within and between the various Syrian minority sects, a power vacuum in Syria will drive Alawites, Druze, Kurds and Christians to collaborate in the face of a broader Sunni threat. Recent moves by Lebanese Druze leader Walid Jumblatt suggest the region's minorities are quietly preparing their respective strategies for a post-al Assad Syria.
In the fog of war, the intentions of the weakest and most constrained players often will be the most transparent. Though the moves made by minority sects — particularly the Alawites, Kurds and Druze — in the complex political and ethno-sectarian landscape of the Levant will still be subtle as each quietly attempts to balance the region's powerful forces to ensure their respective survival, they will reveal much about where the conflict is headed.
Stratfor is paying particularly close attention to the Druze community and to Jumblatt and his interaction with Syrian Alawites. The Druze and Alawites have much in common. Both are offshoots of a Shiite heterodox tradition dating back to the late 9th century. Because of their beliefs and customs, which many orthodox Muslims find controversial, they developed into tight-knit, secretive and hierarchical religious communities. To improve their chances of survival, both sects settled in mountainous terrain that helped shield them from their larger, more powerful sectarian rivals.
The Druze first settled in the Golan region at Mount Hermon, the highest peak of the Anti-Lebanon Mountains, a range that straddles present-day Syria, Lebanon and Israel. When trying to spread out into today's southern Lebanon, they encountered the Nusayris, the first incarnation of the Alawites. (During the French Mandate, the French renamed the Nusayris the Alawites to emphasize the sect's connection to the Prophet Mohammed's cousin and son-in-law Ali and to Shiite Islam to boost their religious legitimacy among mainstream Muslims.) The Alawites eventually were driven out of southern Lebanon into the mountainous coastal region of northern Syria while the Druze eventually spread to the mountainous Chouf District south of Beirut. Chouf, where Jumblatt lives in a palace in the town of Moukhtara, is the heartland of Lebanon's Druze community.
In Syria, where they are concentrated in the Sweida region, the Druze make up roughly 3 percent of the population. Jordan is to the south and east of Sweida, the restive Damascus suburbs are to the north and the Sunni stronghold of Daraa is to the west. Sweida is dominated by Jabal ad Druze, Arabic for "Mountain of the Druze," later officially renamed Jabal al Arab, the "Mountain of the Arabs," an elevated volcanic plain in the southwestern Hauran Plateau that formed the core of a Druze statelet during the French Mandate. Jaramana, a suburb of Greater Damascus, is also heavily populated by Druze.
Though it borders some of the most restive regions of the Syrian rebellion, Sweida has remained largely quiet as the Druze sought to avoid alienating both the rebels and the regime. Now, however, the conflict shows signs of seeping into Sweida as Alawite government forces grow less secure in their positions around Damascus as rebels close in on the capital. Jaramana, flanked by Sunni suburbs, is now in the crosshairs given its location on the highway to Damascus Airport, a highly strategic location desired by rebels and the regime alike. Now that the conflict zone is expanding toward them, Syria's Druze are coming under pressure to pick sides.
But picking sides is simply not an option for a minority like the Druze, and the expanding conflict is seeing the Sweida region become increasingly fractured as Druze families struggle to chart a strategy for survival. The Free Syrian Army has formed a Revolutionary Military Council in Sweida and has announced the creation of a battalion in Jaramana in the name of the Druze. But many Druze residents are trying to keep their distance from the rebels and maintain relations with the Alawites, all while trying to avoid being targeted by either side.
The lack of a strong Druze leader in Syria has exacerbated these divisions. Across the border in Lebanon, Jumblatt has called on the Druze to join the rebellion while less prominent Lebanese Druze politician Wiam Wahhab called on Syrian Druze to continue backing the regime. The Syrian Druze have given a lackluster response to both calls.
Though Druze divisions in Syria will prove challenging, Jumblatt is still trying to assume responsibility for the fate of the Druze on both sides of the Syrian-Lebanese border. As a leader of a minority sect, Jumblatt's political loyalties are necessarily flexible and must align with the political order of the day. He therefore has gone from supporting the Syrian regime after the Lebanese civil war when Syria kept its troops in Lebanon to becoming the most vociferous critic of the al Assad regime after Syria was forced to withdraw its troops from Lebanon in 2006. Though Jumblatt continues to denounce al Assad publicly, he simultaneously appears to be making quiet moves to reconcile with Syrian Alawites in preparation for what is likely to be a highly unstable post-al Assad security environment.
Stratfor has received indications that the real aim behind the formation of the Druze militia is not to align the Druze with the Free Syrian Army, but to organize a military force to defend Sweida after al Assad's fall. Many Druze fighters from Lebanon (including fighters from the militias of Druze leaders Jumblatt, Wahhab and Talal Arslan) allegedly have traveled to Druze areas of Syria to further this effort. In what could be an indication of dealmaking under way, unconfirmed rumors have Jumblatt encouraging officials in his Progressive Socialist Party to find apartments in the Chouf Mountains for select members of the Alawite regime who intend to flee Syria once the regime collapses. Jumblatt's communications with Syrian Alawites have allegedly been facilitated by Northern Lebanese Maronite leader Suleiman Frangieh, who has retained close ties with the Alawite regime in Syria.
Given the likelihood that Syria will experience a lengthy and disorderly transition after al Assad falls, it is not surprising that Syrian Druze are bolstering their defenses with the help of their Lebanese coreligionists. That such preparations would require collaboration with the Alawites also is not unusual. Syria's minority sects all face an emboldened Sunni majority intent on ending Alawite minority rule in Damascus. While the rebellion is ongoing, the Sunni rebels will make a concerted effort to win over minorities and to deny al Assad a base of support. But once al Assad is out of the picture and a power vacuum is left for the Sunnis to fill, the minorities will largely be left on the sidelines vulnerable to reprisal attacks.
These minorities will thus attempt to band together in the face of the larger Sunni threat, especially as a growing number of more radical Salafist-jihadists in the Sunni rebel landscape are likely to attempt to use their battle prowess to grab power in a post-al Assad Syria. Some of Syria's Kurds are already engaged in battles with Salafist-jihadists for control of territory in the country's northeast. Whereas the Druze are surrounded by Sunnis and concentrated in Sweida in the south, Syria's Kurdish population is primarily settled on the steppes of the Jazirah Plateau that extends into Turkey and Iraq. Unlike their ethnic kin in Iraq, Turkey and Iran, Syrian Kurds lack formidable geographic barriers to protect their ethnic enclave. But they are still taking advantage of the spreading lawlessness in the north to try and carve out an autonomous Kurdish region. Though the Syrian Kurds are riven by deep divisions, they share the goal of an autonomous Kurdish statelet in the northeast.
Like the Alawites and Kurds, Syrian Christians comprise roughly 10 percent of the population, but unlike them, they lack a strongly defined geographic space. Christian pockets dating back to antiquity are scattered throughout the country but are mostly encompassed by Sunni strongholds in Homs and Aleppo. As a result, Syrian Christian villages have been overrun by both rebel and government forces, sending many Christians fleeing to Lebanon. Unlike the heavily armed Maronite Christian militias in Lebanon, Syrian Christians have not built up militias. Instead, they mostly have relied on dealmaking to survive. This earned many Syrian Christians senior posts in the government and economy under Alawite rule, but with the al Assad regime now unraveling, that pact has also largely disintegrated, leaving Syria's Christian community at risk.
Meanwhile, the Alawites have been building up defenses around their traditional stronghold in Syria's mountainous northern coast, which stretches from Latakia to the port of Tartus. This part of the country is isolated from Syria's main trade routes and food-growing regions. In tandem with the Ismailis and Shia, the Alawites are trying to overcome these geographic challenges by coordinating with Hezbollah in Lebanon to integrate the Orontes River Valley with the Syrian Alawite coast to create a contiguous Alawite-Shiite ministate.
Each of these minority contingency plans is fraught with weaknesses, but some level of coordination among these sects could mitigate their vulnerability to an emboldened and increasingly radicalized Sunni population after al Assad falls. Looking for strength in numbers, Syria's Alawite, Kurdish and Druze communities may try to jointly announce the establishment of their respective autonomous regions to complicate Sunni efforts to restore Syria's territorial integrity for the benefit of a future Sunni state. Sunni efforts aside, Syria will likely fragment into autonomous ethnic enclaves bolstered by their ethno-sectarian kin beyond Syria's borders.