Golan Druze Perspectives On The Syrian Uprising
The recent news that conflicting demonstrations both for and against Bashar al Assad had been held in two of the Druze villages in the north Golan had already piqued my curiosity, particularly as the pro-Assad demonstration was held in Buqata, which is known locally as the more moderate of the four villages, and the anti-Assad one in Majdal Shams; traditionally the more militant.
So when the opportunity recently arose to join a tour to the area with a group of foreign journalists unable to currently get visas to enter Syria, I too went along to hear the next best thing; the perspective of the Golan Druze - most of whom who have friends and family in Syria - on the uprisings there. As so often is the case in the Middle East, not least when talking to the Druze, attempts to peel back the onion-like layers to get to the facts raised many more questions than they provided answers.
The office of the Al Marsad human rights organisation in Majdal Shams is located near the village square, high up on the breezy slopes of Mount Hermon. A little prior research had shown that Al Marsad's concept of human rights appears to be limited to writing reports and briefing foreign visitors exclusively on one subject: how awful the lives of the Druze residents of the Golan are under Israeli rule. At least one of its reports indicates that it has associations with the Hamas-linked 'European Campaign to End the Siege on Gaza': the outfit which organises the flotillas, including the one last year which ended in extreme violence initiated by its IHH participants, and which was founded in 2007 by the Muslim Brotherhood's European branch – the Federation of Islamic Organisations in Europe.
Al Marsad's co-ordinator, Salman Fakhr Eddin, gave an impassioned speech in support of the demonstrators in Syria, declaring himself to be "optimistically frightened" about the situation in that he is convinced that the uprising will eventually succeed, but at a heavy price. Whilst he categorically denied the presence of Islamist extremists within the Syrian opposition, he was unable or unwilling to say exactly who the demonstrators are. According to him, the opposition is not an organised body, but he does claim to know that its only aim is to demands reforms which will lead to democracy.
He predicted that Assad will follow in his father's footsteps, breaking the opposition by use of extreme force, but that he will be obliged to hold elections and initiate constitutional changes later in the year, and also to sacrifice his brother Maher al Assad – head of the Presidential Guard. Fakhr Eddin does not rule out the possibility of a civil war in Syria, and even an eventual division of the country which could result in an end to the existence of Syria in its current geo-political form, but minutes later also presented a somewhat conflicting claim according to which there is no such thing as ethnic divisions and tensions between Druze, Sunnis, Christians or Alawites in Syria. Such declarations of idyllic Syrian harmony might go down well with the foreign visitors, but would certainly promote scepticism in anyone more familiar with the region.
When asked about the nature of the information reaching the Golan Druze from their relations in Syria, Fakhr Eddin said that they cannot talk freely about politics due to the omnipotent presence of the 18 branches of the Syrian security forces. He claimed to have no specific knowledge regarding the situation of the Druze in Syria or the extent to which students from the Golan villages currently studying in Damascus are involved in the demonstrations, if at all. According to him, the 20,000 Druze of the Golan are prevented from expressing their solidarity with the Syrians by Israeli policies of border defence and severely restricted crossings, but he did admit that they are divided in their opinions about the uprising.
As the conversation progressed, Fakhr Eddin's human rights activist persona began to wobble a little and the true opinions of a man not averse to hanging out with the PFLP started to surface. When asked if he was surprised by the level of violence employed by the Syrian regime, he explained that Bashar al Assad had studied in Europe - the cradle of fascism - implying that he had learned his cruelty there and imported something foreign to the region. He explained to the poker-faced Western journalists that the Europeans and Americans dominate the world by means of third world dictators and that white people believe that black people – in which category he evidently includes himself - are merely tools for their use. According to him, the Reform Party of Syria, led by Farid Ghadry, is no more than an instrument for American use.
None of this appeared to ruffle the polite foreign correspondents who did not raise so much as an eyebrow when Fakhr Eddin went on to state that a Jewish state is a racist concept and that current events in Syria do not prompt the Golan Druze to re-asses their traditional position as regards their frequently expressed wish to return to Syria.
Shefa Abu Jabal is a resident of Magdal Shams and a graduate of Haifa University who also describes herself as a human rights activist. "Don't call me Druze; call me Arab" she demanded, adding that "the belonging (to the Syrian Arab nation) is not a question of choice".
She is currently active in the dissemination of information and footage filmed mostly on mobile phones from the demonstrations in Syria. Due to the severe restrictions placed on internet use by the Syrian government, the demonstrators are unable to get the information to the world themselves, but due to the fact that Shefa lives in unrestricted Israel, she can receive the information from the secret groups with whom she is in Facebook and Twitter contact over the border and then send it out to the rest of the world.
According to Shefa, there is no way of knowing exactly how many people have been killed by the Syrian forces, and although in Damascus and Halab (Aleppo) greater numbers of security forces are being employed, there are uprisings there too. She claimed to have received reports that morning stating that Homs had been bombed. Around 15 of the Golan Druze are involved in the spreading of information worldwide, but they act in fear of reprisals both locally and against their relatives in Syria. Golan Druze students currently in Damascus are not involved with the anti-Assad movement in Majdal Shams. Two days previously the students reportedly had a meeting with Assad, during which he sent a message through them to the people of Buqata urging them to stay strong and stating that he is trying to solve the problems in Syria.
Shefa predicts that the next couple of Fridays will be pivotal, with even greater violence. According to her, time is running out for Assad who is under increasing pressure not only as a result of the demonstrations, but also from the group of 30 or so people on the other side of the political divide who form the core of his power and actually have more influence on the running of the country than Bashar al Assad himself does.
Hamad Awidat and Ata Farhat run a small TV production company a year old from their smart, contemporarily- designed office in Majdal Shams, along with two others. Both studied in Syria and 80% of their business is with official Syrian TV, for which Farhat also worked in the past.
According to them, the demonstrations in the Golan which began with the unrest in Syria included a pro-Assad crowd of thousands in Buqata which was reminiscent of the 1982 demonstrations in against Israel. At the anti-Assad demonstration held in Majdal Shams, Hamad claims to have counted a turn- out of only thirty three. He said that the NGOs in Majdal Shams which have taken a pro-opposition stance have been obliged to do so because of the fact that they receive funding from foreign donors who demand such a position. Hamad also claimed that some of the videos coming out of Syria are suspect and are not authentic coverage of events.
Hamad and Ata both insisted that it is not the Syrian army which is killing protesters, but various foreign forces, claiming that it is inconceivable that the army – which has a high percentage of Druze soldiers - would kill its own people. According to them, certain groups in Syria – including the Muslim Brotherhood and groups originating in Jordan, Iraq and Iran as well as Palestinians - are bringing weapons into the country in order to provide reinforcement for the existing Syrian Muslim Brotherhood.
By now, the foreign correspondents who had refrained from questioning anything said by the pro-revolutionary Salman Fakhr Eddin were visibly indignant at this clear challenge to their perceptions. They remained apparently unimpressed when Hamad told them that his company had received a request from the BBC for footage of the demonstration which they had covered in Buqata, but later rejected the film on the grounds that the BBC is only interested in footage of demonstrations against Assad. Later on, as we ate lunch in the glorious spring sunshine, I overheard one reporter in conversation with her editor, who also appeared to be interested exclusively in coverage of the pro-opposition stance.
Ata Farhat spent seven years in Syria and four years in an Israeli prison. When asked if he identifies as Druze, his answer was "I'm Arab". Ata insisted that the Syrian people love Bashar al Assad and that there is no chance of the situation descending into a civil war. "When God falls, Bashar will fall" he declared, adding that it would be necessary to kill all the Syrians in order to depose Assad.
According to Ata, Assad is a man of peace who wants to talk to Israel, and also a supporter of human rights who intends to make reforms to the Syrian system, but in order to do that he needs time. Time which some elements are not interested in allowing him. Claiming to receive information from friends and family in Syria, as well as journalists on both sides, he said that Egypt has already fallen to the Muslim Brotherhood and that in Syria the same organisation hopes to form a new Islamic regime modelled on Turkey, with the aim of upsetting the Iran/Syria/Hizbollah alliance. Ata then explained to his audience that the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamists are co-operating with the United States, Britain and Israel at the behest of America.
Sheikh Hussam from the village of Buqata is one of the two to three percent of Golan Druze who are religious and his bright blue eyes twinkle above the imposing moustache worn by devout Druze men. He insisted that the Syrian government is not shooting at innocent civilians, but at extremist groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood who are trying to bring the minority Alawite government down. Indeed, according to him, not only is there no massacre of civilians, but it is the Muslim Brotherhood which is massacring the army. Although he does not believe that the rebels will succeed, if they were to do so, Syria would come under the control of the Sunnis and the Muslim Brotherhood according to his estimation.
Such a scenario, he explained, would be bad for the one million Druze who live in Syria - mostly in the Hauran region near Dara'a - because Muslim Brotherhood rule would mean the end of any chance of democracy in Syria and would result in a system whereby minorities such as the Druze were disadvantaged. Under the present regime, the Druze are "close to the plate", but the Sheikh of Dara'a has already declared all Druze women to be prostitutes and he fears for the future of his fellow co-religionists in Syria. According to his relations in Syria, the Druze there are not involved in the demonstrations, which are taking place only in specific areas.
Sheikh Hussam is optimistic about democracy in Syria with Assad still at the helm. He believes that Bashar al Assad should be given a chance to change his present regime into a democratic one and that if he fails to do so, he will and should fall. For too long, he said, Assad claimed that there was no time for democracy because of the on-going war with Israel, but now the Arab world is changing and he will have no choice.
Whilst he believes that the pro-opposition Golan Druze (who, according to him, number some 10 percent of the total population) should be able to express their opinions on the grounds of their right to free speech and is against the prevailing view which requires ostracising them from the community, Sheikh Hussam also thinks that demonstrating against Assad in the Majdal Shams village square is not only silly because Assad has only ever done good for the Golan Druze, but also requires no courage in a democratic country where one can say whatever one likes.
Whilst my day in the Druze villages may have made me none the wiser as to what is really going on in Syria, who lies behind the demonstrations or what their aims actually are, I did find out some no less interesting things about the politics within the Golan Druze community itself. Not least is the fact that the common Israeli assumption that the Golan is somehow exempt from extremist influences, which have resulted in outbreaks of violence in the rest of the country, may well be an illusion.
I was also reminded about the dangers and limitations of taking the reports of Western journalists trapped in preconceptions about the Middle East at face value and was provided with much food for thought regarding the foreign policies of certain Western nations such as the US, the UK and Israel which, it seems, are inevitably and inexorably deemed to be blameworthy - no matter what they actually do - by actors on all sides of the Middle Eastern political map. Can the much feted 'Arab Spring' really bring about a more secure world when such wild conspiracy theories appear to be so disturbingly and intransigently common-place?
As for Bashar al Assad; the cards are currently in the air, but even if he manages to remain in power in the immediate future, it is clear that he is now marked with the sign of weakness. In the Middle East that is the beginning of the end, but the question that remains is who and what will follow?
Hadar Sela is a Contributing Writer for The Propagandist living in the Middle East