Israel has scarcely been touched by the battles the Gulf States, Turkey, Jordan, Lebanon, Syria. Libya, Iraq and Egypt are waging to fend off the belligerent inroads of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant. And the multitudes of war refugees generated by Middle conflicts have headed in different directions. But now, DEBKA Weekly’s military and intelligence experts disclose, both these crises lurk around the corner, as ISIS forces and Syrian opposition groups close in on the Syrian mountain of Jabal Druze, the ancestral home of more than half a million Druze inhabitants.
Since ISIS made the capture of Jabal Druze, 88 km from the Israeli border, one of its prime objectives, leaders of the Israeli Druze community, with which Israel has a historic pact, are lobbying hard for arms and, if need be, also troops backed by tanks, artillery and air force, to rescue their Syrian mountain brethren.
This would pose the risk of clashes with Iran, the Assad regime and Hizballah, all of whom maintain a military presence in the targeted area.
This simmering crisis prompted the IDF’s OC Northern Front Maj. Gen. Avivi Kochavi’s comment Tuesday, June 9, that although the situation on Israel’s Syrian front appeared calm, it could blow up at any moment.
Too many imponderables
Before taking action in the inflammable Syrian arena, Israel is grappling with six imponderables:
1. Would a direct military incursion be necessary? Or, as Israel would much prefer, would the contingency be served by a secure corridor running from Jabal Druze via Jordan for the transfer of weapons and fighters, in the hope that it would not be used for a mass exit of refugees?
2. Will the Jordanian King Abdullah II join in or opt out? Until now, he has avoided openly sending troops into Syria to fight for Bashar Assad’s downfall, except for covert operations by elite units. But since ISIS presents a more immediate threat to his kingdom than to Israel, this could change.
3. Will the Obama administration back Israel in this expedition or run interference?
4. How will Saudi King Salman react, considering the secret Saudi-Israeli-Qatari military collaboration in support of various rebel forces in South Syria.?
5. Where will Egyptian President Abdel-Fatteh El-Sisi stand on an Israeli operation in view of his quiet support for the survival of the Assad regime? DEBKA Weekly discloses that a high-ranking Egyptian military delegation recently visited Israel. The Syrian crisis no doubt figured large on the agenda of its talks with Israeli defense and military officials.
How would a conflagration in the north affect the Gaza situation?
6. How will a military conflagration on Israel’s northern borders affect the volatile security situation unfolding in the south since Islamic State started shooting rockets into Israel from the Gaza Strip?
(This development was outlined in detail by debkafile on June 7 and 8. See also HOT POINTS.)
ISIS could intensify these assaults to lower IDF heat on Islamist State fighters in Syria.
Over last weekend, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu ordered Israel’s entire stock of Iron Dome missile interceptors rounded up and deployed in the southern half of Israel to secure 1.5 million civilians against rocket attack from Eilat to Rehovot.
This action left northern Israel exposed to missile fire from Syria.
The situation of the Syrian Druze community at the time of writing is as follows:
Islamic State forces set out last week on an east-to-west course from the central Syrian town of Palmyra, which fell last month, to Deir ez-Zour in the northeast. From there, they split up into two columns – one making for the Syrian-Jordanian border (as debkafile first reported on May 24) and the second for Jabal Druze, immediately capturing the town of Al-Hakaf (as DEBKA Weekly reported last week).
Syrian Druze fear ISIS threat to their unique religion
This conquest brought them to within 50 kilometers from Suwayda, the Druze capital (pop: 250,000), whose loss would bisect Jabal Druze and cut off the supply and communication routes linking the Druze villages.
After capturing Al-Hakaf, ISIS offered the Druze elders a bargain: No harm would come to civilians if the Islamists were allowed to enter Suwayda and take the road to Deraa without encountering Druze resistance. This would permit the Islamists to break into the southern sector currently held by ISIS’s rival, the Al-Qaeda-associated Nusra Front rebel group, and reach the Jordanian border.
The Druze were also required to give up their faith and convert to the radical brand of Islam and join the battle to oust the Assad regime.
History has split the Druze nation among three Middle East countries – the largest segment estimated at app. one million dwells for the most part on the Syrian mountain called Jabal Druze and slopes of Mt Hermon. Smaller communities live in Lebanon and Israel.
What they all have in common is their firm loyalty to the respective states of their habitation and fierce adherence to their non-Muslim heterodox religion, many of whose rites are kept closely secret.
Druze history going back more than a thousand years is one of constant struggle for its ethnic and religious survival.
Both their fundamental tenets are threatened by the Islamic caliphate’s ultimatum:
Some Druze may fight before the Islamists mow them down
The Syrian Druze elders don’t trust ISIS, the Syrian opposition or the Assad regime to save them.
Moreover, their leadership is split by infighting over which side to support,
The Assad regime broke up their political leadership, leaving a group of clerics in charge. Last year, two of those clerics, Sheikh al-Aqls Jarbua and Sheikh Ahmad al-Hajari, passed away – the latter in mysterious circumstances, after he criticized Damascus.
The deceased clerics were succeeded by lesser known relatives. Sheikh al-Aql Hinawi has emerged as the most influential Syrian Druze figure today – at least in public. He appears to have upheld the Syrian Druze policy of neutrality in the Syrian civil war, endorsed by Sheikh Fouad Khatawi.
When on Monday, June 8, Syrian army’s 15th Division in a state of collapse pulled its heavy equipment out of Suwayda, the Druze took this to mean that for Assad they were disposable.
Meanwhile, a self-styled Druze militia calling itself the “Sheikhs of Dignity” movement, led by Sheikh Waheed al-Balaus, appears ready to fight for its survival.
Israel’s powerful bond with its Druze community
Israel’s Druze minority (of 125,000) has solid connections with the country’s national security and political establishments. Unlike the Arab minority, the Druze opted from the early days of the state to serve in the military and the elite police force, the Border Guard, often reaching high rank as officers. For their exceptional bravery and loyalty in combat in war alongside Israeli troops, the Druze are popular and esteemed by their Jewish fellow citizens.
As recently as last summer, a Druze army colonel led the first IDF unit to enter Gaza and confront Hamas. After he was injured, he ran away from hospital to rejoin his mostly Jewish unit.
Israel cannot stay indifferent to an appeal by Israel’s Druze elders to save their brethren in mortal danger across the Syrian border. It is bound by a covenant forged in blood.
Furthermore, Druze citizens have traditionally given their votes to the ruling Likud party, led by Prime Minister Netanyahu and Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon. The new government installed last month after a general election included for the first time a Druze cabinet member, veteran lawmaker Ayoub Kara, who is Minister without Portfolio and acts as senior liaison between the Netanyahu government and Syrian Druze leaders.
Israel reluctant to put its hand in the Syrian hornets’ nest
Last week, Kara started organizing synchronous Druze demonstrations on the Israeli and Syrian sides of the border to extract from Israeli government a clear statement about its commitment to defending the Druze of Syria. The minister was backed by high-ranking Druze army and Border Guard officers, who were frantic about the fate of their brethren on Jabal Druze and the Druze villages dotting the slopes of Mt. Hermon opposite the Israeli Golan. They demanded a security guarantee to defend them against danger, first by sending them arms and then, if necessary, troops.
Netanyahu and Ya’alon managed to get the demonstrations called off and persuade the anxious Druze leaders to keep the subject under tight wraps for the time being.
The Druze of Syria, after avoiding taking sides in the long civil war, find themselves trapped in a cruel dilemma between two evils. And Israel, which too managed to keep out of the Syrian conflict, must decide between openly defending the Druze and putting its hand in the Syrian hornet’s nest, or else preparing for a massive influx of refugees that may rock the country’s fragile social equilibrium. Israel’s leaders are maneuvering for a middle road.