Israel’s Druze dilemma: To arm imperiled Syrian Druze community or open door to a flood of refugees
Israel has a unique, historic commitment to its Druze citizens and so the dangers besetting more than half a million of their Syrian brethren on Jabal Druze, 88 km from its border, and 38 km from Jordan, confronts the Netanyahu government with a grave dilemma. Israeli Druze leaders are pressing the government to provide Jabal Druze towns and villages with weapons for their defense against the enemies closing in on them: The Syrian-Hizballah army; the Syrian opposition coalition including the Nusra Front – now in control of large parts of southern Syria; and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant – ISIS, which has sent a small force up to the eastern approaches to the mountain.
At a reception for the visiting Chairman of the Joint US Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Martin Dempsey Wednesday, June 10, President Reuven Rivlin said: What is going on just now is intimidation and threat to the very existence of half a million Druze on the Druze Mount, which is very close to the Israeli border.”
Officials in the Pentagon denied that this issue had come up in Gen. Dempsey’s talks during his farewell visit to Israel this week, although Syria had been discussed. One official remarked: “It’s the Druze who are asking everyone to arm them. The Druze in Israel have been raising it with Israel with the US, with Jordan – everyone.”
debkafile’s military sources note that this dilemma is the hardest Israel has faced since the Syrian conflict began more than four years ago. Sending arms to the Syrian Druze would mean abandoning the consistent policy of abstaining from direct involvement in that war. It would moreover entail setting up new machinery for establishing, training and arming a Druze army of 20,000 to 30,000 fighting men.
But by withholding support, Israel would make itself responsible for whatever befalls the beleaguered Syrian Druze community, including possibly mass executions by Islamic extremists for their unique faith.
Also taken into account is the proposal Tehran, Damascus and Hizballah put before the Druzes this week: to build them an army and provide it with weapons, against a pledge never to raise arms against Syrian President Bashar Assad or his troops.
No other strings were tied to the offer. The Druze army would not be given any tasks other than to defend Jabal Druze and its hundreds of small towns and villages.
Druze acceptance of Tehran’s proposition would have the effect of strengthening Iran’s hold on Damascus and weakening the Syrian opposition forces fighting in the south, with no guarantees about where this equation would end up in terms of new threats to Israeli security.
Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon and IDF Chief of Staff, Lt. Gen. Gady Eisenkott, are being intensely lobbied by the leaders of Israel’s Druze community, some of them high-ranking officers in IDF and Border Police units, to come to the aid of their distressed Syrian brethren. They hold up their valuable contribution to the Jewish state’s national security as deserving of Israel’s reciprocation to step up when their community is in peril.
No one is saying this, but the awareness is there that the many Druzes serving in Israeli combat units may decide to simply cross the Golan border and take up arms in defense of Jabal Druze.
The Syria community’s plight is complicated by the sharp internal division among its leaders: One group urges taking up the Iranian offer; a second would rather join forces with the Syrian rebels; and a third, wants to stick to their long-held neutrality in the Syrian arena.
The Lebanese Druze leader Walid Jumblatt, once accepted as such by the entire community, urges Jabal Druze inhabitants to throw in their lot with the rebel groups fighting to topple Assad.
Some Druze sources claim that Israel has promised admission to any fleeing Druze reaching the Golan border fence, an assurance also offered by Jordan. This is not confirmed by any official in either government.
However, it is hard to see how Israel can bar its border if thousands of Druze refugees were to stand at the fence and demand shelter – any more than Jordan could. This may still happen – even if Jerusalem and Amman were to decide to supply the Syrian Druzes with weapons.