By Tim Marshall.
From an Israeli military base in the Golan Heights, you can look down onto Syria’s glorious ancient heritage, its terrible present, and its troubled future.
From here, a vast plain stretches out before you – almost all the way to Homs. In the distance you can see Damascus. In the foreground, there are dozens of villages, once part of the mosaic of Syrian culture held together by dictatorship, now a shattered tableau threatening to draw Israel into the picture.
Some villages are so close that the soldiers of the Hermon Brigade hear the rattle of machine guns, and the explosions of mortar fire, almost every day. Since 2013, 18 missiles have hit the Israeli side of the border.
Straight ahead is the government-held Druze village of Hadar; behind it, another. To the right, a string of villages held by the Free Syrian Army (FSA), and to the left, out of sight, one controlled by the Islamist al-Nusra Front. Isis is said to control several villages further south in Sweida province.
The Druze have honoured a centuries-old tradition. They fight for the leader of the country in which they reside. But the leader is now not only losing – he may abandon them.
Recently, the Israelis saw a column of Bashar al Assad’s tanks trying to withdraw from the villages to reinforce Damascus following a string of defeats. They watched as Druze militia prevented the tanks from leaving. The Druze know that without Assad’s heavy weapons, they will be at the mercy of the FSA and al-Nusra.
Sources say that in some villages, regime officers have vanished, followed by the rank and file. That gives the half-a-million strong Druze of Syria a series of almost impossible choices. Do they fight on alone against Assad’s opponents, join them, or try to exit the struggle?
Fighting on without the army would be suicide. An alliance with the FSA might be possible. The military coalition knows if what is left of Assad’s government is overthrown, the FSA will then need Syrian fighters of all persuasions to go on and defeat the foreigners in Isis. However, a lot of blood has been split. For the Druze to ally with al-Nusra is not an option; they are more likely to be slaughtered as a minority heretic sect.
Neutrality? Given the strategic value of the valley, and the mountains to the north-west, where other Druze live, it seems unlikely they will be left alone. Besides, revenge may be coming their way. And this is where Israel comes into the picture.
There is now a growing feeling within the 130,000-strong Druze community of Israel that their country must do something to help their fellow communities in Syria. This could even involve the creation of a “safe zone” – although that might result in Israel becoming drawn into the fighting. How this zone would be policed is unclear. Israel would probably want the UN to oversee it.
The Israeli government knows this; it also knows how difficult it will be to stand by if the Druze of Syria are at the risk of being slaughtered. Isis forces murdered at least 20 Druze last week, prompting thousands of Druze to rally in northern Israel calling for intervenion. In response, on Wednesday the IDF chief of staff and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu indicated that Israel would protect any refugees who collect along the border fence. The move would reflect the mainly humanitarian role that Israel has so far played in the war.
Adapted from an article originally published in the UK’s Jewish Chronicle.