After being defeated in its strongholds in Syria and Iraq, the Islamic State (IS) group suddenly returned in force last month to strike one of the calmest regions of Syria, throwing another spanner into the country’s seven-year crisis.
On 25 July, 250 Syrians, more than half of them civilians, were killed after several suicide bombings targeted highly populated areas in the Sweidaa province in the south of the country.
The surprise attacks carried out by IS came weeks after Russia had signed settlement agreements with armed opposition factions in Deraa after military strikes by the Russian air force and pro-Iranian fighters.
During the IS attacks, the regime led by Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad also carried out air strikes, but it did not use substantial weapons to change the course of the battles.
Local groups in the province tried to resist the IS attacks, but they suffered great losses before returning to their bases.
The majority of Sweidaa residents are Druze who have taken up a neutral stance throughout the Syrian Revolution, most Druze clerics having good relations with the regime while the local people generally support the opposition.
This has allowed the province to avoid the horrors that have visited areas where the opposition is present, though this neutrality has also raised many questions.
Although many Druze clerics have supported the regime, others have opposed it. Independent Druze leader Sheikh Wahid Al-Balos was killed in a car bomb on 4 September 2015 along with 28 of his supporters, for example, perhaps targeted because unlike traditional Druze leaders he was not appointed by the Al-Assad regime.
Al-Balos was the leader of the “Men of Pride” group, and he opposed the military draft for the Druze because the Druze communities are on the frontlines of the conflict.
He was able to protect some 27,000 young Druze who fled the draft, causing the regime to threaten to hand over the area to IS to the east.
His assassination should have been a watershed in the relationship between the Druze and the regime, but apart from a handful of demonstrations denouncing the assassination calm was quickly restored in the province.
Druze clerics warned against siding with the revolution or fighting on the side of the opposition, and those calling for avenging Al-Balos were silenced. Druze youth even began joining Al-Assad’s militias, which distanced them from the opposition and the rest of the Druze.
The Syrian Druze have chosen to remain neutral in order to avoid the wrath of the regime, with some claiming that this neutrality has kept their provinces safe so they can receive those who have been displaced or have fled from cities destroyed by the regime.
Some Druze leaders have justified their neutrality out of distrust of the opposition, which they accuse of being sectarian, even though there have been no sectarian incidents in Sweidaa by the armed opposition in nearby Deraa, who are Sunni Muslims.
IS quickly claimed responsibility for the Sweidaa attacks, but although IS fingerprints are evident in terms of force, the scale of human losses, and the timing, there have been suspicions that the regime was involved, along with its ally Iran and possibly even Russia.
This is due to the fact that in May the regime transported hundreds of IS combatants from Damascus to the suburbs of Sweidaa. It allowed militia leader Khaled bin Al-Walid, who has pledged loyalty to IS, to leave Deraa for Sweidaa and turned a blind eye to actions on the ground, including IS massacres.
Many believe the regime is taking revenge on the Druze in Sweidaa because the group’s elders have refused to allow its young people to volunteer in regime ranks.
Some 40,000 Druze are believed to have defected from the army or avoided the draft, and Sweidaa residents have also expelled regime representatives.
Up until now, however, the province was not a priority for the regime, and it was left relatively calm compared to the rest of Syria. There were checkpoints at the borders, and residents were blackmailed or terrorised, but few other actions were taken.
Russia is a suspect in the recent attacks because it failed in June to convince Druze leaders in Sweidaa to return to the embrace of the regime, indicating that force could be used to draft Druze young people into new military units overseen by the Russians.
There are also suspicions of Iranian involvement, since Iran has been trying to integrate into local communities and convince them that irregular militias, including Lebanese and Iraqi groups loyal to Iran, will protect them.
IS, believed to be the perpetrator of the attacks, wants to send the message that it is alive and well despite being defeated in most of Syria.
It chose a relatively stable region for the attacks because it did not expect resistance, and it also wants to spoil relations between the Druze and the regime in the hope that the Druze will start to fight and further polarise the region.
Some argue that the Druze have been close to the regime during the revolution because of the strong relationship between the two sides for decades when the regime promoted itself as the protector of religious minorities against the country’s Sunni majority.
After the revolution began, the regime promoted the dangers facing the Druze as a “targeted” minority, though it has not granted the Druze anything like what it has given the Alawites.
The regime has followed a strategy of divide and rule and of terrorising minorities. It has convinced the Alawites that it is their protector against Syria’s Sunnis, conjuring up historical fears.
It has also launched campaigns in the direction of the Christian clergy, aiming to convince their congregations that they are under threat and that Salafist groups want to expel them from Syria.
Many Christians have drawn closer to the regime as a result, and in the case of the Druze the regime has similarly played on fears about jihadists and armed opposition groups in Syria.
The opposition has not paid much attention to the country’s minorities, relying instead on verbal reassurances without real political action plans.
When the armed combat began in the wake of the revolution, this confirmed minority fears, and the wedge planted by the regime grew wider.
The Druze are not entirely integrated into Syrian society, and they have remained closed in on themselves and protective of their region.
Yet, even if IS carried out the attacks on Sweidaa, this does not absolve the regime of responsibility because of its allowing terrorists to infiltrate the area.
The regime has long benefited from the existence of IS, either to justify its war on the Sunni opposition, or to promote itself in the West as targeted by terrorist groups.
It has presented itself as the protector of minorities, or the “best worst” option, making the world change its focus from overthrowing Al-Assad to stamping out terrorism in Syria.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 16 August 2018 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: Islamic State strikes the Druze