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Resurrection of Traditional Leadership Reignites Self-governance Debate Among Druze

  • Mazen Ezzi

    Syrian researcher, Syria Initiative EUI and Editor of the HLP section of The Syria Report

    باحث سوري في مبادرة سوريا ضمن معهد الجامعة الأوروبية ومحرر قسم المساكن والأراضي والمِلكية في موقع سيريا ريبورت.

A resurgence of traditional leadership is not welcomed by all in Swaida.

In May in the southern province of Swaida, following a local kidnapping, the Syrian Military Security intelligence service and the Baath Party in Swaida supported bringing back an 18th-century Druze document known as ‘Blood Spill’ into effect. The document allows major Druze families to take blood revenge in cases where a Druze commits a crime against another Druze.

If implemented, the ‘Blood Spill’ would mark an increase in the authority of major Druze family leaders, but would be a violation of state judicial authorities. Resurrecting this document not only reflects the regime’s attempt at consolidating its control at the local level, but also the agent/client relationship between the regime and the traditional leaders.

This method of exerting authority is not new for the regime but its extent has been increasing since 2011. In August 2011, at the outbreak of the Syrian conflict, the regime issued Legislative Decree 107 as a way of increasing its authority at the local level through utilizing local authority figures and structures as tools of control. The decree includes a law on local administration that aims to ‘decentralize powers and responsibilities and concentrate them in the hands of different elements of the people’.

But far from being a way to devolve power, this decree as well as the later blessing of the ‘Blood Spill’ are part of a return to traditional leadership structures being pushed by the regime, which sees Syrian society as a collection of sects, confessional groups and tribes, who can be governed through traditional and religious leaders, rather than citizenship and a state governed by the law.

The fact that the regime has totally ignored the civil movement in Swaida, including widespread protests with many demands including from the influential Lawyers’ Syndicate that revolve around strengthening the rule of law, can be seen as a culmination of this effort to profile Syrian society in confessional and tribal terms.

Self-governance debate

The regime’s apparent ‘empowerment’ of traditional leaders, which in reality is actually about consolidating regime power, takes advantage of the historical marginalization of the Druze community from the state that has existed since the coup that brought late president Hafiz Al-Assad to power in 1970, and has led to a split in Druze society between those who call for self-governance as a way to overcome marginalization and those who oppose it.

The regime’s support for increasing the authority of family leaders suits the traditional leadership in Syria’s Druze community, which has been marginalized since the Baath party took power in 1963. When the Syrian revolution began in 2011, the regime restored a certain amount of influence to local traditional leaders it saw as loyal, giving a major boost to the three ‘Uqqal Sheikhs as mediators between the authorities and Druze society. This was the result of an implicit agreement between the two sides that allowed young Druze men to avoid ‘mandatory and reserve military service’ in the regime’s forces, providing they remained in their areas or volunteered in local militias.

Today, following the self-isolation of the current first ‘Uqqal sheikh, Al-Hajari, who is considered the strongest supporter of the regime, the other two ‘Uqqal sheikhs are attempting to form an alliance with the head of the Atrash family in the town of ‘Ira. The recent reconciliation between the two ‘Uqqal sheikhs and the Sheikhs of Karama, a militia formed by young religious Druze that had opposed the regime after the start of the Syrian uprising, appears to have given weight to this traditional leadership.

On the other side of the argument is a large group of Swaida residents who are against self-government. Their narrative is based on Syrian nationalism, the role of the Druze in winning Syrian independence in 1946 and their leading role in the Syrian revolution of 1925 against the French Mandate. For these people, any talk of self-government or decentralized administration is tantamount to secession from Syria and would be a mark of national shame. Some of those who hold this view are people who benefit from the status quo.

On the other hand, leaders of various Druze militias have arisen as new elites. They have been quieter and more cautious in dealing with the issue of self-government, for reasons related to how they came into existence and the support they are given by the regime’s security apparatus, as well as the fact that some of them rely on Iran for finance, training and weaponry. Druze militia leaders have not been able to turn their military clout into political influence, but have remained hostage to their financial interests, which in turn are determined by their involvement in the war economy through smuggling, kidnapping and killing. Public anger at the lack of security has been directed towards these militias, which have faced a crippling financial crisis since the closure of smuggling routes into and out of ISIS-held territory in the east of the province.

The militias are now trying to get around this crisis by brokering deals with the traditional leaders. It is those deals, between the traditional leadership and the elites in the militias sponsored by the regime, that will determine the shape of local governance mechanisms in Swaida that might come into effect in the future.


Mazen Ezzi is a Syrian researcher and journalist. He graduated from Damascus University. He works as an editor at Almodon e-newspaper, and senior researcher in Synaps.