Fighters with the al-Nusra Front, an al-Qaeda affiliate in Syria, killed at least 20 members of the Druze community on Wednesday in the village of Qalb Lawzi in the Northwestern Idlib province. The recent violence towards Druze villagers highlights the plight of religious minorities throughout the country as radical Sunni groups continue to make territorial gains in the region.
The bloodshed began as an argument over the al-Nusra Front’s use of a government soldier’s house. The family of the soldier did not want the militants to confiscate their home, garnering the attention of other civilians who gathered around the house brandishing sticks. According to the Syrian Observatory, a human rights organization, one villager was killed before an angry protester grabbed a rifle from a militant, further escalating the situation. An al-Nusra Front commander then indiscriminately shot at the locals, killing an elderly villager and children who had gathered in the crowd.
Druze supporters of Syrian President Bashar al-Asad. (Photo: Avihu Shapira)
As a minority group that subscribes to an offshoot of Islam, many Druze are considered considered heretics by Sunnis. Most Druze found themselves supporting Syrian President Bashar al-Asad, despite their misgivings about the Syrian government. As the conflict continued, however, the Druze community have mostly abandoned Asad, seeing him as ineffective at protecting their interests.
Meanwhile, a series of incidents suggest the al-Nusra Front, which swore allegiance to al-Qaeda’s leadership, will continue to persecute religious minorities. In April 2013, Christian leaders were targeted by Islamists, leading to the kidnapping and murder of two Orthodox bishops. Later that year, fighters with the group abducted 13 nuns, holding them for four months in exchange for weapons. Additionally, the al-Nusra Front advanced on the traditionally Christian stronghold of Mardeh, desecrating nearby churches and monuments last September, according to The Telegraph.
As the al-Nusra Front gains more territory, they claim that they will be more inclusive than other Islamist organizations, such as the Islamic State. Both al-Nusra Front and the Islamic State claim that Christians living in conquered territories must pay jizya, a tax that signifies their submission to Islamic rulers, or else face death.
With the newfound gains made by the Islamic State, the empty promises of the al-Nusra Front, and the weakening position of Asad, the Druze community now finds itself in an unstable Syria without many allies. And even with control over large areas, Islamists often still lack the consent of the governed.