At the centre of Majdal Shams, a small town about 35 miles south-west of Damascus, there is a fearsome-looking statue. A warrior, with a long moustache, his curved sword thrust high in the air.
This is Sultan al-Atrash, the Syrian Druze leader who led an uprising against French colonial rule nearly 100 years ago.
The statue is a reminder of the independent spirit and distinct cultural identity of the Druze people, who have lived on the Golan Heights for centuries.
But the reality is that the Druze on this land have been long subdued. Since Israel took this strategically vital high ground from Syria in the war of 1967, they have been living under military occupation. Sit for a while by the roundabout where the statue of the Sultan stands, and an Israeli-armoured personnel carrier will soon drive past.
More than 100,000 Druze left this land and fled to Syria because of the war, but around 20,000 stayed. And for nearly 50 years, they have been cut off from the country that used to be their home, and the Assad government, which always protected their interests as a religious minority.
In the face of the Israeli occupation, the Druze in the Golan always used to swear their loyalty to Hafez al-Assad, and later, his son, Bashar. Many still dream of reunification with Damascus.The statue of al-Atrash is still sometimes wrapped in the Syrian government’s flag.
But as Syria’s war has ground on, some of the Druze have found themselves questioning old loyalties. Allegiance to the old country is all very well, but how can they support a president who has used poison gas and barrel bombs to massacre his own people?
And the war has created an uncomfortable reality for them. Druze communities inside Syria have been attacked by the extremists on the rebel side, and an embattled Assad no longer gives them shelter. But in the Golan Heights, Israel’s occupation has protected the Druze from the slaughter on the other side of the border fence.
Do they really want to return to a society where so much blood has been shed, and might it be time now to look at their occupier in a different way?
For such a proud and independent people, these are difficult questions. But their choices have long been defined by other people’s wars.
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