The process of editing a piece often leads to oversimplification for the sake of word limits and the like. Here is some original content that did not make it into the final piece I co-wrote with Daveed Gartenstein-Ross for Foreign Affairs on the issue of the Druze of Jabal al-Summaq in Idlib province and jihadist interactions with them, both historically and following the Qalb Lawze massacre:
1. The Druze of Idlib have issued two statements renouncing their original faith. The first came in November 2013 as a result of pressure from ISIS, which had expanded across northern Syria in that year and, despite being thinly spread, seems to have had sufficient strength in the Jabal al-Summaq area to pressure the Druze to announce conversion to Sunni Islam. Below is the full statement translated for the first time:
"In the name of God, the Compassionate, the Merciful
Praise be to God who sent His Messenger with guidance and the religion of Truth to be over all religion even if the mushrikeen [idolators] hate it, and prayers and peace be upon the Sayyid al-Mursaleen [Master of Those Sent] and the seal of the Prophets Muhammad bin Abdullah, all his family and companions, and whoso has followed them with ihsan to the Day of Judgment. Praise be to God, we are Muslims to God- Almighty and Exalted is He- the One, the Eternal- and we are those who believe that they [i.e. the Muslims] are the most abundant in 'Ilm [Islamic knowledge], most preferred in mind, and most abundant in guidance from the sons of our tribe in the villages of the province of Idlib whose names are as follows: Kaftin, Ma'arat al-Ikhwan, Birat Kaftin, Kafr Bani, Arshin, al-Duwair, Alata, Aberita, Jid'ain, Halla, Talatiya, Kuku, Kafr Maris, Bashanad-Laya, Banashad-Lati, Qalb Lawze, Banabel.
We affirm and testify that there is no deity but God alone, with no partner for Him, in absoluteness and unity. And we testify that Muhammad is His Servant and Messenger, the Seal of the Prophets whom He sent as a guider and warner for all mankind. We disavow those who affiliate us falsely and in slander with the cursed, reprehensible Muhammad bin Ismail al-Darazi [early figure in the Druze sect], and we disavow him, his batini [derogatory term for esoteric] doctrine, responsible for the Druze creed which we declare to be kufr [disbelief] and disavow. And we declare to be disbelievers all who are on the path of his religion. And in fiqh we emulate the madhhab of Imam Muhammad bin Idris al-Shafi'i al-Qurashi [founder of the Shafi'i school of jurisprudence]- may God have mercy on him- without taqlid [slavish imitation] or ta'assub [extremism]: and it is belief in God, His angels, His Books, His Messengers, and resurrection after death, as well as belief in destiny, for better or worse. And from belief in God is belief in how He described himself in His book [Qur'an] and how His Messenger Muhammad (SAWS) was described, without distortion, obstruction, modality or analogy.
Rather, we believe that God is Exalted (there is nothing like Him, and He is the Hearer, the Seer), so there is no refrainment for the Ahl al-Sunna wa al-Jama'at from what the Mursaleen brought, for it is the Straight Path, the path of those who have been blessed from the Prophets, the Truthful, the Martyrs and the Just. And we believe in God, His Books and that the Qur'an is the Word of God, revealed and not created, beginning from Him and returning to Him, and we believe that He spoke in it truth and that this Qur'an which he revealed to our Sayyid Muhammad (SAWS) is the word of God in truth, and there is no word besides it and it is not permissible to say that it is a mere narration from the word of God or expression from it. Rather, if people read it or write it with that on pages, it would not be possible to disagree that it is the word of truth.
And we believe in the Last Day, and belief in all that the Prophet (SAWS) told about what would be after death, the arising and resurrection. And we believe that the doctrine of transmigration is a Hindu doctrine contrary to the doctrine of belief in the Last Day, Arising and the Resurrection at the Judgement. Further, we believe that faith is increased through obedience and diminished by rebellion, and we do not declare to be kuffar the people of qibla on the basis of disobefience and great sins as the Khawarij do. And we affirm the peace of our hearts and tongues towards the Companions of the Messenger of God (SAWS), just as God described them for him in the Almighty's words: "And those who came after them, saying: 'Our Lord, forgive us and our brothers who preceded us in faith and do not place any resentment in our hearts towards those who have believed. Our Lord, indeed you are kind, merciful'" [Qur'an 59:10]. And we do so out of obedience to the Prophet in his words: "And do not abuse my Companions, for by the One in whose hand my soul is, if one of you were to spend gold equal to Mount Uhud, it would not be worth one of them or even half that person." And we believe that God said to the people of Badr and they were some 310 in number- "Know that what sins you have committed, I have forgiven you"- and [the words of the Prophet]: "No one who has given the pledge under the tree will enter Hellfire."
And we testify that Paradise is for whomsoever of the ten for whom the Messenger of God (SAWS) has borne witness for Paradise [the tradition of the ten promised Paradise]. And we affirm what has been transmitted on the authority of the Amir al-Mu'mineen Ali bin Abi Talib (may God be pleased with him): that the best of this Ummah after its Prophet is Abu Bakr, then Omar, followed third by Othman and fourth by Ali, may God be pleased with them all. And we love the people of the House of the Messenger of God (SAWS) and we are loyal to them and affirm over then the testament of the Messenger of od (SAWS) when he said on the Day of Ghadeer Khumm: "I remind you for God of the people of my House....I remind you for God of the people of my House." And he also said that God chose the children of Ismail, and from the children of Ismail He chose a quiver, and from the quiver Quraysh, and from Quraysh the children of Hashim [Bani Hashim] and then a prophet from Bani Hashim.
And we are loyal to the wives of the Messenger of God, the mothers of the believers. And we believe that they are his wives in the Hereafter especially Khadija- may God be pleased with her- the mother of most of his children and the first who believed in him and supported him over his affairs, and there has been for her from it the highest rank, and al-Sadiqa bint al-Sadiq [A'isha daughter of Abu Bakr], may God be pleased with them both, about whom the Prophet (SAWS) said: "The rank of A'isha over other women is as the rank of porridge" and whosoever curses one of the Prophet's wives has committed kufr. And we follow the footsteps of the Messenger of God (SAWS) internally and externally and the following of the path of the first precedents from the muhajireen and ansar and the following of the testament of the Prophet (SAWS) when he said: "Upon you be my Sunna and the Sunna of the rightly-guided Caliphs (successors) after me so stick to them and bite upon them with your molar teeth. And beware of new developments of matters, for they constitute innovation and all innovation is misguidance."
And we know that the truest words are those of God, and the best guidance is the guidance of Muhammad (SAWS) and we hold the words of God over the words of those besides Him from the talk of the classes of people, and we present the guidance of Muhammad over the guidance of everyone else because al-Jama'at is the gathering on the guidance of Muhammad, and its opposite is division, so upon us is what was upon the just predecessors from testifying that there is no deity but God and that Muhammad is the Messenger of God, establishing prayer, giving zakat, fasting in Ramadan, and performing pilgrimage to the House as far as one can, jihad, coming together and the feasts. And we owe the Ummah for advice and believe the meaning of SAWS' words- "The believer is to the believer as the edifice, strengthening each other," and he said that clasping his hands and interlacing his fingers- and the words of SAWS: "The believers are like one body in love, mercy and compassion for one another. If one part of it is distressed, the rest of the body responds to it with wakefulness and fever."
And our path is the religion of Islam with which God sent Muhammad, so those adhering to Islam, clean and pure of dilution, are the Ahl al-Sunna wa al-Jama'at, among whom are the truthful, the martyrs, the just, and from them are the banners of guidance, the lamps for the darkness that have applied the transmitted virtues and mentioned good qualities, and among them are the replacements and the victorious sect about which the Prophet said: "A sect will remain openly on the path of Truth, and no one who abandons them shall harm them, nor shall anyone who contravenes them, until the Hour arises." So we ask God the Great to place us among them and not to avert our hearts after He has guided us and grant us what mercy He has. Indeed He is the Granter. And may God's blessings and peace be upon Muhammad, his family and companions, great deliverance."
2. ISIS sought to phase out gradually traditional Druze religious and cultural practices following on from this statement under the guidance of an allied Saudi cleric, but the ISIS presence in Jabal al-Summaq proved to be short-lived with the outbreak of infighting between ISIS and the rebels in January 2014. This culminated in ISIS' withdrawal from Idlib province. Officially, the November 2013 statement of renunciation of the Druze faith was never cancelled, but the presence of the Syrian Revolutionaries Front (SRF) in Jabal al-Summaq allowed for the inhabitants to retain some of their customs, including the maintenance of some shrines, as SRF leader Jamal Ma'arouf pledged to guarantee rights for the Druze of Jabal al-Summaq.
However, SRF was in turn expelled from Idlib province by Jabhat al-Nusra in November 2014, giving the latter primary control over Jabal al-Summaq. Jabhat al-Nusra's amir for the area- Abu Abd al-Rahman al-Tunisi- doubted the sincerity of the official profession of Sunni Islam, noticing, for example, that some of the shrines still remained. Accordingly, in January 2015, he had representatives of the villages issue a second statement of renunciation of the Druze faith, with an explicit commitment to destroying shrines, teaching Islam with a particular focus on the youth, and adhering to Shari'i regulations on women's dress and gender-mixing etc. This led to the destruction of remaining shrines, such as the Sheikh Izz al-Din and Sheikh Abu Salah shrines in Kaftin. Meanwhile, the al-Omari mosque in Kaftin, which had been previously closed by the regime's antiquities division, had been reopened and renovated for religious use (that process already begun under ISIS).
Ruins from the shrines of Kaftin destroyed by Jabhat al-Nusra following the second statement of renunciation of the Druze faith in January 2015 (photo from a local sent to me).
The al-Omari mosque in Kaftin renovated for religious use (photo from a local sent to me).
Religious instruction includes books such as Kitab al-Tawheed by Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab (the founder of Wahhabism), "Al-Aqidat al-Wasatiya" by Ibn Taymiyya, and even books from Saudi Arabia and Qatar, as per photos I obtained below.
A book from the Qatari Ministry of Endowments and Islamic Affairs used by Jabhat al-Nusra as part of Islamic re-education: "The Hijab and Adornment: Between Truth and Delusion."
"The Creed of the Ahl al-Sunna wa al-Jama'at"- another book used by Jabhat al-Nusra for re-education, by Muhammad bin Saleh al-Uthaymeen, who was a key Saudi establishment cleric.
3. In the aftermath of the massacre in Qalb Lawze (which, it must be emphasized, was rooted in land disputes as Jabhat al-Nusra had been confiscating land it said belonged to people from Jabal al-Summaq working with the regime forces and had been awarding the confiscated land to its own members or refugees***), Abu Abd al-Rahman al-Tunisi was removed from his position, though no local evidence points to a trial as promised by Jabhat al-Nusra and execution of the perpetrators of the massacre. Indeed, had a trial taken place, surely Jabhat al-Nusra would have publicised it? In any case, an interim amir was appointed from Aleppo- Abu Faysal al-Souri- and then in August, Abu Qatada al-Iraqi arrived on the scene. In theory, he is supposed to be subordinate to an Abu Abdullah from Hawiqa of Deir az-Zor, but he seems to be managing policy in practice. In this context, he delivered the speech of which I obtained a recording with the announcement in it that he is amir for the area.
4. Other rebel groups have generally ignored the issue of forced conversion even as they condemned the Qalb Lawze massacre, though Ahrar al-Sham has checked some actions on the local level, being able to dissuade Abu Qatada al-Iraqi from establishing an additional base in Kaftin beyond his one in Qalb Lawze (renamed Qalb al-Islam by Jabhat al-Nusra).
Update (12 December 2015): It turns out Abu Qatada al-Iraqi was eventually removed from his position in Jabal al-Summaq (more than a month ago in fact), as that speech he made in Kaftin was deemed too threatening. He was then reportedly sent on assignment to Latakia province, while Abu Abdullah from Hawiqa remained in his own position as chief official.
Besides Abu Abdullah, there is another Jabhat al-Nusra Shari'i official currently of note in the area: Abu Ikrimah al-Hawrani (a name suggesting he is from the Hawran region of southern Syria). He has had a long-standing presence in Jabal al-Summaq and appears to have had some involvement in the first Islamization process in November-December 2013 brought about by pressure from the ISIS presence in Jabal al-Summaq. This is so despite his affiliation with Jabhat al-Nusra, which, though a rival of ISIS, still had a policy of avoiding outright warfare with ISIS at that point and as a jihadi group shares ISIS' belief that the Druze are not proper Muslims. In late December 2013, he wrote the following celebrating the Islamization process as it was also gaining traction in the news:
"A great conquest from God- Almighty and Exalted is He- joining the conquests that have been accomplished at the hands of the mujahideen in Syria. And this time it is a conquest and there has been nothing like it since 300 years according to my knowledge: it is that 18 of the Druze villages in Idlib al-Izz in Syria have converted to the creed of the Ahl al-Sunna wa al-Jama'at, have declared disbelief in the doctrine of the Druze and have disavowed it and whoso is affiliated with it. And by God's permission we will provide you with the details when God facilitates this matter at our hands and the hands of our brother Abu Hamdo, the leader of Liwa Ahbab Allah."
Judicially, the Jabhat al-Nusra-affiliated Dar al-Qada in Sarmada is the nearest judicial body for the group that can deal with the affairs of Jabal al-Summaq. The head of this Dar al-Qada, a Syrian from the town of Hass in Idlib province, visits the area regularly.
Update (3 January 2016): Around a week ago, Abu Abdullah from Hawiqa was also removed from his position, to be replaced by one Abu Muhammad al-Shami (though his origins as of yet are unclear). Jabhat al-Nusra has further made a decision to pay blood money to victims of the Qalb Lawze massacre.
Update (15 January 2016): It turns out Abu Abdullah from Hawiqa has been referred for trial pertaining to corruption charges, which were the original reason for his removal.
Update (13 February 2016): On 4 February, airstrikes hit the villages of Kaftin and Jid'ain. No confirmed fatalities resulted from these raids although they did result in damage to some buildings, as per the photo below from Kaftin.
One may ask why these airstrikes should occur in what is otherwise known as a safe zone that is tacitly understood not to be bombed by the regime while rebel factions- including Jabhat al-Nusra- are expected to refrain from using the area to set up military bases. In the case of Kaftin, a possible explanation is that Faylaq al-Sham seized a home in the village that belonged to someone who had moved to Damascus (migration away from Jabal al-Summaq has occurred for a variety of reasons. The foremost are being cut off from the regime that has provided state employment, refusal to accept outwardly the impositions of Sunni Islam, and the Qalb Lawze massacre). The house was then turned into a base for making IEDs. The raids may have thus been intended as a warning for the home to be cleared, as if the home itself has been targeted it may have caused damage throughout the village.
***[24 February 2016: for additional clarification, it should be noted that Abu Abd al-Rahman al-Tunisi's approach in the Qalb Lawze massacre is alleged to have been influenced by his suspicions about the sincerity of the conversions to Sunni Islam. If he still considered the inhabitants to be Druze and therefore kuffar, so the reasoning goes, he would have regarded it as permissible to kill them, which is supposedly a reason why the land disputes culminated in a massacre. However, in apologizing for the massacre, Jabhat al-Nusra did not endorse or lend credence to the idea that the inhabitants were still Druze].
Update (6 March 2016): The new amir is originally from Tabqa and also goes by the name of Abu Muhammad Shura. In addition, with regards to the influx of Turkic peoples into Qalb Lawze, at least some of these appear to have been foreigners rather than Syrian Turkmen. For a broader context on Turkic peoples coming into Syria, see this recent article on Uighurs, some of whom have reportedly settled in parts of Idlib province, especially the Jisr al-Shughur area in places once inhabited by Alawites.
Update (27 March 2016): In relation to confiscations of properties in the Jabal al-Summaq area, it should be emphasized that until now the official Jabhat al-Nusra policy has been to confiscate those properties belonging to people Jabhat al-Nusra has said are working in the ranks of regime forces. Now, however, the group has issued a decision to confiscate all empty and shut properties, conducting patrols in at least some of the villages and marking out such properties with the Jabhat al-Nusra name. Below are sample photos of such marked out properties in the village of Kuku.
However, in another village known as Kafr Bani, a patrol from Ahrar al-Sham subsequently arrived and removed the markings made by Jabhat al-Nusra on empty properties. It would appear that Ahrar al-Sham is now being more assertive in trying to interfere in Jabhat al-Nusra control of 4 villages on the plain of the Jabal al-Summaq area- Kaftin, al-Bira, Ma'arat al-Ikhwan and Kafr Bani- on the grounds that these villages are actually in areas controlled by Ahrar al-Sham and host refugees for whom Ahrar al-Sham is responsible. Compare with Ahrar al-Sham's prior interference to prevent Abu Qatada al-Iraqi from setting up a base in Kaftin. This should be contrasted with the situation further up in Jabal al-Summaq where Jabhat al-Nusra control is very clearly uncontested (e.g. Qalb Lawze)- when it came to the Qalb Lawze massacre, Ahrar al-Sham was not in fact able to stop the killing but only sent a delegation as a good-will gesture and downplayed the situation in conveying news to residents of Kaftin, for example.
Update (6 June 2016): In relation to Ahrar al-Sham's removal of markings for confiscation in Kafr Bani, it should be noted that Jabhat al-Nusra ultimately backed down. In Kuku, however, some properties were confiscated while the owners of others returned to re-open their homes. In other developments, in light of airstrikes, a number of refugees have come from Idlib and Ma'arat Misrin to Kaftin.
Update (6 September 2016): A number of events of note have taken place since the last update:
- On 14 August 2016, an air-raid hit the village of Qalb Lawze, killing two people: Ghaliya Sarhan Sa'ad and a child called Marwa Azzam (al-)Shabli. A photo of the child can be seen below:
A number of casualties also occurred, including a youth with a fractured leg.
- On 17 August 2016, air-raids hit the villages of Taltita, Kuku and al-Duwair (no ascertained casualties). These raids mostly appear to have been targeting bases set up by Jabhat al-Nusra (now rebranded as Jabhat Fatah al-Sham) despite the tacit understanding that bases should not be established as Jabal al-Summaq is to be considered a safe zone. Jabhat Fatah al-Sham was also venturing to establish a base in the village of Kaftin, arousing local opposition in fear of airstrikes (a concern aggravated by influx of IDPs) and prompting discussions with Jabhat Fatah al-Sham. As of the time of writing the matter has more or less been settled, in that Jabhat Fatah al-Sham has become convinced of the need to keep Kaftin a safe area.
- Around two weeks ago, Jabhat Fatah al-Sham appointed a new amir for the Jabal al-Summaq area: al-Hajj Baha' al-Sharm. Originally from the Idlib town of Hizano that is near Kaftin, he is 37 years old. Undoubtedly this reflects a Jabhat Fatah al-Sham strategy of appointing a more 'local' and seemingly reasonable amir. He thus succeeds Abu Muhammad al-Shami (aka Abu Muhammad Shura), who was removed a while ago (exact date uncertain) for reasons that are unclear. Between the time of Abu Muhammad al-Shami's removal and al-Hajj Baha' al-Sharm's appointment, the Jabal al-Summaq area had no amir.
- On 4 September 2016, an air-raid hit the village of Ma'arat al-Ikhwan (no deaths, but one person from Ma'arat Misrin suffered mild injury). This followed on from an air-raid that hit the vegetable market in Ma'arat Misrin on 30 August 2016, killing a number of people and leading the produce owners/sellers to move their cargoes to Ma'arat al-Ikhwan and Kaftin as these two villages are supposed to be part of the Jabal al-Summaq safe zone.
- Finally, a photo here of Abu Abd al-Rahman al-Tunisi (big guy on the left) from the winter of this year. The exact location is uncertain but clearly he was never executed or really held accountable for his actions in the Qalb Lawze affair.
Rumour has it he is currently fighting in Hama province in the ranks of Jund al-Aqsa (it should be emphasized that this is unconfirmed).
Update (28 September 2016):
- Around a week ago, al-Hajj Baha' al-Sharm issued a decision requesting a list of names of those renting property in Jabal al-Summaq, along with the name of the owner of the property, the monthly rent for the house and who receives the sum paid for the rent. Anyone living in regime-held areas and not returning to Jabal al-Summaq will not be allowed to benefit from renting of their homes, while those in the army and security apparatus will be barred from their homes entirely unless they abandon their affiliation and return. The decision will be applied next week to agricultural lands. According to al-Hajj Baha' al-Sham, the decision is justified by the fact that those who have gone to Damascus and other regime-held areas have migrated to the lands of kuffar (infidels), and so cannot be entitled to benefits from renting out homes in Jabal al-Summaq. Note that this decision does not order for confiscation of homes. Any empty home is at risk of confiscation, but for those renting out their homes and living in Damascus, for example, the idea is not to confiscate their property. Supposedly, the wealth generated from renting out of property is to be kept within Jabal al-Summaq and for people living there.
- On 16 September, a group of Turkestani [Uighur] jihadis came to the Omari mosque in Kaftin, attended the Friday sermon and afterwards spoke with the Imam of the mosque (about whom more here). They were apparently seeking homes- something rejected by the inhabitants of Kaftin as they fear such a development will expose the village to bombing. The phenomenon of a Turkestani and Turkic demographic influx into the village of Qalb Lawze has already been noted previously, such that they are apparently the majority now of the population of Qalb Lawze, only a few of whose original inhabitants remain in the village at this point. Four of the other villages- al-Duwair, Alata, Bashanad-Laya and Banashad-Lati- are by now now devoid of their original inhabitants, though to be sure they were very small in size to begin with. The original inhabitants have been replaced by a mixture of internally displaced Syrians and muhajireen.
- Internally displaced persons dwelling in schools are being removed and placed in camps, so that the year of study can begin.
Update (21 November 2016):
- Local opposition to settlement of Turkestanis in Kaftin has meant that the issue has not been raised again.
- al-Hajj Baha' al-Sharm has placed a Jabhat Fatah al-Sham checkpoint between Kaftin and Birat Kaftin to stop and inspect vehicles, much to local discontent. For example, a coach for Kaftin coming from Damascus was stopped for two hours at the checkpoint.