Middle East

A sect in the Middle: Syria’s Alawites endure considerable resentment

A rally in Saraqeb, Idlib, where activists hold banners that read, “I am … Arab … Kurdish … Sunni … Alawi … Druze … Christian.”

BEIRUT: There are two narratives swirling around the Alawites of Syria, as a horrific war envelops the country. The dominant narrative says they are an embattled Muslim heterodox minority whose members have rallied around their president, Bashar Assad.

But people also hear about those Alawites who appear among the ranks of the hard-core opposition to the regime, or the so-called “patriotic opposition,” whose members in the country advocate dialogue and not armed rebellion.

In fact, a large segment of the community lies somewhere in the middle, struggling with the same kinds of problems faced by others in Syria.

Assad’s hometown, Qardaha in northern coastal Latakia, was the scene this week of tension and violence when a gunfight erupted, pitting two groups of Alawite families, one including the Assads, against each other.

A group of anti-regime activists who call themselves the “Movement of Bees on the Coast,” issued a Facebook post that said the incident was not an emotional, ad-hoc response to the actions of the Assad clan and its allies.

Instead, the activists said, the reaction was the result of long-term feelings of “injustice felt by the majority of the Alawite sect.”

The majority might be the victim of such injustice, but they have yet to rally around any one figure or political party other than Assad.

The community lacks any significant organizational structures outside family, clan and tribe, and these are often weak. Business or professional interests bind Alawites together, but not in any systematic way.

They have members in the Baath Party, Communist Party and Syrian Social Nationalist Party, as well as in a dizzying range of liberal-secular groupings, both new and old. The mashayekh, or informal network of religious authorities, aren’t particularly influential either.

Whole swathes of the community are either agnostic or outright atheist, although some Alawites pray and fast, a relatively recent phenomenon that was reportedly encouraged by the late Hafez Assad.

In general, they consider themselves Alawites, and Muslims, but not Shiites, and many would like to think that above all, they are Syrians.

Socially, the Alawites fit in everywhere, from poor peasants grinding out a living in rural areas to high-profile artists, writers, intellectuals and, most recently, television stars, living well in the capital. They are schoolteachers, lawyers, nurses, doctors and engineers, and businesspeople and technicians, among other things.

Another narrative is that Alawites have risen to prominence under the Assad era, and somehow systematically benefited from the community’s “dominance” of the state and the lucrative heights of the economy.

The stereotypes about Alawites generate considerable resentment.

An Alawite professional described to The Daily Star how he was let down by the Syrian National Council strand of the external opposition, complaining that “when people talk about ‘good, or honorable, Alawites,’ it means that the rest are bad.”

“But they don’t use the same discourse about Sunnis, for example,” he added.

The supposed privileged position for Alawites over the life of the Baath regime has failed to prevent thousands upon thousands of them from emigrating, to find better work opportunities or escape an oppressive system. In this, the Alawites resemble most other sectarian or ethnic communities and thus Syrian society as a whole.

And, as many in the community can relate, in the 1980s Alawites were prominent in the secular, left-wing and sometimes militant opposition to the Assad regime. These individuals were persecuted as relentlessly as the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood, if not more so.

In response to the uprising of March 2011, a significant group of Alawites have considered themselves both anti-regime and anti-opposition, a position that is interpreted variously.

The two sides in the struggle accuse these people of “betraying” their patriotic duty, which is to either rise up against the regime, or support it fully.

As the Alawite professional put it, the situation on the ground 18 months into the uprising has seen two points of view, each supported by mass media outlets, drown out those seeking to find common ground.

“It’s very difficult to even talk to people about what’s going on,” he said. “You talk to one person, and it’s like you’re talking to Al-Jazeera. You talk to someone else, and it’s like you’re talking with Al-Dunya.”

For now, the dominant feeling in the community is that of uncertainty, if not outright fear, of the bugbear of a rebellion that is overwhelmingly Sunni, dangerously Islamist, or a combination of the two.

These middle-of-the-road Alawites might not be sympathetic or loyal to the regime, but they remain distrustful of the Free Syrian Army and elements of the opposition that call for foreign intervention in the conflict.

And the group is large enough to have its own shades of distinction. An Alawite businessman commented that some middle-of-the-roaders could be classified as slightly closer to the regime, while others could be considered more sympathetic to the opposition.

Khawla Dunia, an Alawite activist, has argued that like the country’s other minorities, the Alawites fall into one of four categories: pro-regime, pro-opposition, “silent” supporters of the opposition, and those who are neutral, giving tacit support to the regime because it’s the only side that can offer protection against an uncertain future.

The chief problem is that the Syrian opposition, whether the SNC, the FSA or other parties, has nothing much to offer the community other than verbal “guarantees” that no sectarian massacres will take place if the regime should fall.

Late last month, the opposition SNC issued a statement saying that it would not allow revenge attacks against the Alawites, and spokesperson George Sabra added that “no one should fear the victory of the revolution.”

But the SNC has yet to prove its ability to influence events on the ground and the entire notion of “guarantees,” some say, is insulting in and of itself.

It merely confirms that the sect has something to fear and needs to be kept safe, because it is implicated en masse in the Assad era’s policies and practices over several decades.

Social media might help people organize peaceful protests and promote the slogans of democracy and pluralism, but it also gives voice to hate speech, and there is a deafening volume of pro-uprising rhetoric that is anti-Alawite, and also anti-Shiite, because of Iran and Hezbollah’s support for Assad.

More than one FSA battalion has named itself after Ibn Taymiyya, the 14th century Sunni Muslim scholar who urged the extermination of Alawites as heretics.

This kind of act cancels out any favorable rhetoric or actions by other elements of the FSA, some of whose spokesmen often promise to establish a Syria that is pluralist and civil, and not religious in character.

The latest misstep by the opposition was a video issued last week, in which FSA figures announced the unification of Revolutionary Military Councils in a number of major towns.

While the rhetoric of the event was primarily nationalistic, the guest of honor at the long dais, flanked by a dozen officers, was Sheikh Adnan Arur, the regime’s favorite target of spite – a hard-line Sunni cleric who has been vicious in his rants against the Alawites.

For middle-of-the-roaders, the bloody crackdown by the regime against the population is a red line that has been crossed, and means the authorities do not deserve support.

But Arur is another red line, meaning that the FSA and the hard-core opposition should not be supported either.

Like other Syrians, Alawites have also been moving in different directions depending on their personal experiences with the violence.

Many have friends or relatives who have been killed in the battles, or kidnapped and murdered by either FSA groups or criminal elements. Others have known people who were kidnapped and then released safely, which can color the way a person views the rebel cause.

But as the conflict drags on, people are becoming steadily traumatized by all of the murder and destruction around them, and simply want an end to it all.

The fear that sect-based ethnic cleansing will break out should the rebels win remains dominant – but this fear, and the talk that Alawites are being targeted for liquidation, has been present since the beginning of the uprising.

Every week in which it fails to erupt as a widespread phenomenon is a boon for the sect, and for the country.

In exhibiting three significant orientations – pro-regime, pro-opposition and pro-solution – the Alawites would appear to mirror the rest of society more than people think.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on October 06, 2012, on page 10.




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