Among the Alawites

Nir Rosen reports from Syria

Syria’s Alawite heartland is defined by its funerals. In Qirdaha in the mountainous Latakia province, hometown of the Assad dynasty, I watched as two police motorcycles drove up the hill, pictures of Bashar mounted on their windshields. An ambulance followed, carrying the body of a dead lieutenant colonel from state security. As the convoy passed, the men around me let off bursts of automatic fire. My local guides were embarrassed that I had seen this display, and claimed it was the first time it had happened. ‘He is a martyr, so it is considered a wedding.’ Schoolchildren and teachers lining the route threw rice and flower petals. ‘There is no god but God and the martyr is the beloved of God!’ they chanted. Hundreds of mourners in black walked up through the village streets to the local shrine. ‘Welcome, oh martyr,’ they shouted. ‘We want no one but Assad!’

It was April, my sixth month travelling through Syria. After I left I heard of another funeral not far away, in the village of Ras al-Ayn, near the coast. A village of seven thousand people now had seven martyrs from the security forces, six missing or captured and many wounded. ‘Every day we have martyrs,’ an officer said. ‘It’s all a sacrifice for the nation.’ Another talked about ‘their’ crimes, and said ‘they’ had killed the soldier because he was an Alawite. One of my guides berated him for speaking of the conflict in sectarian terms in front of me. ‘The opposition have left us no choice,’ another soldier said. ‘They accept nothing but killing.’

Alawites – the heterodox Shia sect to which the Assads belong and which remains most loyal to the president and his government – make up about 10 per cent of the population. Most Syrians – about 65 per cent – are Sunni Arabs. The Alawites are one of several minorities, along with Sunni Kurds and Christians, the Druze, non-Alawite Shi’ites and Ismailis. But they have always been seen as a special case. Few Alawites are familiar with the tenets of Alawite faith: they are known by initiates only. But belief in the transmigration of the soul, reincarnation and the divinity of the Prophet’s cousin Ali – in a trinity comprising Ali, Muhammad and one of his companions, Salman al Farisi – puts Alawites at a remove from mainstream Islam. For most Alawites, religion is less a rigorous faith than an expression of their culture.

Alawite identity turns on a minority complex and fear of Sunni domination. Alawites like to rehearse the story of their oppression. ‘The lot of the Alawis was never enviable,’ the Palestinian historian Hanna Batatu wrote. ‘Under the Ottomans they were abused, reviled and ground down by exactions and, on occasion, their women and children led into captivity and disposed of by sale.’ They were practically serfs to the Sunni feudal lords put in place by the Ottomans. It was only when the French mandate began in 1920 that the traditional Sunni elite was eroded and minorities, Alawites among them, began to enjoy a measure of social mobility. The Alawites pleaded in vain with the French to grant them a separate state that would protect them from a Sunni ascendancy.

To Alawites, the pan-Arab doctrine of the Ba’ath Party, which took power in a coup in 1963, was a way to transcend sectarian identity. The army and the civil service gave them a way out of their impoverished villages. Soon all kinds of people with rural backgrounds, but Alawites especially, began to dominate the non-commissioned officer corps and the military academies. In 1971 Hafez al-Assad, an Alawite and a former commander of the air force, now the minister of defence, led a coup against a Ba’athist rival. When Hafez died in 2000, after thirty years in power, his son Bashar took over. In that time Alawites had gone from marginalised minority to protégés of the state, and the state in turn became the bulwark of Alawite identity. ‘Working for cohesion at the present juncture is the strong fear among Alawis of every rank that dire consequences for all Alawis could ensue from an overthrow or collapse of the existing regime,’ Batatu wrote in 1981.

Historically, Alawites stood so far at the margins of Islam that Assad the elder had to ‘Islamise’ them in order to be accepted as the ruler of Syria by its Sunni majority. Alawites regard themselves as more ‘liberal’ and secular than mainstream Muslims. They point to their use of alcohol, the Western dress codes of Alawite women and their freer interaction with men. Sometimes they disparage the more conservative Sunnis. They remember the Muslim Brotherhood uprising of the 1980s as a time of sectarian violence in which the regime crushed terrorists; Sunnis think of it as a time of regime brutality during which they were collectively targeted. These days it’s hard to find a Sunni member of the opposition who didn’t lose an uncle or have a father or grandfather imprisoned in the crackdown that followed. The opposition has said nothing about what would or should be done with the hundreds of thousands of men in the security forces if the present regime falls. Alawites believe they have reason to be afraid.

In the coastal province of Tartus and other parts of the Alawite heartland, countless new loyalist checkpoints have been set up, manned by the Syrian Army or by paramilitary members of popular committees in a mix of civilian clothes and military gear. The countryside has armed itself. In May I visited the mountain town of Sheikh Badr in Tartus province. Forty-three townsmen in the security forces had been killed; seven others had been captured or were missing. While I was in the mayor’s office he received news that a wounded soldier had just been brought in. Sheikh Badr’s first martyr was killed in Daraa in April 2011, one month into the uprising. Its most recent, a colonel killed in Damascus, was buried two days before I visited.

The town is known for its shrine to Sheikh Saleh al-Ali, an anti-colonial figure who fought the French. ‘In a famous speech he rejected the idea of an independent Alawite state because he loved the country,’ the mayor said, reciting part of the speech to me from memory while Abu Haidar, a local security man, listened on. ‘We don’t believe in Hafez al-Assad because he was Alawite but because he was great patriot,’ the security man said. ‘Can any regime rule for forty years without the consent of its people?’ The mayor struggled when I asked him how he would respond to a new president ruling Syria. Like most Alawites I met he couldn’t imagine a government without an Assad. One of the men with him wondered why – in Libya, Tunisia, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and elsewhere – the West was supporting Islamists rather than ‘the more secular and advanced movements’. The mayor, like many regime supporters, believed there was an Islamist conspiracy in the region. To him, the uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya were not a spontaneous eruption of popular protest but an organised conspiracy connecting the US, the Muslim Brotherhood and Arab Gulf countries. ‘This is not a popular movement, this is a Salafi movement,’ one of the men said. ‘What did the revolutions in Tunisia, Libya, Egypt achieve?’ Abu Haidar asked. The rise to power of Islamists in those three countries made government supporters even more uncomfortable at the prospect of regime change.

I asked the security men why Bashar had only started his (timid) reforms after the protests in Syria began in March 2011. Abu Haidar answered as regime supporters always do that events in 2003 (the invasion of Iraq), 2005 (the assassination of the Lebanese prime minister Rafiq al-Hariri and the Syrian withdrawal from Lebanon), 2006 (Israel’s war on Lebanon), 2008 (internal fighting in Lebanon) ‘prevented us from having the freedom to reform’. I asked them if security forces had shot at unarmed demonstrators. They all said no and insisted that the regime had prohibited the use of weapons against protesters. I knew this to be false. In six months in Syria I had been at more than a hundred opposition demonstrations. I had been shot at in many of them. Once a young man standing beside me who had thrown a rock was shot in the abdomen and killed.

To travel safely through Alawite areas I hired an off-duty state security sergeant called Abu Laith. He was from Rabia, a town in the Hama countryside. In the year I had known him he seemed never to eat but smoked nargileh pipes every chance he had; he was constantly on the phone arranging deals for his second job as a cigarette smuggler. His salary was 17,000 liras a month, about £160. ‘We don’t have connections in the state,’ he told me, and therefore can’t get civil service jobs: ‘we cannot find employment except in the army or security.’ By selling smuggled cigarette cartons he could make an extra 1000 to 1500 liras a day. Several of his brothers were in the army or police. As we drove through areas he didn’t know he would ask people how to avoid Sunni towns. In some areas locals had plotted circuitous routes through Alawite and Christian towns, with arrows spraypainted on walls in one village pointing to the next so that bus drivers and others could avoid opposition strongholds. When we came close to Sunni areas Abu Laith loaded his Makarov pistol. ‘So I won’t go cheaply,’ he explained. ‘The most important thing is you don’t go cheaply.’ He told me that about a hundred men from his regional security force had been killed and two hundred injured. Five of his cousins had been killed.

Most of Rabia’s men serve in the army or security forces elsewhere in the country. Many live in military housing complexes or have settled in the working-class Alawite neighbourhoods of greater Damascus. Qudsaya, a Sunni suburb of Damascus, has two Alawite areas, one called Wurud and the other named after the Republican Guard, whose soldiers were given housing there. Both areas border working-class Sunni neighbourhoods, and since the uprising began there have been clashes between communities. Many of the buildings in Wurud were hastily and illegally constructed on state land. The authorities turn a blind eye to these informal settlements because the residents are pillars of the security forces. Here, as in the villages most of them came from, few roads are paved and services are poor. But despite the neglect they remain stalwart regime supporters, its praetorian guard on the streets. The security men who showed me round stressed the poverty of the area to prove that Alawites don’t benefit from the regime. ‘We never asked for anything, we don’t want anything, we just want security.’

When Abu Laith took me to Rabia itself, news of our arrival spread quickly. Thousands of residents staged a seemingly spontaneous but clearly sincere demonstration in support of the regime in the centre of town, next to a statue of Hafez al-Assad holding an olive branch and a sword. The statue, paid for by locals, was erected after the uprising started. Behind it was a massive poster with a picture of Hafez and Bashar. On it was written ‘Rabia is the lion’s den,’ a play on the word assad, which means ‘lion’. I was dragged from house to house so people could speak of their dead and wounded relatives, and of Rabia’s 42 martyrs. I told one group of local men that when I visited opposition strongholds like Baba Amr in Homs I always heard similar stories about fathers or sons being martyred. ‘Our sons were just going to work,’ an army colonel whose nephew was killed in Idlib said in reply. ‘There is a difference between killing a man going to work for the state and killing an armed man taking up weapons against the state. Is it peaceful demonstrators who kill five officers at a checkpoint?’

For the past year Rabia’s Alawites have clashed with neighbouring Sunni villages. Last summer the town’s students couldn’t travel into the city of Hama to take their exams because the opposition had blocked the road. Around thirty Alawite families from one nearby majority Sunni village have settled in Rabia, feeling it was no longer safe to stay where they were. The displaced families were disappointed with the government’s response. ‘We didn’t have any weapons or we would have fought back,’ one man told me. ‘They should have sent in tanks but the opposition blocked the roads. We want the state to solve our problems and the army to return us to our land. The army has to enter the villages, but the army is busy in Hama. Why is the state taking its time?’ Abu Laith’s father, a retired soldier, agreed. ‘Only the army can solve this,’ he said. ‘If we respond ourselves it will be seen as sectarian violence and other villages will join them against us. They will outnumber us.’

From Rabia I headed north-west towards Aziziya, a remote Alawite village which has clashed with the neighbouring Sunni village of Tamana. As in most Alawite villages, the majority of its men work in security or the army. Its Sunni neighbours all support the opposition, and opposition militias have been operating in the area since last spring. Salhab, the nearest town of any size, contains hundreds of displaced Alawite mothers and children who have fled the village. The fight between Aziziya and Tamana showed no sign of abating and in the town I found several families in a near hysterical state. A woman who’d recently reached Salhab shouted at me: ‘We left under fire! Our dignity is precious! Our leader is honourable! They are traitors! Everything for Bashar!’

‘We asked the state for reinforcements,’ another complained, ‘and they didn’t send them.’ All agreed that relations with their Sunni neighbours had been close until the uprising. ‘We were neighbours,’ one mother told me, ‘eating together, going to each other’s houses. Then there was sectarian incitement. They would come out and demonstrate and curse.’ Despite their frustration with the regime’s inability to protect them – you hear this in many Alawite communities – they wanted me to know how devoted they were to Bashar. ‘They can kill us all,’ one woman said, ‘but if there is one left he will still support the president.’ It’s an intriguing contradiction. Alawites regard themselves as the country’s poorest citizens, with their origins in lowly villages, thoroughly neglected by Damascus, and yet they’re willing to die in droves for the very state they argue has failed to protect them.

Early in the uprising I had got to know Dr Yahya al-Ahmad, an influential figure in one of the middle-class Alawite parts of Homs. Then, his main concern had been to work alongside Sunni friends to reduce sectarian tensions. I was sitting on the roof of his building during one of his meetings when snipers suddenly opened fire on us. Nobody was hurt; the doctor and his colleagues suspected that the snipers weren’t members of the opposition but extreme regime loyalists. When we met again earlier this year things had deteriorated – the building had been mortared twice by the opposition – and he spent most of his time in a nearby town. Nearly all the local shops were shut. He told me that Alawites had been kidnapped, and that other Alawite men had retaliated with force. I asked how many Alawites had been killed. ‘The dead, the numbers?’ he replied. ‘The clock stopped ticking. The numbers stopped mattering.’ My friends in the opposition said much the same of their own dead.

‘Armed men control things,’ Yahya went on. ‘I am armed. It’s a response, if the state fails to provide security then it’s down to me. You cannot, as an Alawite, put all your trust in the state. What if the security man at the checkpoint is asleep?’ Yahya’s position had changed. ‘A year ago if you’d asked me who could replace Bashar al-Assad I’d have said: this guy or that guy. Ask me today and I’ll tell you I don’t accept anyone but Bashar al-Assad.’ But there was the same ambivalence one finds in many Alawites. ‘Bashar weakened the role of security in daily life, which is one of the reasons for this situation.’ I wanted him to acknowledge the enormous civilian death toll that has resulted from the government’s crackdown. ‘Innocent people are always killed,’ he said. ‘You can’t distinguish whether a target is innocent or not. Do you think there is any authority in the world that wouldn’t defend itself?’

A senior security figure, responsible for Homs among other places, told me that eighty officers and NCOs were in detention for ‘mistakes’ – abuse, atrocities, torture – and at least ten could expect fifteen-year sentences. The assertion seemed meaningless in the face of the regime’s violence against civilians. (If the security services have made any attempt to discipline their personnel, they haven’t publicised it.) Alawites aren’t wrong to feel that for all the fury of its repression, the state is at a loss to know how to protect them. It is this feeling, above all, that has led to the growth of the increasingly powerful independent loyalist militias who act with impunity and often embarrass the regime. The militias have been responsible for several massacres in Homs and Hama, but Bashar is in no position to bear down on his most diehard supporters. An engineer in Homs, an Alawite who had joined the opposition, told me that the first time he saw loyalist gangs in action was in March 2011. ‘It was random and nobody organised them,’ he said. ‘They only had clubs. But by July they were organised. Now they work on their own account … The most dangerous thing in a civil war is the people who live off it and depend on it financially. I saw this in Lebanon. In Homs it’s open civil war.’

In the days of Hafez al-Assad the term shabiha, which means ‘ghosts’, referred only to organised criminals and smugglers who co-operated with the security forces. Some were part of the Assad clan – Bashar’s brother famously crushed and jailed elements of the Assad shabiha who got out of control – but by no means all were Alawites. When the uprising started, however, the word shabiha quickly came to refer to the loyalist militias, and in due course to any government loyalists. Soon many loyalists could be heard at pro-regime rallies directing chants at the opposition: ‘We are the shabiha! Screw your freedom! Shabiha for ever!’ There are thousands of shabiha, or popular committee members, in the Alawite neighbourhoods of Homs, a security officer told me. They are not paid for their militia activities, he said, but they continue to draw their government salaries even though they no longer go to work. They answer to local mayors. ‘They can arrest somebody from Khaldiyeh or Bayada,’ he said, naming two Sunni neighbourhoods, ‘and hand him over to security forces. They co-ordinate with security.’

The opposition engineer in Homs was more blunt: ‘A shabih is somebody who loves Bashar more than Bashar. A shabih is a culture not a person. He feels he is above the law, he is the law … For now the state can control them but I don’t know if they can control them in the future. The state is using them now. The state did it.’ Alawites who join the opposition, he added, are regarded as traitors against the sect. Some Alawites who were active in the opposition in Homs, as he is, had died at the hands of loyalist militias: in April 2011 in one of Homs’s main squares, an opposition sit-in which even included some Alawites ended in a massacre by security forces and popular committee men.

What becomes of the Alawites if the regime falls, and what becomes of Bashar’s support base as a whole, are not the same question. Bashar’s following includes other minorities besides the Alawites, not to mention Sunnis. From the outset the government has described the opposition as motivated by sectarianism – an accusation that encourages the very tendency it claims to deplore – but it has carefully refrained from any show of sectarianism itself, even if its Alawite supporters are less fastidious. Loyalists say that they are diverse while the opposition is almost entirely Sunni. Yet Sunni officers and soldiers belong to some of the most elite army units such as the 4th Division and the Republican Guard, and many opposition intellectuals have admitted that if the government’s base was confined to Alawites, it would have fallen long ago. Were this struggle to be reduced to a bald conflict between Sunnis and Alawites the government would lose its Sunni support and be left with only 10 per cent of the population behind it, plus a few stragglers from the other minorities.

When I asked Abu Rateb, leader of the Homs military council, what would happen to the security forces and shabiha, the hundreds of thousands of armed Alawites, if the government fell, he told me I was exaggerating the numbers. He foresaw what he described as ‘slaughter’ but felt that an alternative to Bashar would emerge from within the regime and preside over a settlement. ‘Bashar is the central figure for them. They will be broken by the fall of Bashar and lose motivation.’ After a difficult transition a new Syria would be born, ‘a free Syria, just and democratic’. A leading insurgent in Duma, the largest suburb of Damascus, told me he worried about fighting between Sunni and Alawite villages like Aziziya and Tamana. ‘We can’t say that we have the right to live here and they do not,’ he said, but ‘after the revolution Alawites will return to their natural place. They won’t have the authority.’

It is not clear what that ‘natural place’ would be. Are they meant to leave the cities and resume their traditional links with the rural areas? A new generation of Syria pundits in the West is already discussing the possibility of a separate Alawite state, but one hears of no such thing from the Alawites themselves. Syria has long been their central project, and their mode of involvement has been to leave their villages and move towards a version of modernity. It is conceivable that they will end up in some form of autonomous enclave as a result of a civil war in which the opposition gains the upper hand, but it is not their wish. They believe they are fighting for the old Ba’athist ideals of Syrian and Arab nationalism. An Alawite state would not be viable in any case: the old Alawite heartlands have never had much in the way of utilities or employment opportunities and the community would be dependent on outside backers such as Russia or Iran. A Lebanese solution for Syria, in which different areas have different outside backers, may be the end result, but it is nobody’s goal.