Nir Rosen: Syria’s Alawite activists stuck in the middle
The Syrian opposition has been stepping up efforts to get religious minorities involved in the year-old uprising. The exiled opposition Syrian National Council (SNC) recently issued a statement announcing that it “extends [a] hand to the Alawite community”, the sect which President Bashar al-Assad belongs to.
Although a minority, Alawites dominate Syria’s various security agencies, its army’s officer corps and key positions in the government. Western backers of the SNC and opponents of the regime often say the Damascus leadership will only fall when the Alawite community is persuaded to abandon it.
An older Sunni opposition intellectual who spent time in prison before and during the current uprising agreed with this analysis when I spoke to him in Damascus. “The system will fall only when Alawites believe they are headed in the wrong direction,” he said, adding that “Alawite intellectuals must realise that if they want to live in this country, they must be against the regime and with the revolution.”
Historically, Alawites have played a prominent role in the opposition. But in the ongoing uprising, there are few prominent Alawite voices. Many members of the community fear they will be marginalised if the Sunni majority gains power. Given their experiences of oppression before the Baath party took over in 1963, some statements by the opposition have only encouraged their fears.
When Maamun Homsi, a prominent exiled opposition figure, gave a rant threatening to exterminate all Alawites, he was not condemned by the SNC. Homsi urged the “despicable Alawites” to either renounce Assad, “or Syria will become your graveyard”. Shortly after his remarks, I spoke to a senior Western diplomat with influence over the SNC. He was outraged and urged SNC President Burhan Ghalioun to condemn the statement.
A recent SNC statement, urging communal tolerance, seems to be a response to pressure from American and European backers of the SNC.
“The regime has tried, since the beginning of the revolution, to fragment Syrian society and drive a wedge within mixed communities by dividing cities along military and security lines,” the February 26 statement said. “The Alawites remain an important component of Syria, and will continue to enjoy the same rights as other citizens as we build one nation of Christians, Muslims, and other sects. The regime will not be successful in pitting us against one another.”
‘Red carpet treatment’
Dima, an Alawite third-year architecture student who I met in Damascus, took part in demonstrations from the beginning of the uprising with Christians, Alawites and secular Sunnis, and in separate women’s demonstrations.
She also went to funerals in Sunni strongholds like Barzeh and Qabun with a delegation of about 100 Druze, Alawite and Christian activists.”We wanted to show that minorities are with the revolution,” she said. “We got a red carpet treatment.”
She said there were “a million reasons” why she was against the regime.
Total: 22 million
Religious communities (estimates)
Sunni Muslims: 75%
Others: Druze, Ismailis, Shias, Jews
“From when we were small, we could see something was wrong,” she said, telling me of the Baathist paramilitary training children received and the culture of corruption and nepotism. “But we couldn’t say anything about it. When things started in Egypt and Libya, we started saying that we had to do something here.
“We had hope that it would be peaceful and with reforms. I had so much hope for the president’s first speech but I felt disappointed and sad. He didn’t say anything except ‘assalam aleikum’ [peace be upon you] and conspiracy, conspiracy, conspiracy.”
Dima comes from a large family, where the highest degree anybody has is high school. All of them work in the public sector.
“I have 10 family members who work in the post office in the village but nobody in the office does anything,” she said. “Nobody has sent a letter in 30 years. They just drink yerba mate and go home.
“The rest work in the army or security and their situation is very good.”
Dima thinks most Alawites embrace Assad out of fear rather than genuine allegiance – or, like her relatives in the security apparatus, because they have an interest of the current regime staying in power.
“They don’t mix with Sunnis and they don’t know that there is anything wrong” in society, she said.
“Minorities are really afraid and you cannot deny that there is sectarianism. I know that when I deal with someone from the government I am treated differently from others because I am Alawite.”
Fearing a ‘massacre’
But being an Alawite does not help if you are against the regime. By December, Dima’s status in the university was frozen because of her opposition activities and she could take no more classes.
One day, Military Security officers came to her house.
|“It’s the role of minorities to change their positions and not be shabiha and supporters because their stance is the reason for the resentment.” “
– Dima, activist
“They knew everything I did and told my family everything,” she said. “The guy who came to ask about me is from our village. He felt uncomfortable asking about me because we are neighbours.”
After this incident, Dima left Syria to complete her studies in Europe. Her father works in a government ministry and was worried he would lose his job because of her.
She said her father knows very well “how bad the regime is” but still supports Assad.
“He feels that if the regime falls, there will be a massacre of the Alawites, or they will be sent to their villages in the mountains,” she said. “And it’s possible this will happen. There is resentment.
“It’s the role of minorities to change their positions and not be shabiha (state sponsored militias) and supporters because their stance is the reason for the resentment.”
Dima said Alawite students and staff beat demonstrators in an anti-government protest she took part in at the medical faculty of Damascus University in November. An Alawite student protester from the city of Tartous was beaten worse than anybody, she said.
In the city of Homs, where sectarian tensions have increased during the uprising, I met Ahmed, an Alawite political science professor. He is an open critic of the regime and has participated in many locally driven dialogue sessions between leaders of the Alawite, Christian and Sunni communities in order to prevent communal violence. His Sunni students who were opposition activists spoke highly of him.
One night as we sat on a roof top in the Akrama neighbourhood we came under very close sniper fire and had to duck down and run into the stairwell. The fire originated in an Alawite area. He blamed pro-regime extremists who were against his calls for moderation.
“This regime is expired,” he often told me, and talked about the need for political reform. “We have to create a new mechanism to make a new Syria, free parties, free elections, but no religious parties.”
But like many Alawites, he viewed the majority of the opposition as Sunni extremists. “Who leads the street? Mosque sheikhs without degrees. If the leaders were doctors and engineers, I would be very calm, but they are not.”
He also feared extreme Assad supporters, and carried a pistol in self-defence. After speaking at a national dialogue conference he received death threats and fled to Europe. “I felt I would be killed in 24 hours by pro-regime extremists,” he said.
Ahmed feared a civil war resulting from army defections and the armed opposition. “If the army breaks in two, what should I do? Shall I be with ‘the others’?, he asked.
“I have to protect my family. I escaped because I am not sectarian. Sunnis and Christians are my brothers.”
His uncle, a prominent doctor in Homs, fled with his family to the predominantly Christian town of Safita. Ahmed predicted that more Alawites would flee to the coastal areas, and that Assad would eventually return to his hometown of Qirdaha in Latakia province. “He will be president of the coast.”
Ahmed blamed the regime for early sectarian incidents in Homs in April last year, when bearded men drove into Alawite neighbourhoods, shouted for jihad, and shot into the air.
“Who can drive a car in some streets and say ‘hey Alawites, Sunnis are coming to kill you’, or go to Sunni areas and say the same thing about Alawites? They chose to take things to sectarianism to get protection from the Alawites, and they thought they could make the whole sect their army. They are so stupid, they are killing all of Syria.”
Ahmed often mentioned the exiled sectarian opposition cleric Adnan al-Arur, who frightens many Alawites. Arur, whose name is often chanted in demonstrations in Syria, famously warned Alawites who participate in the repression that they would be chopped and that their flesh would be fed to dogs. Arur has not often spoken about Alawites and his popularity does not stem from his sectarianism, but his popularity has encouraged some secular Sunnis and minorities to prefer the regime.
Some privileged – but most poor
Muhamad, an Alawite activist who is part of a movement called Youth for Justice, told me he did not fear the Sunni majority. “This state’s identity is like any other Arab country,” he told me. “It’s Islamic, it’s an Islamic state. Even a Christian here hears the call to prayer five times a day.”
He said Islam should not be suppressed, and needed an opportunity to play a role.
|“Most Alawites are only afraid that Sunnis will come kill them. They don’t care who is president.“
– Muhamad, activist
“Then there will be a revolution against (the prophet) Muhammad, like there was against the church,” he said, referring to the Reformation, when the role of Christianity in European society was reduced.
But he said the main reason why a majority of his community has stayed loyal to the president was fears of sectarianism.
“Most Alawites are only afraid that Sunnis will come kill them,” he said. “They don’t care who is president.”
Muhamad told me one pro-regime Alawite thug he knew had said he hit demonstrators because he thought they wanted to send him back to his village.
The largest group of beneficiaries from the regime are Alawites, Muhamad admitted.
“Some hate the revolution for financial reasons,” he said. “They worry that it will harm their interests. Others say ‘they want to take the authority from us.'”
But he stressed that most Alawites are actually poor. “If you go to my grandfather’s village you feel you are in Afghanistan, it’s so poor,” he said. “The Alawites are the people who should oppose the regime the most … They live in very poor conditions.”
Muhamad had spent one year in jail for opposition activities before the revolution. In January, he felt that the mukhabarat [intelligence] was closing in on him again and he fled to Algeria. He said he was beaten on the street there by pro-regime Syrians who had been monitoring him and knew all the details about his family and history.
‘No honourable Alawite’
Ali, a young Alawite banker who was very active throughout Sunni opposition strongholds in Damascus, said his family, residing in Homs, were all opposition.
He was eager to show me that minorities take part in the uprising and that the protesters are not sectarian. But he told few people that he was an Alawite in order to avoid being mistrusted. One night he took me to meet Abu Hameed, a Sunni opposition leader in Barzeh.
Abu Hameed wore a track suit over a tall muscular body. His head was shaven and his leg was injured from a day he was trampled by a mob fleeing security gun fire. I asked him if Alawites took part in demonstrations in Barzeh. “God forbid!” he said. “There is no honourable Alawite in Syria. The Alawite sect hates every other sect.”
Abu Hameed said “there would be fear” among protesters if an Alawite demonstrator came. “They would suspect he was a spy.”
According to Abu Hameed, only Alawites have rights in Syria.
“The rule is in their hand. Alawites can step on everybody. They say the country is ours, nothing for you.”
He was especially resentful of Alawites who came to Damascus.
“If the revolution wins we won’t leave one Alawite in Damascus,” he said. “As a Sunni I don’t have a problem with any other sect except Alawites. Sunnis have God in their heart. Alawites made Sunnis in the regime take God out of their hearts.”
On the hills above Barzeh sits the working class Alawite neighbourhood Ish al-Warwar, where many people serve in the security forces. Residents of the neighbouring areas had clashed in a rivalry that started in 1975 and required state intervention. During the current uprising, Alawites have accused Sunnis of attacking them and vice versa and a sectarian fault line has emerged between the two neighbourhoods.
“I don’t think that Ish al-Warwar will remain here after the revolution,” Abu Hameed said. “I will send them a warning, ‘go back to where you came from’. There are no innocents among them.”
Organising the uprising is expensive, and one challenge facing activists from minorities is that they do not have a community or elites they can fall back on for support. In February I spoke to a leader of the Homs Revolutionary Council who was coordinating with Ismaili and Alawite opposition figures in the towns of Salamiyah and Misyaf.
“The Ismailis told me that when they first started demonstrating in Salamiyah they suffered a lot from arrests of activists and they needed support to feed the families, but they are poor because they are Ismailis,” he said, adding that individuals in Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states who support the uprising only give money to the Sunni opposition.
“The activists in Salamiyah cannot afford satellite internet devices so it takes two or three days to upload their demonstrations onto the internet.”
The opposition leader said the council had agreed to help the Salamiyah activists, and he had also met an Alawite opposition figure from Misyaf.
“We have a network with Alawites but they need support and the Saudis will not help us with them. Most of our money comes from Syrians in Saudi Arabia.”
Despite these challenges, the pressures they face from their own communities and families, from the regime and from sectarian trends in the opposition, Alawite activists are keen to make their voices heard.
On December 31 a delegation of Alawite activists joined about 500 Sunni demonstrators in Barzeh. The leader of the rally announced to the crowd that they had special guests that evening. One man took the microphone and told the crowd he was an Alawite from Homs. They cheered and clapped. He told them there were other Alawites in the crowd and many Alawites “in the prisons of the dog called Bashar al-Assad”. The crowds cheered and clapped again, and continued doing so after he shouted: “I am from the Alawite sect – not from the Assadi sect”. He led the crowd in chanting “one, one, one, the Syrian people is one!” and “the people want the execution of Bashar!”
P.S. This piece was first published by Al Jazeera on March 8.