Alawite dilemmas in the Syrian civil war
Washington - Syria’s Alawite community has enjoyed a privileged status since the mid-1960s, when one of their own, Saleh Jadid, seized power in a military coup. He was followed by another Alawite officer, Hafez Assad, who took power in 1970 and promoted Alawites to high positions in the military and intelligence services.
Assad also helped raise the socio-economic status of the community by ensuring that many Alawites became “business partners” to Sunni Muslim merchants who benefited from his “corrective movement” that reined in the socialist excesses of the mid-1960s.
Yet today, the Alawites are in jeopardy of not only losing their status but also their heads, as anti-regime rebels, particularly those associated with the Islamic State (ISIS) or al-Qaeda, brand them as heretics and routinely execute Alawite prisoners. Many Alawites blame Syrian President Bashar Assad for bringing them to this point and for the deaths of their sons and brothers in the battlefield but are afraid to move against him because the regime remains their ultimate protector.
In 1947, historian Albert Hourani, who became an eminent scholar at Oxford University, published a book called Minorities in the Arab World. In his chapter on Syria, he described the Alawites, who follow an offshoot of Shia Islam, as “an isolated, backward peasantry, tenacious of its individuality, ruled by feudal lords”. Given their poor conditions, Alawites saw the military as their way to advance in society, and many of their young men entered the military academies in the post-World War II era.
Having reached the pinnacle of power a couple of decades later, the Alawites, once poor sharecroppers in the mountains of western Syria and maids and servants to Sunni Muslim merchant families in the cities, made sure they would not lose their new status. Hafez Assad, in addition to courting Sunni businessmen, also made alliances with Syria’s other minority groups to broaden his support.
When Alawite rule was opposed in the late 1970s and early 1980s by the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood, who fomented violence against the regime, Hafez Assad’s response was brutal, including levelling much of the city of Hama in 1982, resulting in at least 10,000 deaths.
His son, Bashar Assad, a political neophyte when he came to power in 2000, is not as cunning. The protests against him in 2011 morphed into a civil war.
Unable to trust the Syrian conscript army whose many Sunni Muslim soldiers defected to the rebels, Assad and the regime have had to rely more and more on Alawite soldiers, or units that are predominantly Alawite, to do the fighting.
But this reliance on the community has taken a heavy toll. One Alawite villager told a Western journalist in April that “every day there are at least 30 men returned from the front lines in coffins” and that the women dress only in mourning black.
In addition, there are reports of military recruiters raiding homes in the predominantly Alawite province of Latakia looking for replacements for the regime’s dwindling ranks. Many Alawites feel squeezed between the rebels and the regime.
The dilemma for the Alawites is that surrender is not an option. They fear the Sunni extremists will massacre them, and they do not trust overtures by extremist leaders. In a May 27th interview with Al Jazeera, al-Nusra Front leader Abu Mohammad al-Jolani stated that if the Alawites “drop their weapons, disavow Assad, do not send their men to fight for him and return to Islam, then they are our brothers”. He added that the Alawite sect had “moved outside the religion of God and of Islam”.
Al-Jolani in essence was calling for the Alawites to renounce their faith, and perhaps, only then, will they be spared. Confronted with such extremist views, it is not surprising that many Alawites believe they might as well fight to the bitter end.
It has long been rumoured that Alawite leaders may have a Plan B, which is to retreat to their mountainous stronghold in Latakia if Damascus falls to the rebels. And the reason why they keenly want to hold on to the city of Homs in central Syria, according to this rumour, is because it is on the land route from Damascus to Latakia.
An Alawite mini-state in Latakia would be far from ideal, but if the Alawites can also control the coast of Latakia, giving them access to the Mediterranean, and can be assured of outside support, perhaps from Iran and Russia (which still has a naval base in Tartus in Latakia province), then they might survive. In this scenario, Syria, sadly, would become even more of a broken state than it already is.