By Martin Chulov
They live in a sliver of land about 30 miles wide, trace their ancestry back to the Canaanites and swear allegiance to a totalitarian state, which serves as their protector. And, after more than 16 months of revolt in Syria, the country’s Alawite sect remains firmly at the heart of the regime’s fight to see off its challengers.
Fuelled by a belief that the events in Syria pose an existential threat to them, and coloured by a long history of persecution and prejudice, the Alawites are showing few signs of drifting away from the regime. Rather, the longer the uprising has continued, the more intransigent their support has become.
“That seems to be the way it is for the core group of supporters among the Alawites,” said a British diplomat in Beirut. “There has been messaging directed at them to let them know that their futures aren’t tied to Assad [president] and his gang. But it would be fair to say that a large majority of them still see themselves indelibly linked to the ruling clan.”
With the international community increasingly perplexed about how to manage the violence in Syria – an escalating crisis with serious implications for the region – attention has at times focused on how the Alawites could be tempted away from the regime. Such a move would rapidly lead to the fall of Damascus.
“It’s wishful thinking by the west,” said the head of the Alawite community in Lebanon, Rifaat al-Eid. “They have been coming to us for many months, all of the embassies, and gone away disappointed. We will fight for the Assads until the end.”
The diplomat agreed: “They are not part of the solution at this point. They fear they have far too much to lose.”
In the past 42 years, the Alawites of Syria have taken centre stage in national affairs, largely due to the access afforded them by the country’s modern-day godfather, former president Hafez al-Assad, who seized power in 1970.
Soon after becoming president, Assad, himself an Alawite, announced a “corrective revolution”, then went about creating the Middle East’s most efficient police state. Less than a decade after Hafez al-Assad took power, members of his sect, and especially his clan, were established in virtually all senior positions of the military and security establishment and the most meaningful positions in other state institutions.
Though accounting for only 12% of Syria’s population, the sect comprises the core of the establishment, the power of which has been almost absolute throughout 42 years of strongman rule. This has always been a sore point with some members of Syria’s Sunni majority, which comprises 75% (Christians, Druze and Kurds make up most of the rest).
But the resentment runs deeper in some quarters. Some Sunnis have also seen Alawites as heretics, a view that has shored up a belief among members of this small, mystical sect with tenuous links to Shia Islam that they would be wiped out by sectarian foes if the regime fell.
Playing on these fears has been a key strategy of Syria’s current ruler,Bashar al-Assad, 45, who inherited his father’s legacy and has done nothing to change it. Hafez’s inner court was passed on intact to his son and remains entrenched today.
The Alawites have become so bound up in everything the regime has become that extracting themselves would be a very tricky process, even if they wanted to.
“The system [Hafez al-Assad] created was modelled on the Stasi of East Germany,” said Dr Mousab Azzawi, a Syrian exile who runs the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. “He took officers from the villages, not the cities, and this was the principle of Abdul Nasser. It was also a vision of the Maoist ideology. In Syria the sectarianism it created became a leaking fissure.”
Azzawi, a physician from the Syrian coastal city of Latakia, an Alawite stronghold, said the security establishment, and by proxy Alawite society, under both Assads have been infused with the ideology that they are a “resistance and defence axis”.
“It was all about Israel, the super- capitalist power of the United States, the regional powers, and it was crowned when [Iran’s revolutionary rulers] took power in 1979,” said Azzawi, who claims a network of 241 verifiers who are chronicling the daily violence in Syria.
Several years before Iran’s Islamic Revolution, a Lebanese Shia cleric, Mousa al-Sadr, who later vanished in Lebanon, gave a contentious religious direction aligning the Alawites to Shia Islam. Shia theologians, including the two main clerics, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei in Tehran and Ayatollah Ali Sistani, are not known to have revisited the subject since.
In any case, Iran, the Syrian regime and the Shia militia Hezbollah have maintained a security pact since 1982, which remains at the heart of the regime’s fightback, as well as the sect, which backs it to maintain its supremacy. Iran’s attempt to bolster Damascus is perhaps even more robust than the attempts by Russia to consolidate the future of its cold war ally. Their chief conduits in Damascus have been leading members of the Assad clan, but not necessarily Bashar al-Assad himself.
Although Assad is known to attend regular meetings with the security forces, he is widely reported to struggle for influence on important decisions, especially against the formidable weight of his younger brother Maher, brother-in-law Assef Shawkat, who survived an attempt to poison him in Damascus last month, and cousins Hafez and Rami Makhlouf. “These are the power players in the regime,” said Tawfik Donia, an Alawite member of the executive committee of the Syrian National Council. “Even in the villages, only one or two people are allowed to speak to the security establishment directly. It is very hierarchical.”
Whether or not Assad has room to manoeuvre as president or is a virtual prisoner of the presidential palace remains an issue that even those who have dealt with him regularly find difficult to answer.
“I know the man, and I know he betrays everyone who gets close to him,” said one prominent Lebanese politician. “But I still don’t know whether that’s because of weakness, or because he is truly one of them.” Pressed on the issue, he said: “I suspect it’s the latter.”
The Sunni-dominated National Council, which has been beset by infighting, has been criticised for not reaching out to minority groups and for giving them little reason to think that they would not be persecuted in a post-Assad vacuum in a manner likely to be worse than that they experienced under the Ottoman Turks.
Donia claims that messages are getting through. But he acknowledges that the Alawites have a lot to lose by jumping ship. “Realistically, the majority of the Alawites in this period are silent,” he says. “Some of the elders are saying, ‘Where is [Assad] taking us?’ It is not in their interests that this regime stays on. They want to express it, but there is a media blackout.
“The regime institutionalises the fear factor to bind them. They were peasants and he brought them to power. He used Alawites as tools, giving them crumbs of money and positions in police and army. The Assad regime has used us to strategically divide communities.”
Exiled Alawites say that one issue which has terrified members of their community still in their home towns and villages in the heartland of the country is the feared Shabiha militia, which has been at the vanguard of the regime’s crackdown. Drawn largely from the poor villages of the Alawite sect around Homs, Hama and Aleppo, the Shabiha have been widely accused of massacring civilians.
“The majority are not biased towards a child-killing regime,” said Donia. “The ones committing massacres are not representing the Alawite sect. We don’t justify any of the violent acts committed by these faceless beasts.”
With nothing moving diplomatically and the regime steadfast in its line that it is combating a foreign-backed jihadist plot, the status quo of a grinding war that crosses sectarian lines seems likely to be dominant during the summer at least.
Assad’s predictions that last summer the uprising, which he casts as a plot, will reach the Alawite mountain communities seems to be self-fulfilling. If that continues to happen, it seems likely to further harden the sect’s resolve, rather than weaken it.
“Separating them from the regime at this point is like trying to put toothpaste back into a tube,” said the Lebanese politician. “What you are seeing now is the fruits of Hafez’s sinister work. To dismantle this regime would require a full war that would ruin the region. Who has the appetite for it?”