Syria’s Alawites bear brunt of Assad after soaring death toll
As many Alawite families see members of their sect who fought in Assad’s army return home in coffins, the loyalty of some has wavered
Since the start of the Syrian uprising five years ago, Syria’s Alawites were seen as the vigilant minority group, who chose one of their own, President Bashar al-Assad, as leader and protector from a turbulent political climate rocked by powerful militant groups across the country.
But in recent years, as many Alawite families saw members of their sect who fought in Assad’s army return home in coffins, the loyalty of some has wavered.
The soaring death toll is as high as 100,000, an Alawite opposition leader told Al Arabiya English, decrying his sect’s role as the Assad regime’s “cannon fodder.” The Alawites are an offshoot sect of Shiite Islam. They make up about 12 percent of the country’s pre-war population of about 22 million.
Fouad Hamira, who founded the Alawite anti-Assad movement, Upcoming Syria, in late November last year said that “these losses made them [Alawites] rethink [their loyalty to Assad].”
Assad started sending [Alawite] corpses in SuzukisFouad Hamira, founder of an Alawite anti-Assad movement
The group, which is based in Turkey, is aiming to coax Alawites to chart their own independent position away from Assad’s regime and to encourage them to work with “other partners” towards bringing an end to the conflict.
“Assad started sending the corpses in Suzukis,” said Hamira, in reference to the low-cost vehicles sometimes used to transport the coffins. “Even our dead are not respected.”
Hamira said he founded his movement in part because the Alawites currently serving in opposition groups were mostly “communists or secularists.” He wishes to herald yet another revival - an opposition group based on a solid Alawite identity - apart from Assad.
There are several reasons why Alawites and Assad’s regime seem intertwined.
“The Assad regime for the past decades was able to create a mutual interest between the regime and the Alawites,” he said.
Assad’s regime started with the Syrian leader’s father, the late President Hafez al-Assad, who became president in 1971 after seizing power in a coup.
“They [Alawites] became convinced that the demise of the regime is the demise of their interests,” he added.
The Assad regime for the past decades was able to create a mutual interest between the regime and the AlawitesFouad Hamira, founder of an Alawite anti-Assad movement
Kyle W. Orton, an associate fellow at the London-based think tank Henry Jackson Society, said “Syria's Alawites have always feared that they would be implicated as a community in the actions of the Assad dictatorship, and the Assad regime worked hard to make that come true after the uprising broke out.”
Scotland-based Robin Yassin-Kassab, author of the novel The Road from Damascus, said that Alawites have historically been fearful of persecution, which led to them embracing Assad’s regime.
The Alawites had been “badly treated” in Syria after decades of Sunni rule, which lasted until the French occupation in 1946, said the author.
“Secondly, they identify very much with the institutions of the state and the army, which the Baath party and Hafez al-Assad built, because for many Alawite families, it was their first opportunity from their villages to be educated and get jobs, wear uniforms,” he added, entrenching their “they identify with the army and the security services.”
Yassin-Kassab added that the Assad regime had undertaken “false flag operations” to exasperate sectarian tensions and fears to keep Alawites “loyal,” and blamed it for releasing extremists from prisons as well as prepping them with logistics.
Iran and ‘Sheikh Putin’
With all of the concerted efforts by Assad to keep Alawites loyal, the war has forced the regime to compromise and embrace a wider circle of allies including Shiite Iran and Lebanese militant group Hezbollah, and Russia.
Iran has heavily bolstered the battered Syrian army by assisting with the creation of a militia called the National Defense Force, which draws many of Alawite volunteers.
However, Hamira said Alawites are now suspicious of the Iranians, who are following a policy of ‘Shiitification.’” The activist said there was a “huge difference” between the Alawite ideology and that of Shiites.
“Shiites are far much closer to Sunnis in their ideology than Alawites,” he said. Alawites follow a branch of Islam blended with syncretistic elements.
There were Alawi dissidents when the protest movement erupted against Assad, but the regime killed many of them, for example Udai RajabKyle W. Orton, an associate fellow at the London-based think tank Henry Jackson Society
Instead, “Alawites are feeling comfortable with Russia’s intervention, because it empowered them against the Iranians,” he said. “The Iranians have bought areas along the coast and in Damascus, they are taking youth Alawites even Sunnis, make out of them militia organizations with their money.”
This waning support to Iran and Assad’s regime has further amplified Russia as the “biggest protector.” Some reports suggested that Alwaites have replaced Assad’s portrait to that of “Sheikh Putin.”
While most Alawites long remained loyal to the regime, the community had its own early dissidents.
“There were Alawi dissidents when the protest movement erupted against Assad, but the regime killed many of them, for example Udai Rajab,” Orton said.
Rajab, who was tortured for eight days, died in mid-2015 while in detention, the London-based monitoring group The Observatory for Human Rights, reported.
“Other Alawi dissidents were driven abroad,” Orton said, adding that some army officers defected to the Free Syrian Army, one of the earliest opposition groups formed several months after the 2011 uprising began.
“[In recent months,] there were anti-regime protests in Alawite areas and they have resented paying such a high price in blood to defend the Assad family,” he said, reiterating Hamira’s sentiments.
The rise of Sunni radicals - among them groups such as al-Qaeda’s affiliate Nusra Front and ISIS – has forced most Alawites to “nevertheless feel they have little choice but to seek the protection of the State.”
Hamira said his movement now has 13 offices on the ground in Syria.
“We are trying to save the Alawites and not embroil them in a war against their partners in the country. We are also trying to mitigate their fears.”
But Hamira believes that not only Alawites must strike a more reconciliatory chord. Some of the numerous opposition groups must “tone down their sectarian diatribe,” he said.
There is a revival of Alawism as a religious identity, that’s a new phenomenonRobin Yassin-Kassab, London-based author
Unlike mainstream Sunnis and Shiites, the largely secular traditions of Alawites mean they do not have popular religious leaders who can mobilize the masses.
Even when Alawites tried to bring forth leaders whether religious or seculars to fill this frontier, “they have always been eliminated,” Yassin-Kassab said.
“Hafez al-Assad’s brother, Jamil, had also tried to make himself as the religious leader of the community, even though he did not know much,” said Yassin-Kassab. Instead, the regime preferred to have Alawites depending on it.
Now, however, “there is a revival of Alawism as a religious identity, that’s a new phenomenon,” said Yassin-Kassab.