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Did Alawite pressure lead to Assad’s chemical attack on Syria’s Douma?

Published: Updated:

Many theories have been brought forth by international observers in the aftermath of a suspected chemical attack on Syria’s Douma, including one that suggested Assad bowed down to pressure from the minority Alawite group of which the Syrian president belongs to.

A couple of days before the United States, France and the United Kingdom struck strategic bases in Syria, Middle East writer and analyst Sam Dagher suggested in an article published by The Atlantic that Assad’s regime may have approved the Douma attack after pressures from the minority Alawite community who urged actions against the Jaysh al-Islam fighters.

“One crucial and largely overlooked explanation is the pressure he has faced from the Alawites, members of the minority Shiite-linked sect to which the Assads belong,” Dagher wrote on the Atlantic.

“Many Alawites believe Douma’s main insurgent group Jaysh al-Islam, or the Army of Islam, has been holding up to 7,500 Alawite prisoners in and around the city—including army generals, soldiers, and civilians—kidnapped or taken captive by rebels over the years to try to extract concessions from the regime. Though the Alawites represent a small proportion of the country overall, they hold key regime positions, dominate the police, and supply the main fighting forces who have been defending the regime since 2011. Many of their families are missing loved ones whom Assad can’t seem to get free, even as he tells them he wants still more of their sons to fight,” he added.

The Alawite sect

Assad is from Syria’s minority Alawite sect and critics have said that the president has filled senior political and military posts with Alawites to impose his rule through sectarian loyalty.

Sunnis Muslims make up 74 percent of Syria’s 22 million population, Alawites 12 percent, Christians 10 percent and Druze 3 percent. Ismailis, Yezidis and a few Jews make up the rest.

In a rare and incredible scene, Dagher reported, hundreds of Alawites staged a spontaneous protest in central Damascus on Apr. 9 and marched from an auditorium next to the Russian Embassy that had been turned into a waiting area for the families to one of the capital’s busiest traffic intersections.

“By nightfall on Monday, the Alawite families were persuaded to leave the streets after bringing traffic to a standstill. They returned to the auditorium, but their rage did not subside,” Dagher wrote.

(With background from Reuters)