Syria’s Alawites pay heavy price as they bury sons

Twin bombings killed 25 children in Homs, hundreds of Assad supporters held a rare protest, accusing the Homs governor of not doing enough

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The posters of slain Syrian soldiers, put up by families to commemorate their sons killed in the fight against rebels, are plastered on walls throughout the coastal province of Tartous. The impromptu murals of death illustrate the price supporters of President Bashar Assad are paying to defend his rule.

The khaki-clad men often pose with guns, with Assad’s image often imposed above the slain soldier.

For government supporters, Assad is synonymous with Syria itself, particularly in Tartous, a scenic Mediterranean port that is majority Alawite, an offshoot of Shiite Islam that is the faith of Assad’s family. For Syria’s Alawite minority, there is no other way out but to back the president, despite rumblings of dissent. Rebels often indiscriminately target Alawites because they are seen as the firmest pillar of Assad’s rule - and because extremists among the rebels consider them heretics.

More soldiers have been killed from Tartous than any other region in Syria in the fighting to quell the armed rebellion seeking to topple Assad, now in its fourth year.

“This is the price we must pay for the country,” said Ramadan Haidar, whose 23-year-old son Mahmoud was killed fighting in northern Syria. “Because if the country doesn’t regain its sovereignty, then I have lost my son and my home.”

It’s unlikely that need for the sons of Tartous will ease, with the government seemingly desperate for soldiers as the conflict grinds on.

Some 4,000 soldiers from Tartous have been killed in the war, according to a Syrian official who spoke on condition of anonymity because he wasn’t authorized to speak to media.

The death toll forms some 10 percent of the estimated 40,400 soldiers killed, even though Tartous’ population is fewer than a million people - less than one-twentieth of Syria’s pre-war population of 23 million. Alawites form some 13 percent of Syria’s population, concentrated in the coastal provinces and the central city of Homs.

They are not the only ones to die in the fighting. Syria’s army represents the sectarian makeup of the country: it is largely Sunni Muslim, fighting mostly Sunni Muslim rebels. But Alawite troops are the most trusted by leadership.

School teacher Haidar’s son Mahmoud was killed two years ago in a suicide bombing. The family home in the town of Dweir Sheikh Saad in Tartous province is now a memorial for the young man, strung with photos of Mahmoud in his army uniform, with his girlfriend, with his two sisters.

Haidar’s wife Ibtisam, 43, stashed away her son’s belongings, including red love-heart cushions his girlfriend gave him. She wore a necklace with a pendant of Mahmoud’s face, often clutching it as she described her pride in her son for joining the Syrian army.

“He was sacrificed for the homeland,” she said, smiling. “He is in my heart. I talk to him and it makes me feel better,” she said.

The town, nestled amid olive groves, has lost 34 men so far, said mayor Mohammed Shaban.

Reflecting a broader trend, Shaban said most of the men were killed in the past two years, mostly by the al-Qaida-linked Nusra Front and in mass killings perpetrated by the extremist Islamic State group as they seized a string of military bases in the country’s northeast.

Among the massacres was the killing of more than 150 government troops captured when the militants took the Tabqa base in Raqqa province, in August. The militants stripped the soldiers to their underwear and forced to run through the desert before they were shot.

“We can’t live with them. We are fighting ignorance and terrorism” said Issa Mariam, 54, whose son Abdullah was killed two years ago fighting in Aleppo.

Posters of Abdullah, 25, were plastered around the house, alongside his framed death certificate. His mother also bore a gold pendant bearing Abdullah’s image.

There appears to be growing resentment toward Assad, particularly after the mass killings by militants. Some families say they felt their sons were sacrificed for the survival of one family.

But as Islamic militants become more powerful, many Syrians see little choice - better Assad’s rule than the extremists.

An aid worker who works closely with Syrian officials said because the fate of Alawites was tied with Assad’s rule, some were demanding the government pound rebel areas harder.

“If anything, their critique of Bashar is that he is too weak, so they would rather have a hard-line guy in power,” said the aid worker, who requested anonymity because he wasn’t meant to speak to reporters.

A demonstration in early October in an Alawite-dominated neighborhood of the central Syrian city of Homs may be instructive. After twin bombings killed 25 children there, hundreds of Assad supporters held a rare protest, accusing the Homs governor of not doing enough to stop rebel attacks on their neighborhood.

Haidar, the school teacher who lost his soldier son, suggested there was weariness.

“Certain provinces are motivated to go to the army, and perhaps they are affected more,” Haidar said, referring to Tartous. “Many people were killed, and they are buried here in this cemetery.”

The government appears to be trying to mitigate potential dissent.

A Syrian economics expert said the state was prioritizing social affairs spending on families of slain soldiers. But a decision to grant first priority in civil service jobs to those families was cancelled this week, said the Health Minister Nizar Yaziji. It appeared that the decision had caused an outcry.

As the war grinds on, with no decisive winner and no political headway, the military is becoming low on personnel resources, meaning there’ll be no rest for Alawites soon.

“They will have to be patient, what can they do?” said Assad adviser Bouthaina Shabaan. “We all in Syria have to be patient, and we all have to persist in our resilience. What is the alternative?”

This week, soldiers at checkpoints in Tartous began stopping men aged between 23 and 42 years old, examining their ID cards and ordering some of them to report for reserve duty. Men were taking alternative routes to avoid being caught.

There was no formal announcement of the move, and an official on state-run television this week denied what he called “rumors” that men were being seized.

Parents of slain Alawite soldiers said they would allow their other sons to volunteer service if they wanted.

But the price is clear. In the provincial capital city of Tartous, an informal mural made of the posters of slain soldiers stretched for meters on a wall.

Further down, there was an official memorial: it was a large billboard featuring Assad’s face, and thousands of names of slain soldiers scrawled on either side.

Across the road there was another billboard, also listing names of the killed. It too, was full.

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