Assad’s Response to Syria Unrest Leaves His Own Sect Divided

By: Neil MacFarquhar

BEIRUT, Lebanon — After Jaber Abboud, a baker from Baniyas, Syria, first lashed out publicly at President Bashar al-Assad for failing to promote real change, his neighbors ignored it.

But Mr. Abboud and most of his community are Alawites, the same religious sect as the president. When the popular uprising broke out, many believed that if the Assad family fell, they were doomed. They closed ranks and turned on Mr. Abboud, boycotting his pastry shop and ultimately forcing him to leave town.

“The neighborhood is split — half are dejected and subservient, the rest are beasts,” he said in a telephone interview from nearby Latakia. “It is depressing to go there, it’s like a town full of ghosts, divided, security everywhere.”

As the Syrian conflict escalates to new levels of sectarian strife, Mr. Assad is leaning ever more heavily on his religious base for support. The Alawite core of the elite security forces is still with him, as are many Syrians from minority groups.

But interviews with a dozen Alawites indicated a complex split even within their ranks. Some Alawites are frustrated that security forces have not yet managed to crush the opposition, while others say that Mr. Assad is risking the future of the Alawites by pushing them to the brink of civil war with Sunni Muslims.

Mr. Assad’s ruling Baath Party professes a secular, pan-Arab socialism, but Sunnis, who make up about 74 percent of the population, have long bridled at what they see as sectarian rule by the Alawites, who are nominally Shiite Muslims and make up only 13 percent of the population.

People like Mr. Abboud say they feel stranded in a no man’s land. Blackballed by their own Alawite community, they find that the Islamists who dominate parts of the armed opposition regard them with murderous suspicion. A few with opposition credentials have been killed.

On the other extreme are Alawites who criticize Mr. Assad as being too soft, saying that his father and predecessor as president, Hafez al-Assad, would have quashed the threat by now.

With Alawite youths dying by the hundreds to defend the government, voices are raised at funerals and elsewhere asking questions like, “Why is the government not doing enough to protect us?” according to the Alawites interviewed.

There were also anti-Assad chants in Alawite neighborhoods like Zahra in Homs, like: “Bashar became a Sunni!” (Mr. Assad’s wife, Asma al-Akhras, comes from a prominent family of Sunni Muslims from Homs.)

Alawite-Sunni tensions reached a new peak after a spate of mass killings, particularly the May 25 Houla massacre of 108 Sunni Muslims, including 49 children. Survivors from Houla and people living near the slaughter last Wednesday in the farming hamlet of Qubeir said the attackers came from Alawite villages. The United Nations said suspicions in Houla were focused on pro-government militiamen known in Arabic as shabiha. Alawites dominate their ranks.

“For the first time, we began to hear directly from our Sunni neighbors that we should leave Damascus and return to our villages,” said Abu Ali, 50, a real estate agent. He said that once the school year ended he expected a flood of such departures out of fear of revenge attacks.

Fear of reprisals has prompted dire warnings from some Alawites that their future is on the line. Afaq Ahmad, a defector from the air force intelligence branch, posted a 10-minute plea on YouTube saying that Alawites have to stop committing collective suicide. He has gained prominence partly because Alawite defectors are rare.

“Does the family of Bashar al-Assad deserve to be the leaders of the Alawites?” Mr. Ahmad asked. “In the face of crimes like this, we cannot stay silent. We should stick to our religious and humanitarian principles because otherwise, history will show no mercy.”

Officials in the Assad government often say that its secular ideology has preserved the harmony among what it calls the “glorious mosaic” of Syria’s many overlapping religions, ethnic groups and tribes. But its critics call that a front for Alawite domination, reversing centuries of fierce discrimination that is reflected in Syrian geography. Scorned as nonbelievers during about 400 years of Ottoman rule and forced to pay a special tax, the Alawites sequestered themselves in impoverished mountain redoubts overlooking the Mediterranean.

The secretive Alawite sect was born in the ninth century and braids together religious teachings from different faiths. They are not considered particularly zealous. Unlike more orthodox Muslims, they believe in reincarnation, for example, and do not consider the Ramadan fast or the pilgrimage to Mecca mandatory. They worship at home or at the tombs of saints, and they lack a clerical hierarchy.

France, as the colonial power, created a separate coastal Alawite state that lasted from 1920 to 1936.

With independence, Alawites were drawn to the military and the secularist Baath Party. The coup that brought Hafez al-Assad to power in 1970 cemented their control, shocking the traditional Sunni ruling class. He stocked the secret police and the military with Alawites, creating such a fear of them that Syrians talking about the sect in public called them “Germans.”

The late president formed the elite units, now controlled by his son Maher, that are the main military force of repression. The government showed no forbearance toward its Alawite critics — they were considered traitors, often jailed for twice as long as Sunni Muslims for their role in clandestine political organizations. Now, even watching satellite channels critical of the Syrian government, like Al Jazeera, is considered treachery in Alawite communities.

The intolerance of dissent means there is no uniquely Alawite opposition movement. (There is a Facebook page, Alawites in the Syrian Revolution, and the campaign to resurrect nonviolent protests involves many young, urban Alawites.)

The first Alawite joined the executive committee of the Syrian National Council, the main opposition group in exile, only in April. Many others had been deterred by both the Sunni Muslim dominance of the group and concern for family members back home.

In Baniyas, along Syria’s roughly 100 miles of Mediterranean coast, the fate of Mr. Abboud, the baker, at the hands of the community helps to explain the reluctance.

Mr. Abboud, 57, a former soccer coach, said he had been arrested three times and badly beaten. Two of his three children received death threats, neighbors tried repeatedly to set fire to his house and friends he had known since childhood avoided him. Even his three sisters shunned him.

Until the uprising, the worst Sunni-Alawite vendetta came during the skirmishing between the Muslim Brotherhood and the government about 30 years ago. In the most notorious attack, Muslim extremists singled out Alawite military cadets in Aleppo for execution, letting others go free. The Alawites have never forgotten.

In Damascus in the 1980s, new Alawite communities were formed to ring the capital, which the city’s natives sometimes derisively call “settlements.” Salam, 28, a businessman, who grew up in one such area, said that early in the uprising, the government distributed automatic rifles there. “They told us, ‘The Sunnis are going to kill you,’ ” Salam said in an interview over Skype. “They scared us. Of course some people in our community are narrow-minded; they believed them and, unfortunately, many people accepted the weapons.”

Alawite opposition sympathizers in smaller towns tend to stay silent because they are so few. “The people will kill them,” said Wajdy Mustafa, a longtime Alawite activist now living in exile in California. Yet they fear seeking haven among the Sunnis, too, lest they be killed for their sect, he said.

There is much talk that if the government collapses, the Alawites might withdraw back into the mountains. Others speculate that mass killings by Alawite militias are aimed at consolidating control in parts of the country that they could defend in a prolonged conflict with the Sunnis.

Amid the siege mentality, however, come occasional glimmers of a different mind-set.

Reem, 28, with long, curly black hair, helps organize anti-Assad rallies in Damascus. At the start of the uprising she could not show her face in her village above Tartus, she said. Eventually she went, prompting catcalls from pro-Assad neighbors.

But on her most recent visit a month ago, no one cursed her activism, said Reem, who gave only one name to avoid recriminations. “They have begun to understand the real face of the Syrian crisis, that it is a popular revolution against a dictatorship, not against an Alawite regime,” she said, describing the shock registered by young people in the village when she described how young Alawites, Sunnis and Druze stand together in antigovernment protests in Damascus.

“They are amazed to hear that an Alawite woman without a veil and in tight jeans can demonstrate hand in hand with a Sunni woman covered in black,” she said.

Source: New York Times

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