For Syria’s Alawites, the Dissenters and the Regime Are Never Remote

How we navigated oppression, dissent and the threat of torture in Assad’s Syria

For Syria’s Alawites, the Dissenters and the Regime Are Never Remote
A Syrian woman walks past a poster for President Bashar Assad in the Alawite dominated neighborhood of Hadara street in the western city of Homs / 2012 / Joseph Eid / AFP via Getty Images

It was the summer of 2005. Ahmad, a lifelong friend, whose real name (along with the names of others mentioned in this essay) I am withholding for security reasons, suggested that we have lunch in Latakia’s countryside to escape the unbearable humidity of the Syrian coastal city. Visiting from Canada, my then-15-year-old son, Nizar, decided to join us. Aside from wanting reprieve from the heat, he developed a political consciousness at a young age and enjoyed hearing my friends, many of whom had been fellow Alawite dissidents from the Syrian coast (like Ahmad), discuss matters that ranged from their love for the iconic Lebanese singer Fayrouz to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Formerly a political prisoner for his opposition to the Assad regime, Ahmad was now a respected lawyer and community leader whose kindness made him quite popular. He often invited an Alawite friend and client of his, an apolitical contractor, with whom others would occasionally tag along. His friend arrived at the humble village restaurant shortly after us, this time joined by an unfamiliar face. Dressed in military-style camouflage pants and a modest khaki blazer, the curious character sat, quietly chain-smoking, save for the occasional profane interjection. He spoke with an incontrovertibly authentic Alawite dialect. Intuitively suspicious of him, Ahmad and I kept the conversation light and exercised self-censorship.

An hour into lunch, he made his first sweeping statement. “The Palestinians are bastards,” he abruptly proclaimed. Adopting a careful tone, I suggested that while some members of the elite benefited from their relations with Israel, the overwhelming majority of Palestinians are victims of a repressive occupation. “The poor are even worse,” he insisted. “They have shown ingratitude to his excellency, the president [Bashar al-Assad].”

Speaking to me in English, my son angrily insisted that I retort. Born to a patriotic Palestinian mother and a progressive Syrian father, he had been particularly sensitive to the plight of Palestinians and had grown accustomed to witnessing his parents outspokenly defend the downtrodden. “Don’t say a word,” I replied to him. “I’ll explain later.”

After lunch we drove to the northern outskirts of Slunfeh, a mountainside resort town that attracts tourists primarily from Aleppo and the coast. On a cliff overlooking the Ghab plains that separate the coastal mountains from the province of Hamah, I accounted for my silence: The man was a member of the secret police, or “mukhabarat.” Almost certainly aware of our past as dissidents, he was likely attempting to provoke a response critical of the regime — a common tactic used by the intelligence agencies to root out dissent. Now a Middle East analyst, my son — who helped me recollect and narrate this essay — would later come to articulate this extraordinary social dynamic quite succinctly: Syria’s Alawites, by virtue of the community’s diverse fault lines and entangled networks, are often no more than two degrees of separation away from either the regime or those who oppose it.

How to explain this dynamic? From 1920 to 1946, France ruled Syria under the Mandate system. Initially encouraged by the French, the Alawites, long a persecuted and neglected community, began enlisting in sizable numbers in the colonial army — the only readily available avenue for escaping the miserable living conditions in the mountains and pursuing upward social mobility. This trend accelerated after independence.

In conjunction, owing to a history of oppression under majoritarian rule, the Alawites, like several other minorities, largely found shelter in ideological movements that, theoretically at least, offered an inclusive vision of society free of tribalism and sectarianism. As a result, ostensibly secular movements of the nationalist or leftist persuasion, such as communism, Arab Nationalism, and Baathism, were disproportionately Alawite in membership.

In 1963, the Baath Party came to power. After seven years of Baath rule, then-Defense Minister Hafez al-Assad launched a coup against the left-wing faction of the regime, presided over by Salah Jadid, cynically branding his putsch the “Corrective Movement.” After 1970, a schism occurred among the already-fractured Alawites, with dividing lines often boiling down to the individual level.

An enthusiastic 17-year-old political activist, I planned, together with a group of like-minded friends — left-wing Baathist Alawites as well — to mobilize anti-coup demonstrations in our hometown of Jableh, a coastal enclave located just 15 miles south of urban Latakia. Having heard from party insiders what Assad stood for — normalization with the reactionary forces of the Gulf states, détente with Israel, violence against dissenting military officers and the re-empowerment of feudal lords — we immediately assembled to block his reign.

Little did we know, as we prepared for his reckoning, that Assad’s informants had infiltrated both the party and its affiliated student unions, such as ours.

The next morning, as we began amassing for the protest, we were viciously beaten by an armed, pro-Assad gang. It was organized by Assad’s brother, Rifaat, the commander of the notorious Defense Brigades who later spearheaded the 1982 massacres in Hamah. We were then dragged into the school library, detained and periodically beaten for hours.

The faces of the newly co-opted henchmen were all too familiar. Many were our peers and neighbors. Some belonged to feudal families resentful of the agrarian reform project carried out by Jadid, such as Fawwaz Nassour, the son of a wealthy French Mandate era parliamentarian. Others were either related to Assad directly or to officers who partook in the coup, such as Samir Makhlouf, a fringe member of the (now infamous) clan to which Hafez’s wife, Anisah, belonged.

Yet Fawwaz and Samir — the two ringleaders of the gang — emerged onto the scene hours after our detention. Fawwaz, a classmate of mine, immediately halted the violence while Samir even borrowed a motorbike in order to drive me to a nearby clinic where I was treated for my wounds. Though they were Makhloufs, Samir’s family was incredibly poor. So miserable was their condition before 1970 that my late father, who had owned a small bookstore near their rundown apartment, often refused to charge them for merchandise. This, along with my local profile as a political activist and leader of the school musical band, had made Samir and Fawwaz sympathetic to me personally — my opposition to Assad notwithstanding.

We were all Alawite. Beyond the simplistic sectarian frameworks with which Assad’s seizure of power is often viewed, this was a struggle, first and foremost, between those with a vision for a future Syria and those seeking proximity to the centers of power, with all its associated perks. We were idealists: We admired Jadid’s progressive social program, his radicalization of agrarian reform and education, his intolerance of official corruption and of course, his genuine commitment to the Palestinian Fedayeen. They, however, simply saw the capture of the state as a means to amass fortunes, irrespective of the human cost.

After aligning with the regime, Samir ascended through the ranks to become a leading officer in the intelligence services. His eldest brother, Adnan, later became commander of the regime’s elite Republican Guard forces. Both exploited their status to enrich themselves, illegally accumulating tens of millions of dollars in personal wealth by the early 1990s.

Fawwaz, for his part, reacquired his family’s expropriated land. Such reversals of the socialist policies instituted under Jadid’s regime were part and parcel of the maneuvers Assad enacted in order to co-opt Alawite landowners and the Sunni merchant class. To reward his allegiance, Fawwaz was eventually permitted to run for the “People’s Assembly” and has been repeatedly “reelected.”

Under Assad, Baathism was hijacked and functioned more as a patchwork of political opportunists serving a party tied to the security apparatus than a group with clear ideological convictions. Party membership became a passport for those pursuing employment in office and across ministries — and officials at all levels were tasked with spying on the segments of society from which challenges to the regime could occur.

Those Alawites who joined the regime benefited significantly. Others, such as my comrades and I, remained marginalized. We were determined to fight a system run by a band of criminals who believed neither in the Syrian people nor in any principles beyond their own self-interest. Independent political parties were outlawed, and so we were driven underground — and like the generation that preceded us, we generally embraced leftist-nationalist currents.

Our existence as Alawite oppositionists was particularly problematic for the regime. It disrupted Assad’s ability to exploit minority fears by painting all political forces opposed to the status quo as Sunni Islamists. (A moderate, cross-confessional alternative to the regime stacked with secular Alawites doesn’t quite make for a useful boogeyman.) Thus, we were targeted. The left-wing faction of the Baath Party was the first to be liquidated by Assad, followed by a crackdown on the Communist Labor Party (CLP), both of which enjoyed particularly high Alawite membership. This intensified in 1972, after Jadidist officers within the army tried to stage a coup, then again in the 1980s when the CLP expanded, subsequently swelling in numbers. Its members suffered long sentences and found that a disproportionate number of their cellmates were also Alawite.

Though I receded from organizing, I was informed by trusted contacts that I had been labeled an “enemy of the state” by the intelligence agencies. My patterns of socialization throughout the decade — my continued contact with former dissidents, including my eldest brother, Jaber, who was previously imprisoned for rebuking Assad personally, and my maternal uncle, who supported the failed 1972 coup — were deemed “suspicious.” Moreover, my father, a respected community leader, defied local security forces in 1978 by publicly voting against Assad in a referendum on his presidency — the only person I know to do so.

I remained on the mukhabarat’s radar, and in 1979, months after leaving Syria for Canada, many of my friends and cousins were rounded up and imprisoned. Others went into hiding, only to be found and detained years later. Prominent Alawite dissident Abdul Aziz al-Khayyar, who was married to my cousin, was among them. He is currently presumed dead after being forcibly disappeared for his activism during the Syrian uprising.

The three years leading up to my departure were spent performing compulsory military service. Like many Syrians, the dreadful and humiliating experience of conscription in an army run by Assad’s abusive officers further motivated me to seek a better life abroad. While training, I applied to several government scholarships to pursue my graduate studies. Despite my competitive grades, my applications were systematically rejected owing to my political history.

I began independently corresponding with universities overseas and in April 1979 received a letter of admission from a Canadian institution. It had arrived just in time. A few weeks earlier, I had received my certificate of military completion, a state document required for acquiring a Syrian passport. But having a passport was one thing — obtaining an exit visa was another. Though these visas were issued through the Passport Department, all applications were forwarded to — and carefully vetted by — the Military Intelligence Directorate (MID). Unsurprisingly, my application was denied.

A close cousin of mine came to the rescue. Though a veteran anti-Assad communist, he was good friends with a warrant officer in the MID’s provincial office in Latakia. Upon reviewing my application, the officer stated that it had been sent to the Baath Party branch in Jableh for “assessment” by local informants tasked with providing an advisory opinion. The officer then explained that they had strongly advocated against granting me a visa based on my political past, a punitive measure intended to vindictively instill in us the notion that escape is impossible. Not only had we failed to prevent Assad’s ascension to power, we now had to live with the consequences.

Outranking local collaborators, the officer was nevertheless able to override the report, thus enabling the Passport Department to approve the application. With the assistance of an anti-Assad dissident, I was able to gain access to a member of the mukhabarat who helped facilitate my departure. Two degrees of separation is all that stood between us.

However, personal sympathies had also factored into the officer’s decision to help. His brother, an active anti-Assad CLP member, was serving out a perilous prison sentence for his opposition to the regime. Unlike the momentary sin I had committed in 1970 when attempting to organize demonstrations, his brother’s act of subversion, in Assad’s eyes, was far more egregious. An individual dissident, however vocal, is a nuisance — but an organized force is a threat. The officer couldn’t contemplate pleading for mercy on his brother’s behalf, lest he risk suffering similar consequences.

In 1983, having already settled in Canada, I decided to visit Syria. Feeling homesick, I based my calculated risk on the news that my brother-in-law, Amer, had become an admiral in the Syrian navy. Although the navy enjoyed very little influence, I reasoned that Amer’s connections would help me avoid physical persecution, in addition to securing the exit visa needed to safely return to Canada.

Most of my six-week visit was spent running from one government department to another simply to facilitate the required paperwork. Again, however, my application was hindered by the same securitized process. My exit visa was denied. This changed only after Amer took me with him to an MID building to pay a “friendly” visit to the officer in charge — a major, three ranks below him. Despite the difference in ranks, Amer was visibly nervous, as the MID maintained a reputation for torturing military officers suspected of disloyalty or of harboring sympathies for dissidents. An hour later, we left the bureau with written approval. I had gotten lucky once again.

Curious, I asked Amer why the major was helpful, given my documented transgressions. “As you know, Faysal, this system runs on a complex network of transactional relations,” he stated. “Sooner or later, he will need a personal favor from me.” Indeed, the patrimonial regime constructed by the Assads functioned then, as it does now, like a mafia. Familial rule is augmented by clientelist networks, which dictate most day-to-day interactions.

Amer retired in the mid-1990s. By then Sharif, a very close friend of my late brother, Kamal, had become a general in the MID. A somewhat anomalous figure, Sharif was one of the few high-ranking Sunni officers in intelligence — and part of an even smaller minority with a reputation for being friendly and supportive. He turned a blind eye to my history — so long as I never discussed politics around him.

Sharif’s security assurances encouraged me to move back to Syria in 2004 and fulfill my dream of teaching in my homeland. I taught in two universities before landing a position in the faculty of diplomacy and international relations at the University of Kalamoon, where I remained until January 2014.

In June 2013, as I was preparing to board a flight from Latakia to Beirut (en route to Toronto), I was stopped by airport security and told I had to report to Political Security Branch 279 in Damascus for a “brief interrogation.” I called another contact, Maher, a retired Alawite intelligence general, for help. Though a loyalist, Maher’s wife was a lifelong friend of mine. Her brother had been a member of our aborted 1970 protest group and was chased down by a machete-wielding thug of the same mob that had attacked us, only narrowly managing to escape.

After a few calls, Maher managed to have the interrogation delegated to the local branch in Latakia to save me the ordeal of traveling to the capital and missing my flights to Beirut and Toronto.

The interrogation took three hours. I was asked an array of politically charged questions, ranging from my oppositional past to my opinion on the Syrian uprising. I suspected that my occasional slips of tongue as a professor must have been reported by my students, many of whom had parents that were either government officials or commissioned officers. Given the subject matter, it was impossible to altogether avoid discussing democracy and human rights. Additionally, the faculty had been aware of my sympathetic stance toward students who demonstrated against the regime, earning me the nickname the “dissident professor.” The label was both a compliment and a dangerous stigma.

That minor incident at the intelligence branch was soon eclipsed by another. In early September, before returning from my visit to Canada, my brother called Sharif, who, in spite of retiring in early 2011 (he was pressured to resign after publicly addressing a crowd of protesters in central Damascus), assured him that I could safely return. He was wrong. I was arrested on the Syrian side of the Arida border crossing with Lebanon by security officers. After they insisted that they had but a question or two, I was lured into a holding cell before being told that they were issued orders to move me to Branch 279, this time as a political prisoner.

Fearing I would never see my family again, I began shouting while simultaneously invoking the name of my highest remaining connection, Sharif, in hope of persuading the guard to change course. He allowed me to make one call before confiscating my cell phone. Luckily, Sharif answered. Six hours and dozens of calls later, the retired general secured my release, likely saving my life in the process. Wary of pushing my luck any further, I departed for Canada four months later — this time for good.

On the whole, I belong to a lucky minority of Alawite dissidents who happened to have access to the right contacts — and at the right time. Ahmad, too, has utilized his contacts throughout the war to avoid having his son deployed to the most volatile front lines, thus eluding the fate of tens of thousands of other Alawite conscripts who weren’t as fortunate. While we will forever oppose Assad’s monstrous regime, we have learned, out of sheer necessity, to leverage these networks to mitigate persecution and evade dangerous situations.

This is perhaps the most paradoxically painful element of our struggle. The same repressive authoritarian regime that is dominated by Alawites and has immiserated Syrians for generations — including the vast majority of Alawites — is the one that Alawite dissidents resort to when they are cornered. Said differently, we have been forced to navigate a system we wish to dismantle in hope that we can live long enough to see its downfall. But it is also the perfect snapshot of the intimate contradictions that run deep in the Alawite community. Within these two degrees of separation lies a window into the regime, the Alawites and Syrian politics.

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