The Wandering Alawite

The country’s minority sect largely stuck by the Assad regime in 2011. A decade on, many are asking: Why?

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The Wandering Alawite
Illustration by Joanna Andreasson/Newlines

In the summer of 2013, I traveled to the northern countryside of Latakia, Syria, where jihadist groups had committed massacres in Alawite villages including al-Hamboushieh, Beit al-Shakouhi, Blouta, and Aramo. Most of the inhabitants were killed. Others, mainly women and children, were kidnapped, their fate remaining unknown for years. It was the first massacre against Alawite villages in more than a century and one of the most dreadful atrocities against the community since 1979, when Islamists had shot and killed unarmed Alawite cadets in the mess hall of the artillery academy in Aleppo.

I have always been painfully aware of the fragility of sectarian coexistence, and a strong security state like that of President Bashar al-Assad represented safety for many, including me, an Alawite. However tyrannical the regime may be, it was but one dictatorship, and I feared a Syria fragmented into multiple sectarian dictatorships. So, I stuck by the regime. I knew that my own secular views and contempt for its repressive nature would not protect me from being killed by its enemies. The sight of a bleeding, 80-year-old woman lying on the concrete in front of her home in Beit al-Shakouhi when I arrived there seemed to confirm my fears.

By the time Syria’s current conflict broke out, I dreaded the thought of the Syrian state’s collapse and an ensuing sectarian bloodbath. In addition to the violence of the late 1970s-80s, many in Syria have heard stories of the massacres of 1860 when Muslims killed several thousand Christians in Damascus amid a civil war in nearby Mount Lebanon. I had my own memories as well. I was raised in Lebanon and had witnessed its civil war, including the Black Saturday massacre of 1975 and the siege of Tal al-Zaatar camp in 1976, when civilians were killed on account of their sect (the Lebanese identity card specified the holder’s religion, which helped killers choose their victims). I saw three people executed in front of our house; their corpses laid in the street for three days until they were finally buried by a bulldozer in what eventually became an amusement park.

One day amid the ongoing civil war, as I was waiting in line in what must have been the 10th checkpoint on the Latakia-Tartus road, a Syrian Army soldier approached me and asked if I could drive a wounded soldier to his village. He was a young man with an injured face covered with white medical gauze — he had lost an eye in combat. He opened the door and sat politely, and the presence of a soldier in my car facilitated our crossing through the crowded checkpoint. We introduced ourselves and grew comfortable once he learned my sectarian affiliation and hometown, which was near his own.

I asked him how he had lost his eye. He recounted: “I was injured in Eastern Ghouta, where we were trapped for a week in the middle of a muddy, swampy river. There were 15 of us, and some of us were injured. We ran out of food and decided to send two of our men to a nearby village to buy some or steal it if necessary. We naively thought our plan to disguise them in civilian clothes would work. They were caught, and we heard the screams of their brutal torture from the town’s loudspeakers. Driven by despair and tormented by the screams of those whom we sent to their death, we decided to attack.” He bowed his head before he continued: “We killed everyone we encountered. The militants fled, so we took revenge on their families.” He was speaking in a whisper while looking at me with one eye; he was not proud of what he had done. He appeared more like a frightened child than a soldier.

“Did you kill anyone?” I asked

“I didn’t, but the others did. They killed everyone, everything, even cows.” He replied.

The man beside me was 23 years old. Filled with bitter memories, he was trying to obtain medical discharge from the military. I dropped him off near the city junction in Sheikh Badr, a predominantly Alawite town, and drove away ever more distressed over the hatred that was growing and spreading quickly in the country.

In the face of that young man, whose name I can no longer remember, I have a picture of a wandering Alawite, a lost man. A murderer yet also a victim — one I am finally writing about after all these years.

Alawites have always been considered by other Syrians as the regime’s praetorian guard. The Syrian opposition repeatedly highlights the regime’s sectarian character, and the fact that the Baath Party had been controlled by a military committee of five officers belonging to religious minorities, three of whom were Alawites, reinforced the idea of minorities dominating power, headed first by President Hafez al-Assad.

However, the elder al-Assad had built his regime on a declared secularism and implicit sectarianism at the same time, making it a more complex entity, especially with the presence of many Sunnis in positions of power. The Sunni presence in the upper and middle ruling circles prevented the country from falling under absolute sectarian rule, even if ultimately Syria was controlled by its absolute ruler.

In fact, Alawites themselves had never formed a single, unified entity. They were historically divided not only by geography but also, and more importantly, by clan, sunk in poverty and ignorance. This clannish fanaticism governed individual relationships. Alliances were built according to the decisions of the feudal clan leader even if this led to clashes with other clans (as happened to Ismail Khair Bek, the leader of the powerful Mutawara clan who was eliminated by Jaber al-Abbas, the leader of the Khayateen clan, after the latter built alliances with other tribal families). The traditional view of Alawites as a monolith united and closed in on itself is inaccurate but magnified by their isolation and the absence of considerable effort by researchers to understand them.

The collective Alawite memory is full of stories of military campaigns and persecution throughout history at the hands of cruel governors whose main concern was to collect taxes or drive them to compulsory service in the Ottoman army. Alawites’ lives were harsh and their villages subject to constant abuse despite occasional attempts by some Ottoman governors to manage them and understand their needs, such as Medhat Pasha.

During the French Mandate and Syria’s early independence years, Alawites saw their situation change. Many Alawite officers emerged, such as Col. Muhammed Nasser, and many, such as Muhammad Maarouf, took part in a series of military coups. Yet, the conscience of Alawites remained burdened by centuries of isolation and oppression. The emergence of an Alawite farmer, Hafez, as leader of Syria was truly unprecedented and gave the community a feeling of “importance” in the state, motivating Alawites toward education, vocational training and trade, and, most importantly, military life where they found, as alleged by their opponents, favorable treatment at the expense of peers from other sects.

The leaders of the new Baathist state, driven by socialist slogans and eager to satisfy their supporters, were focused on developing the countryside. In the end, those who came to dominate the government were those revolutionaries with rural origins, and their regions had to be rewarded, even at the city’s expense. They redistributed tens of thousands of dunams of feudal lands to peasants and allowed tens of thousands of rural people to settle in major cities and their suburbs, building slums, especially in Damascus.

Hafez, skilled in reading his environment and aspiring to reshape his sect under his leadership, deliberately weakened the role of the traditional Alawite leaders and sheikhs, who came to be labeled as feudalists, reactionaries, and thieves. Hafez succeeded in creating a “revolutionary rift” between the old masters and the peasantry, giving the lands of Alawite clan leaders to farmers in a move that mobilized them behind the revolution and won their absolute loyalty to him and his offspring.

Hafez would emerge as his sect’s sole representative and champion of a new Alawite identity.

I recount this history to highlight the new Alawite elite’s remarkable destruction of the sect’s traditional feudal structure in favor of a quasi-unified sectarian structure. Hafez would emerge as his sect’s sole representative and champion of a new Alawite identity. Alawites now had to join the state, which was historically linked in the Alawite conscience with oppression, and support the “founder of modern Syria” (one of Hafez’s favorite titles) and be worthy of his trust. The shift did not always progress at the speed Hafez would have liked.

In addition to communal solidarity, Hafez was aware that economic stability and security were the guarantors of political stability; his socialist agenda (less severe than that of his predecessor Salah Jadid) secured reasonable economic stability and was less provocative to urban Sunni merchants, but in order to establish regime security, a different strategy was needed, as the previous strategies could not protect the country from still more coups.

Since the “party formula” could not guarantee the preservation of the rule of Hafez himself, he needed to bring the Alawites out of their cocoon and transform them into partisans with a sort of double loyalty: to Hafez not only as the secretary-general of the party to which many of them belonged, but also to Hafez as the “head of the family” who had pulled them out of their shell and created a new, overt, revolutionary Alawite identity. This contrasted dramatically with the previous Alawite identity: opaque and recalcitrant, which has always been misunderstood, and constituted an embarrassment that had deepened the sect’s isolation and closed-mindedness.

The presence of a strong and inspiring president like Hafez gave Alawites the confidence to cross the “village barrier” and enter the wider world. Many took government jobs, especially in education, construction, and the army. Institutions were established to absorb young university graduates (such as the Military Housing Corporation, which founder Col. Khalil al-Bahloul turned into a construction empire using Hafez’s support and trust). Young Alawites were thirsty for knowledge and excited to escape their families’ poverty complex. In this rush for change, hundreds of thousands from the countryside settled in large cities, especially Damascus, which became encircled by slums. The inhabitants of these slums were all those who were freed from the historical complex of persecution and their voluntary confinement. Eventually with the civil war, they would become the persecutors of other poor Syrians — victims and tormentors at once, like the one-eyed soldier.

Hafez’s strategy and “party formula” faced its first serious test during the ’80s when the regime was targeted by radical Islamists. Hafez defeated the Islamists militarily and used the narrative of progressives (his regime) versus reactionaries (the Islamists) to guard against allegations of sectarianism. Especially noteworthy was the presence of a strong military force called Saraya al-Difaa, composed of minorities and led by Hafez’s brother Rifaat al-Assad. This regiment played a prominent role in aborting the first Islamist attempt to eliminate the Assad regime, especially after the city of Hamah fell under Islamist control. As difficult as this period was for the Alawite sect and for Hafez personally, the eventual defeat of the rebels, the destruction of Hamah, and the massacre of its inhabitants had a lasting significance that shaped the events of 2011.

Firstly, this Islamist insurgency was the first serious test for the Alawites’ cohesiveness as a sect in the face of Sunni oppressors, their historical enemy. Indeed, Alawites were of one opinion on the Hamah events, neither blaming the regime for what happened nor opposing the idea of fighting the Islamists to the end. The sectarian rhetoric adopted by their enemies, in addition to the massacres and assassinations of prominent Alawite figures, pushed the sect to unite in absolute support for Hafez.

The conflict was also the first real victory in modern Syria for a minority group against a majority, despite the sincere and effective aid from many Sunnis to the regime, some of whom came from rural areas with a stake in the Baath system, while others were urban Sunnis and merchants, especially from Damascus, who rallied around Hafez to protect their commercial interests. This victory gave Alawites a sense of confidence and power as a fighting group that would be reflected in their relationship with other sects, especially the Sunnis.

The regime’s victory also deepened trust in Hafez as a great leader and undermined traditional parties that had a long history of political work, leading to either their gradual disappearance from the political arena or to their fragmentation into multiple small parties that were easily assimilated or dismantled. Those who refused to submit to Hafez had their members imprisoned, most notably the communist Alawites.

The victory after Hamah put a near end to the concept of Syria as a republic, replacing it with a state of the president and Baath Party with the country belonging to the Assad regime. This would prove to be one reason for the 2011 uprising during the rule of Bashar, who lacked his father’s mastery of conflict management.

Finally, the events of the ’80s fueled the emergence of the complete “Alawite personality,” which developed after the Alawites’ liberation from their geographical isolation. Even while Alawites became residents of cities, they kept their old “village relationships” and the sense of safety these bring, passing them down to their children. Meanwhile, Alawites’ relationships with the “other” remained tinged with caution, especially in the neighboring, mixed-sectarian slums, which had fallen victim to the first bloody clashes in the country.

For more than two decades after the end of the Islamist uprising, Alawites lived in relative stability and the wounds of the 1980s began to heal, but suspicion remained. As the presence of Alawites in state departments and public institutions as well as in the army and various security branches grew, so did their belief that they were the protectors of the regime. On an intellectual level, competencies emerged among Alawites in various fields, especially in medicine and engineering. The number of Alawites with a doctorate degree increased, and many prominent Alawite intellectuals and artists emerged, as well as writers and directors who left an important mark in theater, cinema, and television.

This stability was punctured by two incidents, namely the death of the president’s son and would-be successor Basil al-Assad, who was killed in the prime of his life in a car accident in 1994, and the death of Hafez in 2000. Alawites were shocked by Basil’s sudden death and anxious about the future of the state, albeit their trust in Hafez’s wisdom and farsightedness helped alleviate their anxiety. Yet this did not last long, as Hafez’s death brought sincere grief over the man who had transformed Alawites’ lives from bystanders to key players in a regime that took their interests into account. Many Alawites sent their families to their safe villages to await an uncertain future. Their angst would last until Bashar’s succession was completed, almost exactly 21 years ago.

These tumultuous years were accompanied by great turmoil in the world that affected Syria; with the collapse of the Soviet Union, the regime lost its most reliable ally. In the Arab world, the two most important events, in my estimation, were the end of Baath rule in Iraq and the emergence of Hezbollah in Lebanon as a distinct military force close to the regime in Syria, and most importantly, close to the hearts of Alawites. Indeed, Alawites saw in Hezbollah a Shiite Arab force that shared their history of Sunni oppression and a charismatic leader in Hassan Nasrallah whose pictures soon appeared next to the image of Bashar. This party is of course closely involved with the regime and would play a major role in the coming Syrian crisis.

When the Syrian protests began, Alawites were provoked by the slogans chanted by demonstrators, especially in the areas they considered Alawite strongholds such as Baniyas and its villages, and Homs and its suburbs. Some slogans were even more transparently sectarian than during the ’80s: calls to exclude Alawites from power, linking them to the regime, even calling for their extermination by some extremists. Much has been said about these slogans and whether they were actually used, and later the regime itself would be accused of highlighting these slogans to mobilize minorities, but what is certain is that despite the presence of secular figures among the demonstrators, there were early demands of an “Islamic flavor,” such as separating girls from boys in primary education in Baniyas and expelling the minister of education, who had issued several decisions prohibiting the wearing of the veil in schools. Among the demonstrators, there were some who did not hide their desire to end the domination of minorities over the state.

I had many “secular” Sunni friends, and openness between us made it easier for one of them to express his idea of implementing democracy in Syria, something that I strongly supported. He explained to me, “Democracy means the rule of the majority, which is Sunni.” When he saw my surprise, he looked at me and said, “Isn’t it?” I had to shut up! It was useless to explain the nuances of democracy to someone who believed it means the predominance of one sect over others.

With the outbreak of the Syrian conflict, “Sunni oppression” emerged to compete with “Alawite oppression,” giving some a sense of legitimacy to exert violence on others. Now it was the Sunnis’ turn in this endless cycle of violence. I have lost many friends in controversies of this kind. Syrian society has been split between regime supporters and opponents, Alawites and Sunnis, the countryside and the city, and one nation and another.

Many of the Alawites who rushed to protect the regime and its president were the sons and grandsons of those who fought the Islamists in the 1980s. They were loaded with stories they had heard from their fathers, and they now had to prove their worth by protecting the regime, as their fathers and grandfathers had done before them. When the first massacres against Alawites began and were widely circulated on social media and extensively talked about on state television, the sense of a community being targeted returned, and Alawites began to see the conflict as a civil war.

From the perspective of Alawites, demands to overthrow the regime meant targeting Alawites themselves. 

There are several things about the 2011 crisis that shaped the ensuing reaction of Alawites. Above all, they felt they were being targeted with the regime by the Sunni majority, and if they dispersed, they would be lost — a certainty that increased with the ferocity of their hard-line opponents’ discourse. That early anti-regime demonstrations in 2011 came out of mosques was enough for Alawites to feel targeted as a sect. From the perspective of Alawites, demands to overthrow the regime meant targeting Alawites themselves. This interpretation of events fueled the clash between their areas and those from which the demonstrations started, such as Barzeh and Ish al-Warwar or Jdeidet Artouz and the guards’ residences, Moadamiyeh, and others. Despite reassurances from some opposition figures that Alawites were not targeted as a sect, the massacres that befell them, and the limited influence of those in the armed opposition promising their safety, only increased their cohesion.

The Alawites also sensed that they, as a sect, had no true ally, with the possible exception of Iran and Hezbollah in Lebanon. Throughout history, Alawites have not enjoyed international protection. While Christians, Sunnis, and even Druze had their protectors, Alawites were ignored. The war came to remind them of their fate. Even the eventual Russian intervention was aimed at supporting the state, not the sect as such. In their minds, the best-case scenario in the event of regime collapse would be a return to isolation in their villages, losing all the advantages they had acquired over the past 50 years. For Alawites, it was a war of existence they had to fight as fiercely as they possibly could. The sect’s cohesion helped keep the regime in control and prevent the division and fragmentation of the military. It has also sustained their support for Bashar himself, despite the amount of criticism and bitterness they feel toward the government as a whole.

Although the conflict in 2011 wasn’t defined along the lines of “progressive versus reactionary,” which proved to be a successful formula for Hafez in his war against radical Islamists in the ’80s, this time around, the regime had been cast as backward and reactionary, in contrast to the youth movement that was calling for change. Many of the revolution’s leaders were former Baathists, some of whom contributed greatly to the suppression of the radical protests in the 1980s. This switch in roles shocked the regime, which was increasingly forced to rely on mobilizing minorities, particularly fearful Alawites. This strategy undeniably succeeded in protecting the regime and preventing the disintegration of the state, but clearly it changed their character and Syrian society.

The emergence of Alawite civilian opposition figures calling for the fall of the regime had the opposite effect, causing the Alawite community to close ranks. These figures, including unionists, former political prisoners, and artists, gave the uprising a secular aspect but also suggested a division in the Alawite sect. Alawites quickly isolated them, accused them of treason, and threatened them, prompting most of them to flee the country. For Alawites, any sign of dissent within the sect under such circumstances evoked instinctive feelings of panic and fear of collective demise.

Today, like millions of Syrians, Alawites stand in queues for bread, gasoline, and food supplies. They wonder and frequently ask themselves, “Where did we make a mistake?”, “Why?”, and “Where are we going?” These questions worm their way into every mind in this cruel and difficult situation in which the war’s “victorious” party lives.

In the ’80s, Alawites, like most Syrians, suffered from the bitterness of international isolation as they do today, but in their view, it was for a noble cause, the regime’s perceived support for the Palestine issue, and they were led by a charismatic president, a “demigod” in their eyes. There were, of course, corrupt people, but the corruption was not as rampant and noticeable as it is today. Back then, it was “elitist” corruption, whereas today, every village has its own corrupt overlord who collects his money by violating and plundering the areas once under the control of militants and later recaptured by the regime.

Since 2011, the Alawites have been implicated in brutality, murder, extortion, and theft that many of them had nothing to do with. Indeed, Alawites opted for communal solidarity, and for that they share the burden of crimes regardless of their involvement. The hatred against them increased day by day, and what was whispered in the past is now expressed openly and publicly on social media. Alawites were asked by various individuals and countries to abandon the regime and stop defending it without being presented with a vision of their future; they were only offered words that were not reassuring. The Iraqi experience and the mutual massacres between Sunni and Shiite after the fall of Saddam Hussein remain vivid in their minds.

Today, Syria’s Alawites are trapped; they support the regime not necessarily out of conviction but because they see no alternative. The Shiites have Iran, the Sunnis Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Turkey, and the Christians the protection of Europe and Russia. For the Alawites, there is no other place except this hate-filled country. They are, in short, a story of success, grief, and sadness all at once — a story of tens of thousands dead, disabled, and widowed. Alawites are victims and killers. The question remains: Whose victims are they? And what did they kill for?

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