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Alawites fear they, and not Assad, are the target of rebels

Support for Syria's Alawite president, Bashar Al Assad, is not universal among Syria's Alawites but increasingly, they are targets of the pent-up frustration and anger that has erupted against the Assad dynasty.
A camp for Syrian refugees fleeing violence in their country in Zataari, Jordan, near the Syrian border. Refugees who belong to the Shiite-linked Alawites sect are living in fear.
A camp for Syrian refugees fleeing violence in their country in Zataari, Jordan, near the Syrian border. Refugees who belong to the Shiite-linked Alawites sect are living in fear.

SAMANDAG, Turkey // For Celal and other Alawites, the world seems to be closing in all too quickly. Whether in Syria or southern Turkey, those who belong to the Shiite-linked sect are scared.

Celal, 34, ticked off the names of his relatives in Syria - an uncle in Damascus, a nephew in Deir Ezzor. He saved for last the example that reinforces all his fears. His cousin, he said, disappeared while driving between Salqin and Latakia.

Support for Syria's Alawite president, Bashar Al Assad, is not universal among Celal and other Alawites. But increasingly, they are targets of the pent-up frustration and anger that has erupted against the Assad dynasty, which began when Mr Al Assad's father, Hafez, took power in 1971.

In Syria, Alawite villages were the targets of attacks by Sunni rebels in fighting that has taken on a very sectarian hue. Alawite fighters, for their part, were said to be trying to carve out strongholds for themselves by driving out Sunnis, killing entire families and threatening anyone else who stays behind.

In Turkey, Alawites live under the shadow of a government that has all but publicly endorsed the armed overthrow of the Alawite-dominated regime. Together with Saudi Arabia and Qatar, the government of the prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has reportedly opened a base near Turkey's border with Syria to oversee military and communications aid to anti-Assad rebels.

Feeling outnumbered is nothing new for Alawites. Sunnis make up 60 per cent of Syria's 22.5 million population. Alawites comprise only 12 per cent. In Turkey, they represent a tiny fraction of that.

Now, however, Alawites on both sides of the border are objects of the resentment that has boiled over since March 2011, when the peaceful protests against Mr Al Assad's authoritarian rule began and eventually erupted into armed rebellion.

Celal, who owns several houses in Syria and visited the country every week, said he met some rebels last month through a friend in the Turkish border village of Hacipasa. When he asked for information about his missing cousin, one rebel told him that captured supporters of the regime are killed.

Sheikh Ali Yeral, an Alawite leader in Turkey's southern Hatay province, said local Alawites feared for the safety of their families in Syria and were angry at the Turkish government's support of the uprising.

He and other Alawites in Turkey kept their complaints mostly to themselves, though, and their world shrinks a bit more.

They seldom get through on the telephone to their relatives in Syria now. When they do, they are too frightened to speak openly.

Alican Mahanoglu, 23, said he is not certain that the wedding of a cousin in Latakia was going ahead. He can no longer contact his cousin in Damascus. They had plans to go to Canada for business internships.

Sheikh Yeral insisted that most people in the outside world misunderstand the conflict in Syria. It is not a struggle for "freedom" and "democracy," he said, but a war being waged against Alawites by Sunni countries such as Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey.

"If those people are really searching for 'freedom' and 'human rights' why don't they just look at women's rights in Saudi Arabia?" he asks.

Some Syrian Alawites who had fled to Turkey were straddling the fence. A 39-year-old man in Antakya, which hugs Turkey's border with Syria, said he was "trying to decide" whether he wants to return home after two years working in the Gulf.

Like many Syrians, he had grown frustrated with the corruption of the Assad regime.

But he was not yet willing to support the opposition because like many Alawites, he said, he did not want to see Syria led by the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood, who are a powerful faction inside the Syrian National Council, the main anti-Assad coalition.

"It sounds like everywhere a revolution happens, the Muslim Brotherhood gets to the front," he said. "They could do it all again."

The man, who asked not to be identified out of fear for his safety, had a long memory.

He recalled how the Brotherhood, which the ruling party Baath party declared illegal after it came to power in 1963, began a series of bombings across Syria.

The mainly Sunni-based resistance movement, of which the Brotherhood was a part, came to a bloody end in Hama in 1982, when between 10,000 and 40,000 people were killed when government forces, led by Hafez Al Assad's younger brother, laid siege to the city.

The regime's crackdown was horrible, but the Brotherhood's actions were worse, he said.

The Sunni versus Alawite sectarianism that many now spoke of as the driving force of the conflict was exaggerated, he said, noting that Sunnis populate the government and its opposition. He disagreed that the Alawite-dominated government of Bashar Al Assad was now reaping what it had sowed.

"The only truth you can depend on is [that] Sunnis are the majority in the revolution and the regime."

foreign.desk@thenational.ae

Updated: July 30, 2012 04:00 AM

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