x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 22 October 2017

Disaffection, fear growing among Syria's Alawites

Activists in Syria's Alawite heartlands says signs of disaffection with the Al Assad family rule are spreading.

Thousands turned out for pro-regime rally in Latakia, Syria, the Alawite heartland, in February. However, activists say the Al Assad regime is beginning to lose support there.
Thousands turned out for pro-regime rally in Latakia, Syria, the Alawite heartland, in February. However, activists say the Al Assad regime is beginning to lose support there.

DAMASCUS // In the Alawite heartlands of Latakia and the mountainous rural hinterlands surrounding the city, the regime of President Bashar Al Assad still commands overwhelming support, buttressed by patronage networks and deeply entrenched fears of sectarian bloodshed.

But activists in the region say there are signs disaffection with Al Assad family rule is slowly spreading among those outside of privileged elite circles, a discord encapsulated in a new slogan, increasingly heard among ordinary Alawites: "For them the palaces, for us the coffins."

"People are saying, 'how long will we have to bear this', more and more army families are wondering what they are sacrificing their children for, they are starting to say 'where are the martyrs from the Assad family?'," said an Alawite activist from Latakia, a once bustling port and tourist resort on Syria'sverdant Mediterranean coastline.

Another influential Alawite opposition figure from a village in the Alawite mountains said dissent had become more pronounced since January, when an elderly Alawite widow buried her son, a soldier killed in the uprising. She had lost her husband and father in conflicts during the 1970s and 1980s under the former president Hafez Al Assad.

"She stood at the funeral and said: 'You Assads have taken my whole family, and all for nothing,'" the activist said. "People sympathised with her. Since then there have been similar sentiments at other funerals - not all of them, but some of them, people are becoming angry, the pressure is rising."

Nonetheless even opposition figures in the region acknowledge most of Syria's Alawites - members of the same obscure Shiite sect as Mr Al Assad and his ruling faction - continue to side with the regime.

"Ninety per cent of the Alawite community in Latakia and the villages support Assad, either because they have direct interests with the regime or because they are terrified," said a leading Alawite dissident.

"Alawites believe they are facing a jihad by Sunni extremists who are coming to chop off their heads, they are really sacred of that."

Sectarianism is a thorny and complicated issue in Syria. Long a taboo subject, it has been thrown into sharper focus by a year-long uprising, particularly as an armed rebellion emerges alongside peaceful anti-regime demonstrations.

Many leading opposition activists - including protest organisers - are drawn from Syria's Druze, Christian, Alawite and Ismaili minority communities.

Yet the anti-regime movement has been at its most powerful and militant in areas where Syria's Sunni majority dominates, such as Deraa, Homs, Hama, Deir Ezzor and Idlib.

The opposition has been at pains to stress it is nonsectarian, working to overthrow an abusive and authoritarian regime that has ruled the country for four decades.

But that regime - and the security institutions crucial to its survival - is dominated by Alawites and has cast itself as protectors of secularism and minority groups against Sunni extremism. Officials maintain they are now at war against Al Qaeda-style fanatics aiming to establish a hard line Islamic state in Syria.

"The regime has convinced the minorities it is their protector and it has succeeded in neutralising the Alawites though fear, through linking their destiny to the regime's," said a Christian protester from Latakia city.

"For that reason, the majority [in Latakia] are not involved in the revolution, while they are in many other places, if you go to Hama you have no doubt the revolution will win, but in Latakia it is like a different world compared to the rest of Syria," he said.

Demonstrations, typically involving 100 to 150 young protesters and lasting up to 15 minutes, have stubbornly persisted in Latakia city, although they are confined to a few neighbourhoods and outlying villages, all where Sunnis are in the majority.

To keep public protests at that low level, security forces have been deployed in strength throughout much of the city. Activists say it takes just minutes for dozens of security cars to arrive at the scene of any dissent.

The Ramel neighbourhood, an impoverished Sunni ghetto that was assaulted by security units in August, remains sealed off by heavily fortified checkpoints.

In the heart of Latakia, the school where Hafez Al Assad was educated has been shut down and garrisoned by the army, with hundreds of soldiers and plainclothes security officers on hand to prevent it - or the statue of the former president standing on a plinth outside - from being defaced by opposition activists.

While the regime needs to hold Damascus and Aleppo if it is to remain in power, Latakia, as an unofficial capital for Syria's Alawites, is just as important.

"The regime hasn't reached the point where it feels it is losing in Latakia yet, but it is not comfortable. It is working hard to keep the control it has," said a local doctor who has been supporting protests.

A protest organiser from the city, a 40-year-old engineer, said the opposition was similarly working hard to keep going under immense pressure, including widespread detentions and pervasive surveillance of activists.

"We were weakened by the arrests but we have reorganised and adapted," he said.

As with other parts of Syria, numerous activists in Latakia confirmed an increasing tendency among anti-regime groups to favour taking up weapons, and they reported growing activity by the Free Syrian Army, including raids made from rural areas into the heart of the city to help soldiers trying to defect.

"The regime is weakening slowly, it is breaking up like an iceberg," said another grassroots activist in the region. "But as it has become harder to have peaceful demonstrations, the armed opposition has become stronger and everyone is saying the same thing now - a peaceful uprising alone is not going to topple this regime."

A protester from Ramel, a 23-year-old Sunni, said he would stop peaceful demonstrations and join the armed opposition if it were being supplied with weapons from the West or Arab states.

"It is our right to carry arms and to defend ourselves, don't blame us if that is what we do," said the protester, whose father and brothers have been arrested and held for months and who was himself detained for 50 days. "We want any foreign air force over the skies of Syria to protect us from this regime, let them bomb the presidential palace, we would make a pact with the devil if he could help us get rid of the regime."

Hard-core Alawite loyalists, including the Shabbiheh, a pro-regime militia-cum-smuggling network, have long been armed. Residents of Latakia and outlying villages say the security forces at a minimum turn a blind eye to increasing numbers of Alawites carrying unlicensed weapons.

Others say Alawite villages have been supplied with armaments by the authorities and told to defend themselves against Sunni invaders. Weapons mixed with sectarian animosity have created a dangerous cocktail.

"In the beginning I used to say there was no way a civil war could happen here, that the Syrian people would not do that but after one year, we cannot keep saying the same thing. What we saw in Homs [sectarian violence] is a worry because we have the same mix of sects here in Latakia," the Christian activist said.

The young Sunni protester echoed that alarm. "I'm afraid of a civil war with the Alawites," he said. "They have been fooled by the regime into taking its side and when the regime feels it has reached its end they will murder a lot of people in Latakia, there will be a lot of violence."

A seasoned Alawite dissident gave an equally bleak assessment of the region's, and Syria's, immediate prospects. "We will be dragged into a civil war by this regime, it will be like the Balkans, it will be Bosnia all over again."

psands@thenational.ae