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04/17/2013

Everything to lose, nowhere to go: Syria's Alawites

Tartousbeach
Beach in Tartous, Syria, where many Alawites live. (Jean-Luc MANAUD/Gamma-Rapho)

Peter Harling, one of the most thoughtful commentators on Syria has written an incisive piece on how the religious minority to which President Bashar Assad belongs is clinging to power as Syria falls apart. 

The Alawites, the most historically oppressed minority in Syria, rose to prominent positions with the rise of the Assad family. Household servants became civil servants. Peasants got land.  But the Assads established their supremacy at the expense of the Alawites. Respected tribal leaders, intellectuals and competent militarymen were shunted aside in favour of yes-men to expand the family’s power. 

This state of division and disarray is the key to the regime’s “extraordinary resilience,” Harling writes.  And reversing the emancipation is what Alawites fear most if the regime falls.  

"Such dread is founded in the precariousness of the condition in which the regime has maintained ‘Alawis. By neglect and by design, their ascent was never translated into integration. Thanks to a lack of urban planning, ‘Alawis congregated in informal neighborhoods such as Damascus’ Mezze 86, which stood out for their sectarian homogeneity. They relied to a greater extent than any other group on the regime.”

He continues: “They assumed a conspicuous role in local administrations (in Homs, for instance), state-run media outlets (such as al-Baath newspaper and, more recently, al-Dunya television) and key state institutions (notably the officer corps of the army). They were most visible, and in the worst possible way, in sprawling security services that operated outside the law and outside formal state institutions. Finally, although Bashar reached out to the Sunni Arab majority far more than his father did, he ushered in hereditary rule as a hallmark of the regime’s communal nature, and he abetted the uninhibited corruption of his immediate relatives, including the domination of the economy by his cousin Rami Makhlouf. As the Asads and their relatives expanded their control over both state institutions and the private sector, Syria came to look like a family farm. All told, ‘Alawis were not amalgamated into society as much as they were absorbed into a fictional state, leaving them alien and exposed."

One speculation about the war’s endgame is that Assad would leave Damascus, by choice or force, and take the Alawites back to their mountain homeland. But Harling says this is the last thing they want.

As a result, "Alawis have everything to lose, nowhere to go and no one to follow, other than a leader they profess to love and in reality loathe," he writes. 

The war continues, becoming more savage and sectarian as the body count increases and the possibility of a peaceful end remote.    

READ MORE: Syrian refugees sell their daughters into marriage to survive 

Hamida Ghafour is a foreign affairs reporter at the Star. She has lived and worked in the Middle East and Asia for more than 10 years and is the author of a book on Afghanistan. Follow her on Twitter @HamidaGhafour


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