MESOP : ALAWI MOVEMENT OPPOSE BASHAR AL ASSAD / – Inquiry & Analysis Series Report No.1225
‘Alawi Sect Showing Signs Of Opposition To Assad Regime – By: M. Terdiman* –
Introduction – In late November 2015, the “Upcoming Syria” movement was established in Istanbul. This is the first ‘Alawi movement that opposes the Bashar Al-Assad regime in Syria. The movement’s founders claim that for years, Assad tied the fate of the ‘Alawi sect with his own in order to guarantee its loyalty, despite the fact that not all of its members supported him. The new movement aspires to collaborate with the Syrian revolution so as to ensure the ‘Alawis’ safety and their part in the future social and governmental makeup of the country.
Upcoming Syria has received the support of Assad’s rival Turkey, and of the National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces, which aspires to show that it represents all Syrian sects, thus alleviating minority fears regarding the post-Assad era in the country.
Concurrently, recent Arab media reports claim that officials in the ‘Alawi sect have been in touch with various regional countries such as Turkey and Israel in an attempt to obtain guarantees for the safety of the sect in the period after Assad.
The establishment of the first ‘Alawi oppositionist organ and the reports on efforts by sect officials to secure the ‘Alawis’ safety in the post-Assad era do not take place in a vacuum. Back in 2014 there were early signs of bitterness and criticism towards the regime within the ‘Alawi sect, which were expressed on social media and also in articles published by ‘Alawi writers. Another expression of this disillusionment can be seen in the August 2015 ‘Alawi protests that took place in the Latakia and Tartus areas.
It should be mentioned that, despite the current wave of discontent, it appears as though the ‘Alawi sect and the Upcoming Syria movement do not constitute a real threat to the regime; rather, it seems that Assad has thus far managed to contain the criticism emanating from his own sect and maintain its low profile.
It should also be mentioned that it is difficult to estimate what portion of the sect is loyal to the regime and what portion opposes it. However, these are still undoubtedly significant developments.
This report will discuss the Upcoming Syria movement and additional signs of displeasure with the Assad regime among members of the ‘Alawi sect.
‘Upcoming Syria’ – The First ‘Alawi Opposition Body
On November 21-22, 2015, the founding conference of Upcoming Syria – the first group of ‘Alawi political oppositionists – was held in Istanbul. The conference opened with the singing of the movement anthem, titled “A Free Homeland Unites Us.” The movement is headed by ‘Alawi oppositionists who live outside of Syria, some of whom are members of the National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces.
Aspiring To Create ‘Alawi Leaders And Add ‘Alawi Voices To The Revolution
The movement’s founder is Fouad Hamira, one of Syria’s most prominent drama writers, who has a journalism degree from Damascus University. Hamira was arrested by Syrian security forces in mid-2013 after criticizing the regime. After his release he was exiled to Jordan and moved to Paris in December 2014.
Alongside Hamira, the movement is also led by Raghda Hassan, a writer and member of the outlawed Syrian Communist Labour Party, who served as an advisor for the head of the National Coalition’s interim government. Hassan, who is in charge of the movement’s public affairs, was arrested by Syrian security forces in the 1990s for her membership in the Communist Labour Party. In 2010, upon her release from prison, she left for Beirut, briefly returned to Syria, and ultimately moved to Turkey.The movement’s spokesman is ‘Oubab Khalil who, until recently, managed the National Coalition’s Washington office.
On the eve of the founding conference, the movement launched a Facebook page announcing the conference and the movement’s goals, which also featured a promotional video.
According to Fouad Hamira, he had been working to establish the movement since the onset of the revolution in 2011, and it seems that its establishment at this point came in response to the increasing international efforts to solve the Syria crisis.
The movement’s leaders describe it as an ‘Alawi body meant to produce new leaders for the sect and to shape its political position, but stress that it is open to all Syrians. Speaking at the founding conference, Hamira addressed ‘Alawis and expressed a desire “to refute the lie of the Bashar Al-Assad regime and convince them… that toppling [this] regime would first and foremost benefit the ‘Alawis.” Hamira said further that one of the movement’s goals was “to produce new leaders for the sect after the Assad family spent fifty years emptying the sect of its leaders, including its religious leaders, whom it transformed into its intelligence agents. We strive to create a cadre of new leaders and prepare them for the post-regime phase… We hope we can bring new added value to the Syrian revolution.”
According to him, “it is this regime and many of its supporters that brought about the [current] violence in Syria, and it is the role of all of us to convene here against those who still cause the death of Syrians. Therefore, the [Upcoming Syria] current calls on all to unite their political views and formulate realistic and unified positions of the Syrian oppositionist voice. The current’s doors are open to all Syrians so that we can iron out our differences and later reach an agreement on presenting a political solution to the revolution. This regime will not be toppled by any particular sect or party… We have common values that we must share with all political forces and blocs that strive to find a solution for [the sake of] Syria and all Syrians.”
Raghda Hassan said at the conference: “This current was established to redefine the political view of the ‘Alawi sect, to provide an answer to the common question on the Syrian street regarding the absence of the ‘Alawi voice from the revolutionary arena, and to be the address for members of the ‘Alawi sect involved in revolutionary action.” On another occasion she said: “We belong to the ‘Alawi sect in terms of society and culture, but politically, we belong to any national Syrian plan that protects the multiculturalism and richness of the Syrian identity. Any solution that does not accept the revolution’s goals as a fundamental condition cannot be legitimate after the extremely heavy price that the Syrian people has paid and continues to pay.”
‘Alawi Sect Must Correct The Historic Mistake Of Supporting The Assad Regime
The closing statement of the conference condemned the Assad regime and its allies and called for reviving the original Syrian revolution and establishing a civil, democratic and pluralistic state. The statement reads: “Some Syrians who are members of the ‘Alawi sect called to establish the Upcoming Syria current so that it would be a voice from the heart of the ‘Alawi sect – [a voice] that does not presume to represent [the sect] but rather addresses it out of an understanding of its feelings and interests, and which attempts to correct the historic injustice done to the social, ideological, and political makeup of the sect in order to reformulate its ties with Syrians around it. In light of this, the current stresses the following:
“1. ‘Alawis are a fundamental component in the Syria fabric that – like the other sects in the Syrian people – aspires to be liberated from tyranny and hopes to live in dignity and liberty. However, a number of objective and subjective factors have motivated members of the sect to become fuel for the war [machine] of the Assad regime and its allies… against Syrians demanding freedom, justice, and equality. These factors include:
“a. The method of marginalization and disrespect for [people’s] intelligence that was employed by the Assad regime and its allies against the Syrian people in general and the ‘Alawi sect in particular has led to the sidelining of the role of the important leaders and political, ideological, and even religious sources of authority in Syrian society as a whole and the ‘Alawi sect in particular. This has caused Assad, his allies, and interested parties alongside him to become the sole source of authority for the sect on all levels, causing the sect to be perceived as sheltering in the shadow of the Assad regime against any threat to its interests or existence.
“b. For over fifty years, the Assad regime and its allies have manipulated the sectarian, tribal, and familial ties in Syrian society, and have exploited them to realize the interests [of the regime] and [ensure] legitimacy for it to remain [in power]. As a result, [the sense of] belonging and national awareness [of citizens] was damaged, leading to a sense of persecution [among various sects]. The ‘Alawi sect was harmed the most from this devastating action since [the regime] intentionally tied [the ‘Alawis’] interest and continued existence to Assad remaining in power.
“c. The increasingly sectarian discourse among extremist factions in the armed opposition played a crucial role in motivating the majority of the sect to count on the Assad regime, not in order to defend him but rather out of the self-delusion that he was protecting [the sect’s] existence, its life, and its survival. Many of them felt as though the Assad regime protected them and that its ouster meant their destruction, or at the very least, their marginalization.
“d. The sectarian discourse that insists on portraying any Sunni as a legitimate son of the revolution and any ‘Alawi as a legitimate son of the regime merely serves Assad and his allies and distorts the image of the revolution on the local, regional, and international levels.
“All this, as well as other factors and circumstances, led some members of the ‘Alawi sect to make this mistake [of relying on Assad]. It should be stressed that admitting a mistake does not mean returning to the past, but rather preparing for a new stage meant to correct the path and the positions with the help of all Syrians. This admission is a chance to examine the reasons and conditions that led to this mistake and its results, in order to formulate true solutions for the problem, and to attempt to bring the sect back from its dependence on Assad and his allies.
Assad To Blame For Current Situation; We Strive For A Unified, Civil, Pluralist, Democratic State
“2. Based on the above, we in the Upcoming Syria current stress that Assad and his regime bear responsibility for the state of destruction, ruin, and death the country has reached. They are chiefly responsible for the military chaos and for the foreign intervention in all parts of the country, and Assad is the one who ‘invited’ violence by insisting on security and military solutions, and was initially responsible for the escalation of sectarian action as a result of his sectarian crimes, whose intended purpose was to bring us to the current state.
“3. The Upcoming Syria current regards any foreign presence on Syrian soil to be clear and open occupation, whether [it is an actual presence of] military forces or [is achieved] by assisting [various] forces [in Syria] that are alien to the country, its residents, the goals of its revolution, or anything Syrians aspire for in their homeland.
“4. We cannot regard anyone who carries weapons against the oppression and crimes of Assad as a rebel. Furthermore, Syria must not become [divided into] influence zones [ruled by] chaos, weapons, or warlords. Therefore, it is the duty [of Syrians] to regain [control] of the moral compass that caused the outbreak of the revolution and define in detail [the necessary] revolutionary action, in order to distance and set it apart from criminal action.
“5. In order to prevent further deterioration of the state into sectarian war, whose buds are clearly showing, and in order to prevent Syria from becoming the arena for a struggle between Islamic schools, ethnicities, or sects, we in the Upcoming Syria current strive to restore the [original] goals of the revolution which are: Establishing a civil, pluralist, democratic state; rejecting all partition plans;ensuring the unity of [Syria’s] territory and people; and ensuring the Syrian identity as a criterion for national belonging.”
No To Negotiations; Syrian Regime Will Be Toppled Only By Military Means
Ahead of the negotiations that are scheduled to in late January 2016 in Geneva between regime and opposition delegations, Fouad Hamira wrote, in an article that presumably reflects the position of his movement, that the only way to oust the Assad regime is by defeating it militarily: “The claim that [we can] negotiate with the Assad regime about its own downfall is silly. If the regime is willing to go, why has it been destroying the country for five years? And why has it killed about a million Syrians? Obviously, the regime will not negotiate its own downfall, especially considering that it is not being forced to negotiate on this basis [and] following the [military] achievements it has made recently with Russian and Iranian help…
“The opposition has two [options]: allowing the out of the question – or follow the principles of chess and not negotiate about the fate of the king. We are convinced that the regime… will never enter negotiations, under any heading, that will lead to its downfall. Therefore, the only remaining option is to act to topple it by military means. The Assad regime insists on taking the path of Qadhafi [i.e., fighting to the death], and this is what the opposition must realize. Bashar Al-Assad will be toppled only in the same way Qadhafi [was toppled].
“We realize that the international community is pushing for a political solution, but the opposition must convince it, by diplomatic means, that there is no choice but to topple the regime militarily. [The opposition must also convince it] and that the responsibility for ending all the tyrannical [measures taken by] the regime in its war against the Syrians rests with the Syrian people alone. I hope the opposition’s slogan from now on will be ‘no to negotiations,’ and that everyone will realize that the toppling of the regime will not come about through negotiations but only by defeating it on the battlefield.”
The Current Is Close To The National Coalition But Has Not Joined It
So far, the Upcoming Syria movement has not officially joined the National Coalition, but there seem to be close ties and cooperation between them. The movement needs the coalition’s recognition because Western elements still regard the latter as the main representative of the Syrian opposition, and Hamira has in fact expressed willingness to join the coalition providing that his movement has “a decisive role in political decision-making and its presence is not of secondary [importance].”
It should be mentioned that before the movement’s founding, Hamira directed harsh criticism at the National Coalition for excluding the ‘Alawi sect, yet expressed a willingness to cooperate with it. In April 2015, he said: “The ‘Alawi sect in Syria is caught between the flames of the regime, which is not defending it, and the flames of its [non-‘Alawi] compatriots, who do not accept it… I condemn the actions of the Syrian opposition, [both] the armed and the political opposition, that has not extended its hand to help [the ‘Alawis], even though 80% of them do not support Bashar Al-Assad… The ‘Alawis are not represented in the revolutionary bodies and nobody is encouraging them to [join them].” He added: “The ‘Alawis must now have a correct understanding of the revolution, and the opposition must open up channels of communication with the ‘Alawis… Had it been up to the [‘Alawi] sect, it would have crushed Bashar Al-Assad, but [it is unable to do so because] it is besieged by the opposition.”
At the same time, the National Coalition and its backer, Turkey, need the Upcoming Syria movement. They consider its establishment a moral achievement – especially ahead of the possible renewal of the political process, and in light of claims that the National Coalition does not represent all Syrians, and also given the fears for the fate of minorities in Syria, especially the ‘Alawis, in case the Assad regime collapses. These considerations underlie Turkey’s support of the Upcoming Syria movement, as expressed by its hosting of the movement’s founding conference in Istanbul. The conference was attended by senior figures from the National Coalition, including its chairman, Khaled Khoja. In his speech at the conference, Khoja underscored the importance of the new ‘Alawi movement, saying: “The challenge facing us Syrians, of building our national identity, has become one of our most important challenges and struggles. This [Upcoming Syria] current, and the other political blocs and civil society organizations, are meant to build this identity, which the dictatorial barbaric regime caused us to lose… This blessed conference enriches the Syrian opposition. A piece of the mosaic was missing, but now [the mosaic] will be complete thanks to the presence of this important sect, the ‘Alawi sect… There is a regional and global inclination to accelerate the political process. We are facing a complicated political process that will take place in parallel to the ongoing military situation on the ground. Hence, we wish to unite the political forces and the political stance of the opposition at large. The founding of this current [reflects the] rapprochement [between us] and the fact that we share [similar] political views…”
The Coalition’s secretary-general, Yahya Maktabi, likewise welcomed the movement’s founding, calling it “an important step in the face of the upcoming challenges and hardships,” but clarified that “the [Upcoming Syria] current has yet to submit an official request to become part of the National Coalition.”
Opposition Members Criticize The Current’s Founding
In contrast to the National Coalition, which welcomed the founding of the Upcoming Syria movement, other opposition members harshly criticized the movement and its leaders. ‘Alawi Syrian oppositionist Habib Salah accused Fouad Hamira of collaborating with the Syrian regime and of attempting to perpetuate the ‘Alawi rule in Syria in the era following Assad. In an article he published, he wrote of Hamira: “[He] is actually a mercenary! A son of the regime! He does not represent anyone!… Fouad Hamira is not interested in the Syrian problem! He is depraved, from a national and revolutionary point of view, and a hedonist on the social level!…” Salah explained that the founders of Upcoming Syria feared that Assad’s downfall would harm the ‘Alawi sect and were trying to provide an ‘Alawi alternative in order to preserve the sect’s privileged position.
Jihad Makdissi, the former spokesman for the Syrian foreign ministry, who defected, came out against the founding of an ‘Alawi opposition current in a post on his Facebook page. Addressing Hamira, he said: “Your intentions are good, my friend… but the minority… cannot by itself assure the [other] minorities, either by [holding] a conference nor by [founding] a new current!… The Syrian struggle must remain a struggle for rights, duties, honor and full citizenship, not a struggle of sects and groups.”
Oppositionist journalist and activist Ahmad Salal, who lives in Paris, wrote in a similar vein in an article titled “An ‘Alawi Current without ‘Alawis,” which was posted on an oppositionist website. He too came out against the founding of a separate ‘Alawi oppositionist stream, and called on ‘Alawi intellectuals to formulate national, rather than sectarian, plans. He stated that, contra to Hamira’s claims, most ‘Alawis cooperate with the regime against the Sunni majority.
Reports: ‘Alawi Figures Attempting To Obtain Guarantees For Day After Assad
Concurrently with the establishment of the ‘Alawi oppositionist movement, recent reports in the Arab media claim that prominent ‘Alawi figures are holding contacts with Turkey and Israel in an attempt to obtain guarantees for the day after Assad’s ouster.
On November 9, 2015, a few days before the renewal of the talks in Vienna on a political settlement in Syria, the oppositionist Syrian website Orient News reported that the ‘Alawi Syrian poet Adonis, along with representatives from the ‘Alawi Council, held Russian-brokered meetings with Israeli officials in Israel, followed by meetings with Turkish officials in Turkey. The report claims that the meetings were meant to obtain guarantees regarding the ‘Alawi sect if it agreed to relinquish power in Syria, and to secure the future of relations between the ‘Alawis in Syria and in Turkey.
According to a November 22, 2015 report in the London daily Al-Arab, ‘Alawi officers and high ranking officials were in touch with international and regional elements, and stressed to them that the ‘Alawis do not oppose Assad’s stepping down at the end of the transitional phase
in order to enable a reconciliation with the other sects. The daily cited “an ‘Alawi source living in London” as saying: “We are willing to relinquish Assad in return for guarantees that prevent revenge against the sect after he steps down… We support him stepping down after the formation of a transitional government.” The source added that only a minority in the ‘Alawi sect still insists that Assad remain in power, out of its own narrow interests. According to the source, many ‘Alawi youths were killed in the fighting in recent years, and therefore the majority of the sect supports a political solution that will end the bloodshed and protect the ‘Alawi minority, even if this requires Assad to step down.
It should be noted, however, that these reports rely on biased sources and are meant to portray the Assad regime as losing its grip on its own sect.
‘Alawis Protest Against The Regime In Latakia, Tartus
As stated above, signs of bitterness and criticism of the regime within the ‘Alawi sect appeared as early as 2014, due to the heavy price ‘Alawis paid for their association with Assad and because the regime took their support for granted. This displeasure was expressed on social media and in articles published by ‘Alawi writers. In August 2015, the criticism even escalated to widespread protests in Latakia and Tartus – ‘Alawi cities that are considered regime strongholds.
The protests were triggered by reports that Hassan Al-Sheikh, an ‘Alawi Syrian air defense colonel, had been murdered by Bashar Al-Assad’s cousin Suleiman. The Al-Sheikh family demanded the execution of Suleiman Al-Assad, and, in an attempt to alleviate tension, regime media reported that he had been arrested. However, subsequent reports of his release sparked protests in Latakia on August 6. Al-Arabiya TV reported that after ‘Alawi religious leaders intervened and told the Al-Sheikh family that the sect’s interests and security came before their own demand for justice, the victim’s brother recanted his accusations against Suleiman Al-Assad, bringing the protests to an end.
On August 10, 2015, at the height of the Latakia protests, ‘Alawis also launched protests against the regime in Tartus, demanding to break the siege laid by ISIS on the Kweiris airbase in the Aleppo area and rescue the protestors’ relatives and retrieve the bodies of the dead.
Families of soldiers besieged in Kweiris demonstrate outside the office of the Tartus governor (Image: Alsouria.net, August 22, 2015)
The regime did not remain apathetic in the face of these protests, especially since the siege of the airbase was a military and morale defeat for the Syrian army. After fierce efforts, the regime managed to break the siege and rescue those trapped in the airbase on November 10, 2015, thus meeting the protester’s demands.
* M. Terdiman is a research fellow at MEMRI.
Endnotes: See MEMRI Special Dispatch No. 5702, Syrian ‘Alawis Slam Assad Regime For Its Treatment Of ‘Alawi Sect, April 2, 2014.
 Sirajpress.com, December 12, 2014.
 Jadl.org, January 30, 2015; All4syria.info, May 10, 2012.
 Syrianews.com, January 7, 2015.
 Facebook.com/UpComingSyria, November 19, 2015.
 Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), November 21, 2015.
 Alarabiya.net, November 22, 2015.
 Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), November 21, 2015.
 Qasioun.net, November 21, 2015.
 Rozana.fm, November 21, 2015.
 Facebook.com/UpComingSyria, November 16, 2015.
 This refers to the partition of Syria along sectarian and ethnic lines: an ‘Alawi statelet including the coast, Damascus and a narrow strip connecting them; a Druze statelet in the southeast of the country, a Kurdish one in the northeast, etc.
 Ugarit-news.com, November 22, 2015.
 Orient-news-net, January 9, 2016.
 Enabbaladi.org, November 24, 2015.
 All4syria.info, April 21, 2016.
 Quasioun.net, November 21, 2015.
 Enabbaladi.org, November 24, 2015.
 All4Syria.info, November 23, 2015.
 Facebook.com/makdissim November 22, 2015.
 Orient-news.net, December 12, 2015.
 The ‘Alawi Council is reportedly a group of respectable military, religious, and intellectual ‘Alawi figures that has been active since 1963 and was a crucial component of the Syrian regime, with whom Hafez Al-Assad routinely consulted on all his decisions (Orient-news.net, November 9, 2015). Russia’s military attaché to Syria in 2000, Gen. Vladimir Fyodorov, attested to its existence, but no ‘Alawi sources have confirmed it. Rozana.fm, March 26, 2015.
 Orient-news.net, November 9, 2015.
 Al-Arab (London), November 22, 2015.
 Sirajpress.com, August 7, 2015.
 Alarabiya.net, August 19, 2015.
 Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), Orient-news.com, August 11, 2015.