The Alawites’ Quiet Opposition

Atef al-Souri – November 15, 2013 – FIKRA FORUM –  Since the beginning of the 2011 revolution, Syrians have awaited the response of the Alawite sect. There was hope that the Alawites would join the revolution in opposition to everything perpetuated by the regime, including fear mongering, killing, poverty, and the oppression of freedoms, all of which have affected the Alawite community in addition to the broader Syrian population. The opposition and the regime, which consists mainly of the Alawi minority, have since battled for the sect’s loyalty and support.

When speaking with members of the Alawite opposition, however, one finds a common narrative of their struggle against everyone in Syria: the regime, the opposition, the international community, relief agencies, and civil society training programs. In addition, neither the Syrian National Coalition (SNC) nor any other factions of the opposition have provided genuine support to Alawi groups or initiatives – even at the most basic level. As such, all parties involved in the Syrian crisis must rethink their communication with this important part of the Syrian population. Despite some perceptions, Alawites are eager to participate in the opposition and they share many of the opposition’s goals, including preserving the unity of the Syrian population. Since the first day of the revolution that began in Daraa – where demonstrators called for a fight against corruption and punishment for the officers who assaulted school children and residents – the political and media advisor to the president, Bouthaina Shaaban, depicted these events as a threat to national unity. The revolution represented a sectarian movement, she claimed. As the revolution spread, official media called the peaceful opposition “terrorists” and accused them of belonging to extremist groups. In an attempt to scare Alawites and draw them closer to the regime, state media also spread news stories claiming that the opposition was targeting Alawite officers.

In turn, Local Coordination Committees (LCCs) used slogans at weekly Friday protests to send an indirect message to the Alawite community that they were not against Alawis, but against the regime. For example, the name of the Alawite sheikh Saleh al-Ali, who led the revolution against the French mandate in 1919, was used at one protest. Protestors chanted that the Syrian people are one, and that Christians, Sunnis, and Druze are all Syrian before anything else. However, the regime’s brutal tactics —  including leaking footage of Alawite officers killing and insulting the opposition and other sectarian massacres — have increased the large divide between Alawites and the rest of the Syrian population. The LCCs believe that the Alawites have the potential to influence the trajectory of the civil war.

The Regime’s Manipulation of the Alawites

Most secular, educated Alawites accuse the regime of targeting any Alawi youth that could pose a challenge to the regime and claim that thousands have been imprisoned. They also point out that the Assad regime depends on the poor to perpetuate its war. After all, a majority of the Alawite sect is in the lower class, and many of its youth rely on military service as the sole source of income. At the beginning of the revolution, many Alawites participated in peaceful protests in Latakia and Banias. But when Islamic slogans were raised and the armed opposition became stronger, the Alawites distanced themselves, in spite of their agreement with many of the opposition’s goals.

After two years of violent revolution, Alawi voices (many of whom have supported the regime) have spoken out in criticism of the regime’s senseless war and the financial, moral, and administrative corruption in which regime cronies partake in the Alawite areas.

The following are examples of posts over the past two months on popular Facebook pages belonging to Alawite groups:

“Look at how Tartous has been emptied of its youth (reservists)”

“The martyrs returned to the district a few months ago in pieces, and were hidden until their funerals…”

“Look at how recent college graduates went for over 6 years without work before the crisis”

“I refuse that Tartous become a banana republic…”

“I refuse to be threatened and accused as a terrorist by officials in Tartous…”

Is the Regime the “Savior” of the Alawites?

Military operations launched against Syrian Alawite coastal villages may appear to be a victory for the revolution’s interests, bearing in mind that they occur in regime-controlled areas. In reality, however, the Assad regime has maliciously and covertly eased the Free Syrian Army’s (FSA) access to Alawite areas in order to portray itself as the sect’s only hope for protection. These events indicate that the regime is trying to lure revolutionary forces into fake victories in order to create an environment of distrust in the FSA among the Alawites. This tactic has largely been successful, in part due to the FSA’s lack of strategic wisdom. The Baida massacre carried out by regime militias against the Sunni village was an attempt to raise sectarian tension between the Alawites and Sunnis. The regime is now seeking to lure some brigades of the FSA – in addition to more extreme jihadi groups such as Jubhat al-Nusra and ISIS (Da’ish) due to their notorious sectarian reputations – to invade coastal cities where mostly Alawites reside in order to solidify its control over the population. In light of this situation, and in the absence of true political leaders and influential Alawite figures, it will be difficult to communicate and build trust between both sides. Furthermore, the lack of wisdom and pragmatism among FSA leadership will only lead to more destructive outcomes.

*Atef al-Souri is a pseudonym used by the author for security reasons.