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Syria Feature: Alawites Flee to the Coast (Paul)

TartusKatie Paul writes for Foreign Affairs:

On a recent Sunday afternoon, the Syrian port city of Tartus buzzed in the summer heat. Car showrooms displayed lines of new vehicles. Markets full of clothes, furniture, and household knicknacks bustled with customers. Clouds of nargileh smoke wafted from hookah pipes at the see-and-be-seen restaurants lining sandy Mediterranean beaches. Yachts bobbed indifferently in the port.

This Middle Eastern haven, however, lies just 60 miles west of Homs, the battle-broken city that is the center of gravity in the civil war that has shattered Syria, killing more than 16,000 people and displacing a quarter of a million more. Tartus, though, has become a refuge for the country's minority Alawi Shiite population. "As an Alawi, I don't really care about Bashar al-Assad," says 30-year-old Majed, referring to Syria's president, who is also Alawi. "The only thing that concerns me is security." 

Eight months ago, after losing his job and fearing for his safety, Majed escaped Homs. (Like others interviewed for this article, Majed chose to keep his last name private for security reasons.) In Tartus, he has found work as a telecommunications salesman. "Everyone thinks we defend the regime and the authorities, but the opposition has given us no choice but to flee to the coast," he says. "It's like I'm not even in the Middle East here, I feel so secure."

Similar sentiments are easy to find in Tartus. Fayez, a 35-year-old import-export business owner, also abandoned Homs last year after opposition fighters operating under the banner of the Free Syrian Army kidnapped his cousins and wrote "Get out" on the door of his home. "Revolutionaries," Fayez describes them sarcastically, holding up his fingers in bitter air quotes. "Tartus is my new home. I don't ever intend to leave," he says. "In the end, Bashar al-Assad will go and our children will be left, and we have to defend their future here."

Eighteen months of fighting have hardened both men's sectarian resolve. In their view, Alawites are under attack by a Sunni majority, which uses its religious identity as an organizing principle for mobilizing the militias operating under the Free Syrian Army umbrella. In turn, the coastal Sahel region is the only safe haven, and this stretch of land -- encompassing the port cities of Latakia, Baniyas, Jableh, and Tartus, and the mountains separating them from the rest of Syria's plains -- must be protected against Sunni encroachment at all costs.

Far removed from the shabiha, Assad's vigilante militias notorious for carrying out the regime's crackdown against the uprising, these men in the Sahel are neither fanatic nor armed. But they represent a demographic force creating another de facto divide in the country. As fighting takes place along Syria's central artery running northward from Homs to Idlib, Alawites are increasingly setting up shop in the Sahel, looking to cordon themselves off from the chaos that they believe will come as Assad's grip on the country weakens.

In several conversations, Alawites said that thousands of families have relocated to the coast. Others spoke of friends and family members who have not yet moved but have purchased homes there in anticipation of a shift in fortunes. Although the real figure is impossible to determine, visits to Damascus, Homs, and Tartus indicated that such numbers are plausible. Official tallies -- from the UN agencies operating inside Syria, for instance -- are nonexistent.

Such movement could be an early harbinger of territorial entrenchments of Syria's sectarian fault lines. "At this point, the regime is not looking at itself as a small state within Syria," says one Alawi academic who lives in both Damascus and Latakia. "It wants all of Syria, and it will stay that way until the last possible moment." Alawites talk of a return to the coast is specious, he says, the product of a regime "game" of hyping threats in order to instill fear in minorities. Still, he adds, "Just like the weapons game, the sectarian game is a dangerous one. People are hearing rhetoric like, 'We want to annihilate Alawis. We want their deaths.' You never know if it will pass a point at which you can't stop it, you lose control."

That fear is rooted in the community's historical marginalization. Throughout centuries of Mamluk and Ottoman rule, Alawites, a heterodox offshoot of Shia Islam, largely confined themselves to the mountains east of Latakia. Aside from tiny minorities in the villages around Homs and Hama, they emerged from their "wild hills" only occasionally to work as menial laborers. After World War I, French mandate authorities codified these isolationist impulses, creating a sovereign Alawi territory extending from Latakia to Tartus in 1920. Though Alawi leaders initially cheered their region as a bulwark against Sunni domination of the interior, even French protection could not make the state viable. Alawites constituted a majority of the population, but city-based Sunni and Christian communities lagged behind by only a third, possessed far greater wealth and education, and were strongly in favor of union with Damascus. By 1937, the experiment had failed; the state was incorporated into modern-day Syria.

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