A pro-Assad rally in Ras al-Ayn
Nir Rosen writes for the London Review of Books:
Syria’s Alawite heartland is defined by its funerals. In Qirdaha in the mountainous Latakia province, hometown of the Assad dynasty, I watched as two police motorcycles drove up the hill, pictures of Bashar mounted on their windshields. An ambulance followed, carrying the body of a dead lieutenant colonel from state security. As the convoy passed, the men around me let off bursts of automatic fire. My local guides were embarrassed that I had seen this display, and claimed it was the first time it had happened. ‘He is a martyr, so it is considered a wedding.’ Schoolchildren and teachers lining the route threw rice and flower petals. "There is no god but God and the martyr is the beloved of God!’"they chanted. Hundreds of mourners in black walked up through the village streets to the local shrine. "Welcome, oh martyr," they shouted. ‘We want no one but Assad!"
It was April, my sixth month travelling through Syria. After I left I heard of another funeral not far away, in the village of Ras al-Ayn, near the coast. A village of seven thousand people now had seven martyrs from the security forces, six missing or captured and many wounded. "Every day we have martyrs," an officer said. "It’s all a sacrifice for the nation." Another talked about "their" crimes, and said ‘they’ had killed the soldier because he was an Alawite. One of my guides berated him for speaking of the conflict in sectarian terms in front of me. "The opposition have left us no choice," another soldier said. "They accept nothing but killing."
Alawites – the heterodox Shia sect to which the Assads belong and which remains most loyal to the president and his government --- make up about 10 per cent of the population. Most Syrians – about 65 per cent – are Sunni Arabs. The Alawites are one of several minorities, along with Sunni Kurds and Christians, the Druze, non-Alawite Shi’ites and Ismailis. But they have always been seen as a special case. Few Alawites are familiar with the tenets of Alawite faith: they are known by initiates only. But belief in the transmigration of the soul, reincarnation and the divinity of the Prophet’s cousin Ali --- in a trinity comprising Ali, Muhammad and one of his companions, Salman al Farisi --- puts Alawites at a remove from mainstream Islam. For most Alawites, religion is less a rigorous faith than an expression of their culture.
Alawite identity turns on a minority complex and fear of Sunni domination. Alawites like to rehearse the story of their oppression. "The lot of the Alawis was never enviable," the Palestinian historian Hanna Batatu wrote. "Under the Ottomans they were abused, reviled and ground down by exactions and, on occasion, their women and children led into captivity and disposed of by sale." They were practically serfs to the Sunni feudal lords put in place by the Ottomans. It was only when the French mandate began in 1920 that the traditional Sunni elite was eroded and minorities, Alawites among them, began to enjoy a measure of social mobility. The Alawites pleaded in vain with the French to grant them a separate state that would protect them from a Sunni ascendancy.
To Alawites, the pan-Arab doctrine of the Ba’ath Party, which took power in a coup in 1963, was a way to transcend sectarian identity. The army and the civil service gave them a way out of their impoverished villages. Soon all kinds of people with rural backgrounds, but Alawites especially, began to dominate the non-commissioned officer corps and the military academies. In 1971 Hafez al-Assad, an Alawite and a former commander of the air force, now the minister of defence, led a coup against a Ba’athist rival. When Hafez died in 2000, after thirty years in power, his son Bashar took over. In that time Alawites had gone from marginalised minority to protégés of the state, and the state in turn became the bulwark of Alawite identity. ‘Working for cohesion at the present juncture is the strong fear among Alawis of every rank that dire consequences for all Alawis could ensue from an overthrow or collapse of the existing regime,’ Batatu wrote in 1981.
Historically, Alawites stood so far at the margins of Islam that Assad the elder had to ‘Islamise’ them in order to be accepted as the ruler of Syria by its Sunni majority. Alawites regard themselves as more ‘liberal’ and secular than mainstream Muslims. They point to their use of alcohol, the Western dress codes of Alawite women and their freer interaction with men. Sometimes they disparage the more conservative Sunnis. They remember the Muslim Brotherhood uprising of the 1980s as a time of sectarian violence in which the regime crushed terrorists; Sunnis think of it as a time of regime brutality during which they were collectively targeted. These days it’s hard to find a Sunni member of the opposition who didn’t lose an uncle or have a father or grandfather imprisoned in the crackdown that followed. The opposition has said nothing about what would or should be done with the hundreds of thousands of men in the security forces if the present regime falls. Alawites believe they have reason to be afraid.
In the coastal province of Tartus and other parts of the Alawite heartland, countless new loyalist checkpoints have been set up, manned by the Syrian Army or by paramilitary members of popular committees in a mix of civilian clothes and military gear. The countryside has armed itself. In May I visited the mountain town of Sheikh Badr in Tartus province. Forty-three townsmen in the security forces had been killed; seven others had been captured or were missing. While I was in the mayor’s office he received news that a wounded soldier had just been brought in. Sheikh Badr’s first martyr was killed in Daraa in April 2011, one month into the uprising. Its most recent, a colonel killed in Damascus, was buried two days before I visited.