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Between Regime and Rebels: A Survey of Syria’s Alawi Sect

Ali Nasser/AFP/Getty Images
A fighter from the Ansar al-Sham brigade standing on a ridge in the northwestern Syrian province of Latakia during a rebel offensive against regime positions in the coastal heartland of President Bashar al-Assad’s Alawi sect, 2014

“There is a small percentage of Alawis who benefited from the war, but the vast majority are poor and hungry,” Loubna,* a fifty-nine-year-old teacher, told me. “The Alawi community endures unprecedented pain and bereavement. You cannot even hear a child’s laugh, whole neighborhoods have no young men. Poverty, pain, and hunger are everywhere. People are broken.” Loubna is a member of the small, heterodox Alawi sect (also known as “Alawites”) that dominates the top echelons of Syria’s civilian and military leadership, including the ruling Assad dynasty. Loubna lives near the hometown of President Bashar al-Assad, Qardaha.

She was eager to talk after a lifetime of building frustration. But this was the first time she has ever spoken to a journalist, and she lowered her voice almost to a whisper to discuss sensitive topics over the phone—even though the only other people at her home were family members. The Alawis are most commonly labeled as “loyalists” of the Assad regime, but interviews I have conducted remotely over the past several months with members of this closed community, as well as with Sunnis who live side by side with them, present a more complex picture. Interviews with Alawis reveal their deep dissatisfaction with the rule of the Assad government, but it is a dissatisfaction tempered by the widespread belief that any threat to the regime and its cronies would inevitably also become a threat to the sect itself.

Alawis constituted about 10 percent of Syria’s pre-war population. When faced with a peaceful uprising that quickly turned into a bloody civil war, members of the sect put aside misgivings about the regime’s corruption and dictatorial repressiveness and rallied to keep it in power. Today, the Alawi community is taking stock of its position as the civil war grinds toward a bitter end, and they find themselves, nominally at least, on the side of the victor. But this victory has come at an immense cost.

The regime’s heavy reliance on Alawis in the army units and militias dispatched to the front-lines, coupled with the community’s relatively small size, have resulted in disproportionate losses of the sect’s young men. At the same time, this predominance of the sect in the military—combined with the atrocities that some fighters perpetrated, at times in front of cameras—have, in the eyes of many Sunni Syrians, tainted all Alawis with guilt by association. In addition, the corruption and war-profiteering, mainly benefitting high-ranking regime officers and mukhabarat (secret police) agents, who are largely Alawi, reinforced the image of Alawis as corrupt, privileged and rich, in the eyes of Sunnis. The Alawis are fully aware of this image and are quick to reject it.

“We [the Alawis] are not Shabbiha [pro-regime militiamen implicated in war crimes] or billionaires,” Samira, a twenty-five-year-old university student, said bitterly. Demonstrating the disparity between how the sect members perceive themselves and how they are perceived by outsiders, she went on, “We are a community that sacrificed many of its youth, and lived, and is still living, in poverty… The ugly, barbaric way people picture us is applicable to barely one percent of us.”

So many of the community’s young men, called up and obliged to serve in the military in large numbers, have been killed or maimed. Owing to the damage inflicted on the nation’s economy by the war, rampant regime corruption, and US economic sanctions, an overwhelming majority of the community lives in deeper poverty than it did before 2011. Relations between the Alawis and the Sunni majority have significantly deteriorated, with the result that the Alawis’ sense of insecurity has only increased. On top of that, foreign forces with their own agendas now wield significant influence over Syria. Some of those interests, and particularly those of Iran, are perceived by Alawis to be at odds with their community’s long-term preservation.

*

After Bashar’s father, Hafez al-Assad, seized power in 1970, after decades of political instability in Syria and frequent coups, he worked to stabilize the regime and ouster-proof it. One step he took was to purge anyone who appeared disloyal, creating a core of the regime largely made up of Alawi officers and Assad relatives. That system prevailed for the next forty years. Over the decade preceding the 2011 uprising, about 87 percent of high-ranking Syrian Army officers, such as division commanders, were Alawi. The various branches of the Mukhabarat are dominated and commanded by Alawis, as are all the elite military and militia units, including the 4th Mechanized Division, the Tiger Forces, the Republican Guard, and the Air Force. According to the US researcher Hicham Bou Nasif, who interviewed dozens of Sunni officers in the Syrian military in 2014, “since the early 1980s, Alawis have made up 80–85 percent of every new cohort graduating from the military academy.” 

Facing a grave challenge to its monopoly of power from 2011 onward, the Assad regime sought to ensure the loyalty or neutrality of Syria’s minorities. Before the war and the demographic changes it wrought, about 65 percent of Syria’s population of 21 million were Sunni Arabs, 10 percent were Sunni Kurds, another 10 percent were Alawis, and about 5 percent were Christian. To ensure the allegiance of Assad’s base, the Alawi community, the regime employed several tactics. First, in speeches during the early days of the uprising, he portrayed the protesters as Sunni extremists and armed terrorists. Second, in a move apparently designed to ensure a radicalization of the opposition and to weaken its secular-democratic elements, in the first months of the uprising, the regime released hundreds of jihadists from prison, while jailing peaceful activists. Third, the regime staged provocations such as sending men to shoot into the air or cut tires of cars in Alawi neighborhoods to instill fear, and then went about distributing guns and sandbags to Alawi inhabitants to reinforce a sense of their being a community under threat from the opposition—even though, at that stage, there were no armed rebels.

Most Alawis, raised on a communal narrative of victimhood and oppression throughout the sect’s history, were easily persuaded by the idea of a Sunni menace. They also remember the armed insurrection of the Muslim Brotherhood in the late 1970s and early 1980s, which cost the lives of hundreds of Alawisoldiers, specifically targeted for sectarian reasons, before Hafez al-Assad’s forces crushed the rebellion in the Hama Massacre of 1982.

In the early months of the 2011 Syrian uprising, the opposition was unarmed and made a conscious effort to reach out to minorities, including the Alawis. Some delegations of Alawis participated in protests, but as time went on much of the Alawi community remained silent while a small but visible group of soldiers and militiamen took an active role in violently crushing protests, jailing, torturing, and murdering thousands of protesters and activists. By deploying young Alawi men to repress protests, the regime implicated the Alawi community in its criminality. The opposition, for its part, gradually militarized and radicalized, confirming the worst fears of the Alawis and turned the initial false narrative of the regime into a reality. In the final analysis, the loyalty of the Alawi sect, which bore the brunt of the fighting on behalf of the regime, coupled with crucial assistance from Iran and Russia, helped save the regime from collapse.

The immense losses of the Alawi community, points out Nizar Mohammed, a researcher of Alawi origin from Jableh, a town in the Syrian coast, stemmed from the “regime’s hesitation to deploy Sunni rank-and-file soldiers whose loyalty had become suspect due to defections.” Mohammed, who himself studies the Alawi community, explained: “The regime saw the Alawi community as the sacrificial lamb who had no choice but to fight if they wanted to survive the abyss into which they had been propelled.”

“It breaks my heart. Things could have been different. They really could have,” an Alawi student named Kheder, from the countryside around the northern coastal city of Latakia, told me. “I wish there was a possible way for a democracy, for a moderate, secular regime to be in charge and for everyone to live in peace. “If there is a Sunni religious regime,” he went on to explain, “the simple Alawis who have nothing to do with the crimes of the mukhabarat would also be trampled underfoot [in addition to actual war criminals] because all Alawis are considered to be connected to the regime.”

Ahmad al-Faroq/AFP/Getty Images)
According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, the rebel group Jaish al-Islam was using regime soldiers and Alawi civilians held in metal cages as human shields, outskirts of Damascus, 2015

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The war has transformed the Alawi community in numerous ways. The most profound and obvious one for a community numbering about two million people is the scale of loss of men of military age. The Syrian regime stopped releasing statistics regarding casualties in its ranks early in the war, but Gregory P. Waters, a researcher at Berkeley School of Law’s Human Rights Center, estimates that tens of thousands of Alawi men have been killed fighting for the regime. Tens of thousands more have been gravely injured, sustaining disabilities that preclude them from participating in the labor force. Loubna, the teacher, painted a grim picture: “The Alawi community is all widows and spinsters. There are no men anymore, and if there is, they’re all broken and maimed. Everywhere you go you see graves, pictures of martyrs, and people dressed in black.”

Aboud Dandachi, a Sunni in his thirties who fled, as violence escalated, from the central city of Homs to government-held Tartus on the coast, told me: “My cleaning lady was Alawite, and all her male relatives were away on military service. She would often remark on how very few males were left in her village and the surrounding areas.” Thousands more Alawi men emigrated, particularly to Lebanon and Europe, to avoid serving in the army.

Although Alawis are overrepresented in the ruling elite, this does not translate into any alleviation of their generally deprived circumstances. Those with ties to the ruling family, whether through tribal or business dealings, are rich, while most Alawis live in underdeveloped villages. Unlike the Sunni underclass, which largely resided in rebel-held territory, Alawis—who cannot afford to emigrate, enroll in university to defer their service, or bribe their way out of military service (or into noncombat posts)—reside entirely in regime-held territory, where the draft is imposed and enforced through routine raids and at checkpoints. “Many Alawites would love to be exempt from military service,” said Kheder, the university student,“but they cannot afford it so they go [and serve].

“The rural areas lost so much,” he added. “Every family hangs the pictures of their martyr with neon lights around the photo. You could count at least ten to fifteen martyrs in every neighborhood of every village.”

The war has also taken its toll on the community’s mental health. According to Tareq, a Syrian Army and National Defense Forces veteran and a Sunni, the abuse of drugs and alcohol is particularly common among people suffering from mental and physical disabilities as a result of the war. The use of hashish and the stimulant Captagon has become widespread across Syria during the conflict, but alcohol is more easily available and so more commonly abused in the government-held coastal region. Addiction and suicide have become endemic, said Loubna.

According to Suha, an Alawi woman from the Baniyas area, the shortage of men is affecting the marriage market. “If you are a girl who is from a poor family, you might run into some difficulties finding a fully abled man,” she reported—though she also noted that some women may benefit from new opportunities to participate in the labor force. Inequality has increased more sharply in the Alawi community, with the poor becoming poorer while a minority of those who were close to the regime, such as the officer class and members of the various branches of the secret police, or mukhabarat, amassed enormous wealth. Laith, an officer with the Military Intelligence Directorate, one of the mukhabarat organs, put it thus: “The benefits from the war, they only go to the top one percent. The vast majority of Alawis got nothing out of the government like all other Syrians.”

Kheder disclosed that “my own cousin, a mid-ranking officer, became rich because of the war. They would loot property from houses. You have no idea how much money people made from selling furniture, especially Alawite officers.” The prevalence of such corruption and brutality has inevitably led to a common perception among some segments of Syrian society, and particularly regime opponents, of Alawi privilege and profiteering. In fact, though, most members of the sect have been impoverished by the war—rising prices and a depreciating currency have immiserated even those with government salaries that had once provided entry to the middle class. “Many people can’t even buy shoes,” said Loubna. “Even buying a new article of clothing is considered a big thing, a privilege.”

Part of the perception of Alawi privilege is the guarantee codified in law of a government job to one member of each family that has lost a man in the war. As Suhyal, a thirty-year-old Alawi engineer who lives in Latakia, put it: “All soldiers who honorably contributed and sacrificed in this war deserve these benefits, Alawi or otherwise, but the vast majority of the army is Alawi anyway.” With growing demand, however, such sinecures have become harder to obtain. Kheder described how his sister-in-law’s family was entitled to one such job because her brother was killed fighting for the regime, but even then the family had to use connections (“wasta”) to get the position, for the mother. The process took a year; and it pays only about $40 a month, while renting a small apartment in Tartus’ outskirts, for example, would cost twice as much. Although some Alawis benefit from corruption, all but the most powerful among them routinely have to pay bribes when interacting with state institutions, all riddled with graft.

Some even dared to express anger at those able to enrich themselves through the war, while the rest of the community suffers. Kheder put it this way, “people are fed up with not seeing results [for their sacrifice]. People who are poor and sacrificed so much are still poor. Those who are close to the regime are still on top.” He described a common frustration that resonates among those who served the regime and now live in poverty: “I sacrificed and I did my best and then there are people who became so rich through the war, while other people fell way below the poverty line.”

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Louai Beshara/AFP/Getty Images
A billboard sponsored by the local chamber of commerce showing pictures of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and his father, the former president Hafez al-Assad, in the coastal city of Latakia, an Alawi stronghold, Syria, 2016

The war has also transformed sectarian relations, especially between the Sunni Arab majority and the Alawi community. Before the war, official Baathist ideology of sect-blindness created an outward appearance of coexistence, but this concealed an underlying distrust that was expressed only obliquely. There were rumors, for example, that seem far-fetched but became widely believed among Sunnis that young Alawi men riding jetskis would kidnap Sunni visitors from beaches along the coast. Such longstanding mutual fears and suspicions intensified after the Muslim Brotherhood uprising, during which the Sunni Islamists particularly singled out Alawi soldiers in their atrocities. Following the revolt’s violentrepression, the mukhabarat stepped up its efforts to crack down on any demonstration of sectarian sentiment, not stemming it but forcing it underground.

“It feels like there is no trust anymore,” said Loubna the teacher. “There are still friendships here and there but not as much as there used to be before [2011].” She saw Sunnis as more responsible for the problem. Tareq, the Sunni NDF reservist, described relations nowadays this way: “Some Alawis are very welcoming to us, but there is a feeling that they are more friendly toward ‘their own kind,’ so to speak, although we are all Syrian.” Even before the war, said Tareq, the Sunni NDF reservist, “it has always been a challenge to relate to Alawi friends and their point of view. It is like there is a veil between us.”

Today, that veil has become an iron curtain. “In 2010, when I looked for an apartment to buy in Homs, I could only vaguely tell an Alawite or Sunni neighborhood from each another,” said Aboud Dandachi, the refugee from Homs who now lives in Canada. “After just a few months into the [2011] demonstrations, neighborhoods like Khaldiya, Baba Amr, [and] Bab Esba started to feel somewhat isolated from the rest of the city,” as residents of rebel areas avoided neighborhoods perceived as loyalist.“By the first Ramadan of the demonstrations, Homs felt less like a city and more like a collection of isolated neighborhoods,” described Aboud.

The militarization and religious radicalization of the opposition, and the division of the country’s territory between the warring sides, soon hardened sectarian divisions. Members of non-Sunni, minority communities mostly fled opposition-controlled areas. In areas under regime control, where about 70 percent of Syria’s population now resides, members of different sects do live side by side, but relations are strained. Samira adopted the regime’s narrative, blaming the opposition for the rise in sectarian hatred: “They played the sectarianism card on purpose, to make the different components of society hate each other, and killings were based on that to augment the hatred and sectarianism.”

Alawis’ fear and distrust of Sunni Syrians, increasingly seen as radical and intolerant, drives the sect to support the regime’s minority rule even when it uses force and intimidation to maintain the Syrian state’s nominally secular character. When pushed on the issue of repression, I found that some Alawis justified their position by pointing to the situation in post-Saddam Hussein Iraq, in which minorities have been forcibly displaced or even killed under an often lawless and only semi-democratic system.

Suhayl, the engineer, described the sectarian effect of the war: “If we had 10 percent fear of Sunnis or others, now it’s 90 percent.” He explained that in postwar Syria, “if the person who would take the reins is Sunni, he will most definitely be affected by some of the fanatical Sunni movements. I would like the person who’s in charge to be as open-minded as possible and least affected by their sect.” In his view, the war “reinforced the idea that it is smart to have an Alawite-led country, over those other components of society.”

Although the Assad regime is still seeking to reestablish total control over the country, there are now some in the Alawi community who are open to the idea of partition, or federation, on a confessional basis. “Syrian minorities can survive without the regime, but only in their own state, not in a unified Syria,” said Laith, the mukhabarat officer. “As Alawites, we are safe under this regime or in an independent state.” He was not the only Alawi I spoke to who voiced support for either an independent Alawi state or a federal Syria.

Many Alawis bristle at the idea that they are privileged compared to others, but some concede that  differences exist, particularly when it comes to interactions with the state. Today, Syria is peppered with checkpoints at which guards scrutinize IDs. Aboud, the Sunni refugee who fled from rebel-held Homs to Alawi-majority Tartus, described his experience: “I was always regarded with suspicion when my ID was inspected at checkpoints. A person’s registered hometown was always used as an on-the-spot method by the mukhabarat to evaluate a person’s potential disloyalty to the regime.”

According to the interviews I conducted, the practice of false denunciations, often to settle personal scores, is extremely common across regime-held western Syria. “My friend was beaten, even though he’s an Alawite,” Kheder said, describing how a pharmacist in Latakia was arrested after a competitor claimed he was selling illicit drugs. But for Tareq, the Sunni regime supporter, the simple fact of the matter was that “if you are a Sunni, you must have some good ties to important people in the secret police network.”

Overall, the presumption of loyalty provides immunity to Alawis and makes hostile interactions with security forces much more unusual for them than for other Syrian citizens. As is well known, the regime runs an industrial-scale detention, torture, and execution program against those whom it perceives to be political opponents. For the most part, Alawis will only ever encounter this apparatus as informers or employees, and not as its victims.

*

The survival of the Assad regime was finally guaranteed by the military intervention of Russia and Iran (through its proxy militias). Members of the Alawi sect, who largely link their survival to that of the regime, are grateful for the intervention and recognize its necessity. At the same time, they appear wary about the long-term presence of these forces in the country and nurture the hope that once they outlive their usefulness in securing the regime’s victory, the foreign fighters will depart.

“We do need the Russians on the ground,” said Suhayl, the engineer, “but do I wish them to stay? Absolutely not. Because that would still be an occupation, even if not in its oppressive form.” Hussein, the pro-regime activist, disagreed; he supports a long-term Russian presence as a security guarantor. “Russia has always been here, in the coast it goes back to the 1970s. The Russians are the nuclear bomb of the Alawis—meaning: it’s our deterrence.”

The attitude toward Iran, though, is starkly different—mostly because of misgivings about the theocratic nature of the regime in Tehran. Fadwa, an Alawi politician who had served in a senior position in the Syrian government before the war and now lives in exile, explained: “Before the Russian intervention, the Alawis were very worried about Iranian influence and were happy that the secular Russians intervened.” Laith, the mukhabarat officer, was forthright: “We don’t want Iran or Hezbollah, we don’t want political Islam. They are not like us… I’m not sure why this alliance is still alive.” Suhayl echoed this view: “We especially don’t want Iran and Hezbollah to stay because they adopt radical religious views.”

As an overwhelmingly secular ethno-religious minority, Alawis are wary of efforts to change their identity and bring them closer to Shia Islam. Such efforts, naturally, encounter even greater challenges in Sunni communities that endured years of violence at the hands of Iranian-backed militias. This suggests that once Alawis feel that the regime is secure in its grip on power, they will have at least a partial common cause with the country’s other communities in seeking the removal of foreign forces, particularly Iran and its proxy forces.

The Iranian influence and the higher profile of Shi’ism has disturbed Loubna. “I do notice Iran’s efforts at converting Alawi people,” she said. “There are centers and private institutes where they teach the Persian language and spread their Sharia [religious laws]. I am obviously against it.

“I think Iran’s presence in Syria is just a modern and somewhat civil form of colonization,” she added. “Russia’s, too.”

*

Although they comprise the bedrock of support for the Syrian regime, the members of the Alawi community I spoke to are deeply unhappy with their circumstances. They have sacrificed their sons in the thousands, only to find themselves living in greater poverty and under a more corrupt and repressive regime. “My own family are frustrated with the regime, but none of them ever speak about this,” said Kheder, “Even at home, when we talk in private, we look right and left.” They have no safe way to voice their dissatisfaction, or any political alternative. “No one will risk trying to remove Assad from power,” said Fadwa, the Alawi former government official, after pointing out the efforts made by Bashar al-Assad and his father to eliminate any possible rivals to their rule within the Alawi sect by assassinating, marginalizing, or forcing into exile any potential challenger.

Living under a highly authoritarian regime for generations has taught most Syrians to remain silent, avoid politics, and focus on their personal lives. In that sense, the 2011 uprising was the anomaly. “You prioritize food, your children, your education,” said Kheder. “Dictatorship limits your perspective. I think that, deep down, some people know that living like this is wrong. But… when you barely have food and fuel, you don’t think about freedom of expression.”

Above all, thanks in part to the regime’s machinations, the Alawi community came to perceive the preservation of the Assad regime as synonymous with its own survival. The networks of power loyal to the Assad regime are completely entangled in State institutions and the removal of these powerful individuals, and particularly, any dismantling of the secret police, may lead to the collapse of state functions that Alawis perceive as vital to their survival. A poll conducted in 2016 showed that members of the Alawi sect were the only group in Syrian society largely opposed to dismantling the mukhabarat, a move supported by the overwhelming majority of other sects. The desire to preserve the state is bolstered by the widespread belief—even among Alawis critical of the regime—that if the opposition had won, those who would have come to power would have been Sunni extremists. “If it was not for the Alawi men who sacrificed for the nation,” said Suhyal, “there would have been a radical Islamic party in charge.”

Consistently unwilling to protect Syrians from the violent wrath of the regime, the international community watched Syria’s peaceful uprising devolve into a sectarian civil war. While insisting there was no military solution to the conflict, the US and Europe watched how the military interventions of Russia and Iran shifted the balance of power in the war, ensuring the Assad regime’s survival and eventual victory. The current US strategy of disengaging from Syria by withdrawing its armed forces and cutting funding to the stabilization efforts, while placing suffocating sanctions on the Syrian economy, appears intended to foment discontent within Syria’s populace. In theory, this would force the regime to make concessions and alter its behavior in exchange for sanctions relief.

The problem with this theory is that the Assad regime has spent years successfully terrorizing most of Syria’s rebellious communities into submission through indiscriminate bombings, chemical weapons attacks, mass executions in prisons, starvation sieges, and population displacement. Despite its own immense losses and deep frustration, the Alawi community, a pillar of regime stability, will not rise up either. “The sanctions will not work,” said Laith. “People will not revolt for anything. We did not pay blood to hand over the country to our enemies.”


*All names of interviewees inside Syria have been changed to prevent regime retaliation.