Assad’s Alawites: The guardians of the throne

Syria’s Alawite community have a history of persecution, but dominate the ruling family’s security forces.

Bashar al-Assad with senior troops
Bashar al-Assad’s family have promoted Alawites, but the sect denies that they are favoured by the regime [REUTERS]

As we left the central Syrian city of Homs, Abu Laith pulled a 9mm Llama pistol from under his shirt, loaded it and placed it in the gap between our seats. He was a sergeant in Syria’s State Security and drove a small Chinese-made taxi to avoid the attention of armed men looking for members of the security forces. Heading north to his village of Rabia, in Hama, we passed shops covered in gashes from gunfire.

“There was a sniper here,” he said at one point on the road. “He shot six military buses.” We drove by a Military Security building that had been attacked by armed opposition fighters.

“Here was a statue of the late President Hafez,” he pointed at a now empty pedestal. Visibly offended, he added: “They took it down and put a live donkey there instead.”

Abu Laith belongs to the Alawite sect who make up about ten per cent of Syria’s population. Sunni Arabs comprise 65 per cent, while Sunni Kurds and Christians constitute ten per cent each. Druze, Shia, Ismailis and others make up the remainder. Since the Baathists seized power in Syria, sectarianism has been taboo, ever-present but unspoken of, with perpetrators of incitement harshly punished.

Prejudice in all its forms – racism, sexism, sectarianism – exist in all societies, but, in times of crisis, collective identity often comes to dominate social relations. Identity is complex and membership of ethno-religious sects is only one part of Syrian identity.

Social class, profession, nationalism, regional identities and other factors are all very important. But one is born into a sect and few but the wealthy elite transcend these classifications, typically revealed by one’s name and place of birth. As in the Balkans, religious identities are often cultural identities and lead to ethnic-like divisions, even within same-language groups.

A history of persecution

In the Arab world, the Sunnis exercise a hegemony which has often made minority sects feel insecure. Shia and heterodox sects – such as the Alawites – have been persecuted.

Little is known about the history of the Alawite faith – even among the Alawite community – as its beliefs and practices are available only to the initiated few. It bears little resemblance to mainstream doctrines of Islam and involves belief in transmigration of the soul, reincarnation, the divinity of Ali ibn Abi Talib – the fourth Caliph and a cousin of Prophet Muhamad – and a holy trinity comprising Ali, Muhamad and one of the prophet’s companions, Salman al Farisi.

A common theme to Alawite identity is a fear of Sunni hegemony.

A common theme to Alawite identity is a fear of Sunni hegemony, based on a history of persecution that only ended with the demise of the Ottoman empire. Sunni cultural hegemony, however, remains.

Beginning in the 1960s, the Syrian regime encouraged mainly Alawite peasants to migrate from the mountain regions to the plains, giving them ownership of lands that had belonged to a mainly Sunni elite.

But since the beginning of this year’s uprising, some have sent their families back to rural areas for safety. Yahya al Ahmad, an Alawite doctor in Homs told me that his community were resented for migrating and finding work in the government and industry. “Sunnis say we took their jobs and should go back to the countryside,” he said.

An Alawite friend told me he was outraged after seeing Sunni demonstrators in Latakia on television, chanting that they would send President Bashar “back to the farm”. To him it meant that Sunnis wanted Alawites to go back to their villages.

“The lot of the ‘Alawis was never enviable,” wrote historian Hanna Batatu. “Under the Ottomans they were abused, reviled and ground down by exactions and, on occasions, their women and children led into captivity and disposed of by sale.”

Empowerment and identity loss

The French mandate that replaced the Ottoman empire empowered minorities and weakened the older Sunni elite, while Alawites begged the French to grant them a separate state.

Minorities, especially Alawites, later saw the ruling Baath party and its pan-Arab ideology as a way to transcend narrow sectarian identities, while state employment and the military offered opportunities for social advancement and an escape from poverty. 

In 1955, the majority of the military’s non commissioned officers were Alawites, and early on, the party’s Military Committee was also controlled by Alawites. They determined who went to the military academies, choosing people from social backgrounds they trusted – most often Alawites or rural Sunnis, encouraging loyal allies into the more powerful praetorian units.

In 1955, the majority of the military’s non commissioned officers were Alawites … in 1970 Hafez al-Assad … seized power.

In 1970, Hafez al-Assad, the Alawite minister of defence and a former military officer, seized power. He empowered close friends and relatives, including many Alawites from his home region of Latakia – though he also promoted some Sunni War College colleagues.

With Alawites gravitating towards government employment, combined with Assad’s nepotism, the sect became over-represented within state institutions.

The state – even “Assadism” – supplanted the Alawite religion as the focus of their identity.

While Alawites identify as Muslims they have historically been rejected by mainstream Islam. To be accepted as leader, Assad had to persuade Sunnis and Alawites alike that Alawites were, in fact, mainstream Muslims. While Alawites have a powerful communal identity and still visit mazars, or shrines, and will have an Alawite sheikh at funerals and weddings, they do not necessarily know what it all means.

Wiped from the text books

Joshua Landis, director of the University of Oklahoma’s Center for Middle East Studies, revealed that Alawites do not receive education about their own religion. Syrian school books on religion contain no mention of the word “Alawite”.

“Islamic education in Syrian schools is traditional, rigid, and Sunni,” he wrote. “The Ministry of Education makes no attempt to inculcate notions of tolerance or respect for religious traditions other than Sunni Islam.” Christianity, noted Landis, was an exception to this.

The regime denied any public space for Alawites to practice their religion. They did not recognise any Alawite council that could provide religious rulings. This could have been a tool to clarify the Alawite religion to other sects and religions and to reduce suspicions over what many Syrians perceive as a mysterious faith.

Alawites struck a bargain; they lost their independence and had to accept the myth that they were “good Muslims” so as to win Sunni acceptance. Assadism then filled the gap left by the negation of traditional Alawite identity. The loss of the traditional role of community leaders fragmented Alawites, preventing them from establishing unified positions and from engaging as a community with other Syrian sects – reinforcing sectarian fears and distrust.

Without a central authority to represent them, Alawites were unable to engage and develop their teachings. Of Syria’s sects, Alawites boast the largest number of cross-denominational marriages, and are the most integrated with other sects, in both personal and business relationships.

It’s hard to say what makes someone an Alawite, except for being born an Alawite. Alawites only socialise as Alawites in mazars, in the security services and within state institutions.

‘Assad for ever’

The state and Assad’s rule replaced even the Alawite’s religion as the focus of their identity [GALLO/GETTY]

With an identity based on Assad’s rule, they have adopted slogans such as “Assad for ever”, unable to separate themselves from the regime or imagine a Syria without Assad. Alawites who dare to oppose the regime believe they will face extra punishment for their “betrayal”.

The Muslim Brotherhood rebellion which began in 1976 and led to a civil war between 1979 and 1982 determined how many Alawites see the current uprising. The Brotherhood attempted to rally the Sunnis into a sectarian struggle. Many Alawite intellectuals, judges and doctors were assassinated. The massacre of Alawite officer candidates in the Aleppo military academy in 1979 – as well as the assassination of Alawite Sheikh Yusuf Sarem – remain fresh in the community memory.

The Sunni majority, meanwhile, remember the brutality with which the Brotherhood’s armed uprising was crushed. The Brotherhood was destroyed within Syria and remains largely absent from the current uprising, even if most of today’s protesters are conservative Sunnis. This year’s is also a popular and leaderless uprising, especially of the poor, unlike the Brotherhood’s rebellion. While the Brotherhood lost much of its credibility after that crackdown, it remains influential in the diaspora-based opposition, which encourages Alawite fears.

The historian Hanna Batatu wrote in 1981: “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.”

‘Liberal’ identity

Alawites perceive themselves to be more “liberal” and secular than mainstream Muslims. They point to their consumption of alcohol, the freer interaction between their men and women and the more western way their women dress and behave.

They also resent untrue rumours spread by the Sunni majority – inferring, for example, that their religious practices include orgies – as much as they resent hearing that Syria is an Alawite regime or that they benefit from it. In fact, Alawites support the Assad family itself more than they support the regime, readily criticising state corruption.

Alawies were simply transformed into a sort of tribe, unifed around one purpose: Keeping the king in power.

– Karfan, Alawite blogger

Denied the right to mobilise as Alawites, they look to the ruling family for leadership. But the regime does not act to further Alawite interests, it acts primarily to further its own interests.

The opposition has failed to articulate a vision for what will happen to the tens of thousands of Alawites in the security forces and the state. The demise of the regime will directly affect nearly every Alawite family. But some in the opposition, most importantly the firebrand sheikh Adnan al Arur, have called for those who actively support the regime to be punished in the future.

The Alawite blogger Karfan wrote: “By erasing all sort of religious identity while making sure that Alawies will not find another one elsewhere, Alawies were simply transformed into a sort of tribe, unified around one purpose: Keeping the king in power.”

“A couple of tribes that does not have any real religious conviction or ideology but are held together by the fear of the others and the fear of revenge by the others for the regime’s deeds. Meanwhile, everyone around them keeps labelling [it] an “Alawie Regime” and keeps throwing all the faults that this regime did on the Alawies’ shoulders. We will be doomed to carry the burden of the faults of the same people who destroyed our religion and destroyed any religious identity we might have had.”

Personality cult 

Alawite solidarity and the support of some rich Sunni families solidified Hafez al Assad’s rule [GALLO/GETTY]

When Hafez al-Assad took power, he eased the Baath Party’s secularisation, attempting to reconcile Alawites with Sunni religious practices. He also proceeded to emasculate the Baath Party, turning it into the Assad Party. Alawite solidarity and the support of some rich Sunni families bound the regime together. And as the Baath Party, unions and syndicates were weakened, conservative Sunni Islam filled the social vacuum, with Islamic charities allowed to play a growing role. Sunni clerics were also given more freedom – which first increased the regime’s base of support, but now fuels divisions between Sunni groups and the Alawite-dominated security services.

Iraq’s Saddam Hussein “Islamised” his Baath party to legitimise his rule, but the Alawite Assad family appear to fear fear giving a democratic opening to the Sunni majority will cause the entire system to collapse. The weakness of the Baath party also means the regime cannot mobilise people around anything but Bashar al-Assad, who took power following his father’s death in 2000.

It is easy to tell if you’re in an Alawite area in Syria these days. It will be the place where every available space is festooned with pictures of President Bashar, his brother Maher or their father Hafez. It is a cult of personality, with walls bearing the graffiti: “Assad forever,” while men zip back and forth on motorcycles, all wearing t-shirts bearing Bashar’s portrait.

An Alawite accent can help get you through a military checkpoint. The taxi driver who took me to the Damascus suburb of Duma – an opposition stronghold – was an Alawite from Latakia. He spoke to the officers at the checkpoint in an Alawite accent and told them I was Lebanese. They waved us in without looking at my identity card. Leaving the town later, however, without the protection of the Alawite cabbie, I was stopped and removed from the car.

Village character

Back in Hama governorate, Abu Laith was worried about checkpoints staffed by the opposition. He was acutely aware of the cultural identity of each of the surrounding villages, as he turned off the main road to avoid the restive Sunni city of Hama. We passed the poor Alawite village of Alamein, near Tumin. “Tumin is a Christian village,” he said, “Christians here are trustworthy. Tumin is rich and the people are very good.”

We picked up a hitchhiker heading to Rabia. The traveller was a soldier returning from duty. “We don’t have any jobs but that,” Abu Laith said. The soldier was relieved when he saw Abu Laith. He was afraid to stand on the road he said, “afraid of terrorists”. He wore civilian clothes. “Because they’ll slaughter me,” he explained. He was hostile to all Sunnis, blaming them for the brutality with which soldiers had been killed. Abu Laith was uncomfortable. “Not all of them are like that,” he admonished.

Public buses now went through Rabia to avoid the “less secure” Sunni villages. Large stone barriers blocked the entrance to Rabia. We slowed down by three men with shotguns and belts full of rounds until they recognised Abu Laith. We passed more men patrolling on motorcycles with rifles slung on their shoulders, and drove to the town cemetery. Up to one thousand people were attending the funeral of a soldier named Naeem Tarif, who was killed in Hama. Many mourners carried rifles. Some children carried pictures of the president.

The western road leading out of town was also blocked by rocks and a checkpoint. Several men with rifles sat in a small wooden shack. On one side of the shack was written: “God, Syria, Bashar and that’s it.”

Many of Rabia’s roads were unpaved. In the centre of town was a shiny copper colored statue of former president Hafez al-Assad holding a sword in one hand and an olive branch in the other. The townspeople put it up at their own expense one month earlier, Abu Laith told me.

Family life

“Rabia has only schools, no playgrounds or anything else,” Abu Laith complained. He took me to his father’s house, where his six-year-old son greeted me by asking directly: “Are you with us or with them?”

“Who are you with?” his father asked him. “I am with Syria,” the boy replied.

Security men such as Abu Laith were busier than usual and rarely got to see their families. He had four brothers in the security forces and one who was unemployed. “Most men here are in the security forces,” Abu Laith explained. “But we have very few officers. They don’t let us be officers.”

As of that day in August, Rabia had ten “martyrs” from the security forces and up to fifteen others had been wounded in battles with armed opposition fighters. Two more security officers from Rabia, both sergeants, were killed days later.

Alawite deaths

We visited the family of Naeem Tarif, the man whose funeral we had observed earlier, at a tent outside their home. Tarif was a 40-year-old sergeant in the army, a 20-year veteran. He had been killed in Hama one week earlier but his body was not found until the day I arrived. His head was cut off and his body burned, his brother Adil told me. Videos of armed men disposing of his body were found on captured mobile phones and shown on television and online.

We feel afraid … the whole village is ready to be martyrs for the country.

– Resident of Rabia village

“We feel afraid,” one nephew told me. “The whole village is ready to be martyrs for the country,” proclaimed another. They worried about armed groups, they said. “They were here before as sleeper cells,” said one relative. All were angry at international media for failing to report what was happening to them.

I met with the family of Issa Bakir, an 11-year veteran police sergeant serving in Aleppo. After visiting his family in Rabia on July 5, Issa was driving back to Aleppo via Hama. On the outskirts of Hama he was stopped at a checkpoint. He was hit on the head with a club and his throat was then slit. “They stopped him, burned his car, slaughtered him and we found him next to the mosque,” his father told me. Bakir’s brother worked with him in the Aleppo police but now drove to work via Latakia to circumvent Hama. “They killed him for being Alawite,” his father said. ” My sons and I are a sacrifice for the homeland. We don’t have sectarianism. Before, our relations [with the Sunni] were normal.” The state was responsible for seeking justice for his son, he told me. “We don’t want revenge,” he said. “So there wont be sectarianism in Syria.”

Not far away lived Muhamad Khazem, a 46-year-old State Security sergeant, a large and heavy man lying injured on a bed. He showed me where a bullet entered just below his throat and exited from his back one week earlier. He and several dozen other security men had gone out to remove opposition roadblocks in the city when he and two others were shot. “It’s al-Qaeda,” his brother claimed. “I fought in the 1973 war. If the Israelis wounded a Syrian they would take him to the hospital, and if they killed him they would bury him properly. Israelis have more mercy than them, they are savages.”

Rabia bordered two Sunni villages – Tizeen and Kifr Tun. Rabia’s electricity came from Tizeen and locals claimed its Sunni residents had recently cut the power supply. They also blamed the people of Tizeen for killing two Alawite men six days earlier. Several days earlier a military bus going through Tizeen was shot at, they said.

Alawites in Rabia said that the Sunni villages of Mitneen, Arzi and Kifr Tun had expelled Alawite families – and Rabia had welcomed the newly displaced people. Farmer Hamid Diab and his eight children were among the thirty families expelled from Kifr Tun where they had lived since 1959. Alawites in Kifr Tun had received threats, he said.

“We will slaughter you,” people warned them. One week earlier, armed men attacked in the morning. “They burned tires and shot to scare us,” he said. “Some Sunnis were good and did not accept this. It was a Sunni man who helped us get out. We told good Sunnis that we want to leave. Bad Sunnis said if you sleep here tonight we will slaughter you.” He claimed that one of the attackers was a bedouin who called himself Dabih al Thawra, or “Slaughterer of the Revolution”.

“They burned tires and shot to scare us … some Sunnis were good and did not accept this … bad Sunnis said if you sleep here tonight we will slaughter you.”

– Hamid Diab, farmer from Kifr Tun

The people of Rabia welcomed them, he told me. But they left all their belongings in Kifr Tun. Now they could not access their farm and orchards. There had been no problems before the uprising, he said, and his children had gone to school with Sunni children. He suspected the hatred had been hidden before.

“It was the people of the village who attacked us,” he said. “They had demonstrations starting in Ramadan and they sent salutations to Bandar and Arur,” he said, referring to the powerful Saudi prince Bandar bin Sultan and to the exiled firebrand Syrian sheikh Adnan al Arur. “They all love Arur there and when he is on they turn up the volume and we could hear it in our house.”

Hamid told me that on the same day villagers from Kifr Tun attacked an Alawite man from the village of Addas when he was passing through on his motorcycle, pouring benzine him. He was set on fire but other locals saved him.

There were no security forces in these villages, the men told me. There was one police station in the Alawite village of Jarjara which had jurisdiction over the many villages of the area. “We didn’t have any weapons or we would have fought back,” Hamid said. “Security needs tanks [to enter the village]. They [the opposition] have blocked off roads. We want the state to solve our problem and the army to return us to our land. The army has to enter the villages, but the army is busy in Hama. Why is the state taking its time?”

Abu Laith’s father, Abu Iyad, a retired soldier, agreed: “Only the army can solve this,” he said. “If we respond it will be sectarian and other villages will join them and they will be more than us  – and his lordship the president has rejected this.”

For its Sunni neighbours, Rabia is equally frightening, representing fanatic pro-regime Alawites. Firas, an opposition organiser in the nearby town of Rastan told me of his cousin Muhamad Hussein Shahul, a 35-year-old taxi driver not involved in the opposition. In July, Shahul took four labourers returning home from Lebanon to Tizeen. The road via Hama city was closed because of fighting, so they drove through the Christian town of Kfarbo and on to Rabia, where Firas said “an Assad gang of Alawites” ambushed them. One passenger escaped, but the remaining four men were tortured and executed. Their corpses were left in the car and it was abandoned near the town of Masyaf before their families were notified.

“We could not go ourselves,” his cousin said, “because we would get killed.” Army officers from Rastan coordinated with officers in Masyaf and Muhamad’s body was taken to the border of an Alawite village, from where the family could collect it for burial.

Part two of Nir Rosen’s ‘Guardians of the throne’ will be published on Al Jazeera later this week.

Follow the author on Twitter: @NirRosen

Source: Al Jazeera