Assad’s Alawites: An entrenched community

Nir Rosen spends time deep inside Syria’s pro-regime Alawite community.

Pro-syrian protestors
The Alawite community constitutes the backbone of Bashar Al-Assad’s support [EPA]

This is the second of a two-part series by Al Jazeera special correspondent Nir Rosen. Catch up with the first chapter here: Assad’s Alawites: The guardians of the throne.

Driving near the high-altitude resort of Slonfeh in the Alawite mountains of the Latakia region, I passed a funeral tent for a Syrian soldier killed in the region the previous week, one of two military “martyrs” Slonfeh had lost to armed opposition activists. When my driver entered the village of Mazar al-Qatriyeh, he asked to be directed towards Sheikh Khalil Khatib, a respected Alawite elder. “Ask the rocks and they will tell you,” said one man. “Everybody knows him.”

The sheikh was an intense old man who lectured me while a television behind him screened the Hezbollah-affiliated al-Manar satellite channel.

“You can be called a sheikh for being old or for being educated,” he explained to me. He blamed religious sheikhs for the crisis in Syria. “They aren’t sheikhs of thought,” he said. “They are sheikhs of air, that’s why Syria has all these problems. I am a sheikh of logic.”

I told him that the opposition said Alawites controlled the regime. “This is rejected,” he said. “It’s for justifying the attack against the regime.” He listed ministers, governors, and director-generals and insisted very few were Alawites and most were Sunni.

“Our president is Alawite and we suffer from this,” he said. “There are four million Alawites,” he claimed with some exaggeration. “We don’t have even one per cent of the positions in the government.” He and his guests said they believed Syria was being pressured so it would make a deal with Israel. “If Bashar signs a humiliating peace we are against him,” said Ali Janud, a professor of civil engineering. “I am not with Hezbollah because they are Shia,” he said, “only because they are resistance.”

The sheikh agreed. “We are with the devil if he fights Israel,” he said. If outside powers intervened in Syria it would lead to armageddon, the sheikh said. “If they want to destroy us,” he said, “they are welcome.”

The ‘ignorant’ opposition

The sheikh conflated the protesters with the armed opposition. “The armed people are ignorant and don’t have any education,” he said. “In the mountains we are all educated,” said one of his guests. “Our orientation is education.” Janud agreed: “This is a conflict between ignorance and knowledge,” he said. Bayda and Baniyas, two coastal towns that had seen demonstrations, had nobody educated in them, the sheikh said, and they were majority Sunni. “And the Alawite villages around [those towns] are all educated.”

He recommended that I read the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, an infamous anti-semitic book about a fabricated Jewish conspiracy written in Russia a century ago – but still sometimes believed to be true. This would help me understand how Saudi Arabia was a chess piece in the hands of world Zionism, he said. “Jews are the cause of corruption in the world,” he told me.

“The uprising today is based on the same principles as the one of 1980 … [but] even if 11 million people die in Syria there won’t be sectarian war.”

– Alawite Sheikh Khalil Khatib

The Syrian Sunni opposition sheikhs were tied to Zionism by association, he said. “The uprising today is based on the same principles as the one of 1980,” he said, referring the armed uprising of the Muslim Brotherhood in which many Alawites were killed. Protesters today were merely “tools executing policy on behalf of someone else,” he said. “They do not have their own ideology.” Their gamble to provoke a sectarian war would not succeed because Alawites would not kill anybody for sectarianism, he said, they would only defend themselves.

Alawites had an ideology which prevented them from pursuing a sectarian war, he told me. “We Alawites don’t hate anybody,” said the aging sheikh. Janud added: “The other side is sectarian.”  The sheikh concluded: “[Even] if 11 million people die in Syria there wont be a sectarian war.”

Ideological entrenchment

These views were not uncommon. In Damascus I met with a general and a veteran sergeant of State Security. The general was an Alawite from Masyaf in Hama, his office decorated with large pictures of Bashar al-Assad and his father Hafez. The sergeant, also Alawite, hailed from a Latakia mountain village. They rejected the idea that the regime’s crackdown on protesters made the situation worse, stating that the president’s announced reforms should have been enough to placate the opposition. The regime’s response was warranted as the opposition was armed, they told me. They emphasised the armed element of the uprising and blamed it all on “a foreign conspiracy”. Syria was being attacked from outside because it supported resistance against Israel and the US, they told me. The general stressed there was a media war against Syria. “Outside media is only showing five per cent of the reality,” he said.

The sergeant insisted that the US invaded Iraq because the Mahdi, a messianic figure awaited by Shia, was expected to return from his centuries-old occultation. It was a theory many Iraqi Shia had earlier illuminated to me. I told him most Americans had never heard of the Mahdi. The Americans were forging an alliance with Islamists, the sergeant said. They wanted to prevent China from controlling the Middle East. “They are using Muslim groups against China – they know that the Quran talks about the threat from ‘a yellow race’,” he said.

In late August I drove with an Alawite friend connected to Syrian security up to the village of Laqbee in the mountainous Masyaf area of Hama. That morning two State Security officers had been killed in an ambush on the road.

We drove past Alawite and Christian villages, avoiding Sunni dominated areas. Entrances to Alawite villages were blocked by stones and sandbags with armed civilians or security officers standing guard. We passed many children on the road, playing with toy guns. We saw few minarets as we entered Masyaf. “They don’t sell land to Muslims,” my friend said. “They don’t want them to come and build mosques.”

We wound up narrow roads past green mountain villages before coming to a one-room concrete structure where many officers and government officials had gathered to pay their respects to the family of Lieutenant Colonel Ahmad Shawkat Ahmad. He had been attending a military staff college in Algeria when a suicide bomber attacked the Algerian military and killed him and another Syrian officer. Outside, the structure was adorned with so many pictures of the Assads that it looked more like a shrine to the ruling family.

Laqbee had produced many officers including some of the most powerful in the country, such as Muhamad Nasif Kharbeg, the deputy vice president for security affairs. His son, and many other Nasifs, are also senior in internal security.

Conspiracy theories

After the funeral, I had dinner with Kharbeg’s nephew – a captain. We sat with other Alawites, including an officer in the feared airforce intelligence service. Over grilled meat and beer, they discussed the opposition – “extremists”, the captain said. “They don’t have a mind.” He seemed baffled and frustrated by his mental image of the protesters: “How do you talk to somebody who wants to get seventy virgins and go to paradise and have rivers of wine? It’s not reasonable that people are going forward and we are going backwards, and growing long beards.”

One of the security men present blamed the crisis on Bashar’s reforms. Mandatory paramilitary training for school children had been cancelled under Bashar, further weakening Baathist influence and the martial spirit that had once dominated the country, with children in uniform shouting “al-Assad for ever!”

They looked for explanations to discredit protesters, with one claiming they were descendants of Turkmen mercenaries brought to Syria by the Ottoman empire. The men held simplistic and conspiratorial views of international affairs, such as theorising that Egyptian Google executive and activist Wael Ghonim was a Mason. One asked why the United States would allow a US company such as Google to undermine Egypt’s Mubarak, the closest ally of Israel and the United States.

The captain believed the United States controlled the world, giving orders other countries had to obey, and that they would order Turkey to attack Syria on their behalf. “The West only respects force,” the airforce intelligence officer said. With the fall of Tripoli to the NATO-assisted Libyan rebels, the men were concerned about the possibility of a NATO war against Syria.

They asked me why the United States was “allying with Islamist parties in Tunisia, Egypt and Syria”. To them, all these conservative religious groups were the same and sought to establish an emirate. The captain saw the regime’s current struggle with the opposition as a continuation of an older conspiracy. In the 1960s, Egypt’s Gamal Abdel Nasser had cooperated with the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood, the captain told me. Nasser had a radio program on Voice of the Arabs that targeted Syria’s Baathists, he said. “It’s just like Al Jazeera and Arur today,” he said, referring to Sheikh Adnan al-Arur, an incendiary sectarian Sunni cleric broadcasting in support of the opposition from exile.

“The regime will never fall … Going after the security forces means the end of the state which will lead to civil war”

– Nephew of Muhamad Nasif Kharbeg

“The regime will never fall,” the airforce intelligence officer said confidently. “Going after the security forces means the end of the state,” the captain said, “which will lead to civil war.” The captain denied that the security forces were dominated by Alawites. “60 per cent of officers are Sunni,” he said, taking my notebook and writing the words “60 per cent” with an arrow to the word “officers”.

We later returned to the Alawite village of Rabia. One of the roads leading to it was blocked by a checkpoint, where ten men in civilian clothes and armed with rifles stopped cars to identify passengers. 

Visiting the slum

I was accompanied by a State Security sergeant named Shaaban. He lived in Rabia, but his family had a home in the Damascus Alawite slum of Ish al Warwar. He suggested I visit after I told him Sunnis said Alawites controlled Syria and benefitted from the regime. “Ish al Warwar is steep, above the city, and has poor services,” he said, “so how can they say we took everything? We don’t have anything.”

I visited Ish al Warwar, or “Nest of the Bee-eater Bird” with Abu Baha, another sergeant in the security forces. The slum’s half-finished houses seemed to be randomly scattered one on top of one other like a Brazilian favela. Below it was the majority Sunni neighbourhood of Birzeh. Ish al Warwar is home to many members of the security forces, but residents had to go to Birzeh for government offices and schools. Some of Birzeh’s Sunni residents were threatened if they did not participate in demonstrations, I was told. One man there was suspected of being pro-regime merely for not demonstrating – and his car was blown up one day at 3am.

In the beginning of the uprising, the Alawites of Ish al Warwar had been very provocative, staging “we love you Bashar al-Assad” demonstrations in Birzeh right after Syrian security forces had crushed anti-regime demonstrations. Intense provocation eventually aroused the anger of Birzeh’s people, leading to violent clashes.

It was lumpenproletariat from places such as Ish al Warwar and neighboring Sunni slums who were fighting each other over a sectarian fault line. On a mountain across from Ish al Warwar was the small Sunni neighbourhood of Suweda. Abu Baha told me that demonstrations had stopped in Birzeh and Suweda after “the recent security campaign”. He claimed that many weapons had been hidden in Suweda’s cemetery.

Poor Sunnis and poor Alawites had everything in common and could have had the same grievances, but the regime had succeeded in entrenching these sectarian divisions at the expense of common social problems.

“Until three years ago we pumped up water by ourselves and had diseases from sewage … neither the city nor the governorate help us.

– Abu Baha, Ish al Warwar resident

The Alawite slum of Ish al Warwar had seen government investment since the start of the uprising, with the bridge at the entrance to the slum renovated and reinforced. Its mukhtar, or administrator, whose office was festooned with pictures of the Assad family, told me the 70,000 residents had only one elementary school –  so overcrowded most children studied in Birzeh instead. Ish al Warwar also shares a clinic with Birzeh. The mukhtar told me that people from Birzeh attacked residents of Ish al Warwar in April, and would close the road during funerals of opposition members, trapping Ish al Warwar’s residents. Officials also told me two men from Ish al Warwar had been killed. Malik Abbas, a sergeant in the security forces was shot in Birzeh coming home from work, while Aziz Musa was called an infidel and stabbed. Abu Baha, meanwhile, claimed there had been an Islamic emir in charge of Birzeh.

Ish al Warwar also has some Sunni residents. “After the Iraqi crisis, prices increased, so some Sunnis moved here,” he explained. But most residents are Alawites from rural areas who moved to the capital for work.

Khazan, Abu Baha’s neighbourhood at the top of Ish al Warwar was 12 years old. People made their own streets, contributing both supplies and labour. Many people commute up and down the mountain by a minivan, whose door was tied ajar, with wooden benches set in its back. They pay five Syrian pounds (10 US cents) to wind down the perilously steep hill.

Family time

“If we could live in Malki we would not live here,” laughed Abu Baha, referring to an elite neighbourhood also in the hills. “One house in Malki can buy all of Ish al Warwar.”  People built their homes gradually in Ish al Warwar. Abu Baha built the first room in his house 11 years ago. Like others, he added other rooms when he could afford to.

“Until three years ago we pumped up water ourselves and had diseases from sewage,” he said. There had been some improvements in services since “the events”, or the uprising. He showed me the sewage pipe locals had built for themselves. It emptied onto the side of the mountain down into a canal at the bottom. 

The land in Ish al Warwar is not privately owned. Most of it is state land and most residents were technically illegally squatting. Abu Baha told me there had been an attempt in 2006 to grant ownership of the land to squatters. An official blueprint of the area had been made but no further action was taken.

“Neither the city nor the governorate helps us,” he told me, explaining that Ish al Warwar fell through the administrative cracks. “Sunni officials help Sunnis and Alawite officials also help Sunnis,” Abu Baha said, expressing a feeling of neglect I heard from many poor Alawites. When I asked why they were so grateful to the regime, he explained it was because of “where we were, and where are we now”. “We were besieged in the mountains,” he said. Abu Baha’s father was in the military, so they moved to Ish al Warwar from Bareen, in the Hama governorate. Every home in Ish al Warwar has somebody working for the army or security agencies, he told me.

Inside Abu Baha’s house – and unlike many conservative Sunni homes I visited – women did not wear hijabs, men and women greeted with kisses and the women shook my hands. Everybody sat together to eat in the same room.

Conservative Sunni Salafis “are like [George W] Bush – ‘if you’re not with us, you’re against us’.”

– Abu Baha, Ish al Warwar resident

Abu Baha’s 16-year-old son Baha was the only one in the house fasting for Ramadan, a seeming example of the identity crisis that young Alawites go through in Sunni-dominated Syria. He went to school in Birzeh and I wondered if there would be tension when school resumed and he found many of his classmates had taken part in demonstrations.

The army only shot into the air during demonstrations, the men insisted. Security forces were killed but none of “them” – meaning the opposition – were killed. Abu Baha’s father-in-law was an elementary school principal, and complained that government employees’ buses were harassed in Homs. Demonstrators burned down health clinics and fire stations, he said. “They did the same thing in Birzeh,” Abu Baha said. The school principal insisted that children in Sunni areas were paid 200 pounds ($4) to demonstrate. He claimed that Sunnis in the wealthy Homs area of Inshaat did not demonstrate, as they were rich, and “did not even open their car doors for themselves”. Instead it was poor people from Homs’ lower class Bab Assiba district who came to Inshaat to demonstrate. I spent a lot of time in both Homs neighbourhoods and I knew this to be false, as did the parents of young men from Inshaat whose funerals I went to.

Alawites such as this family remembered the 1979-1982 civil war between the state and Muslim Brotherhood for the assassinations and bombings committed by the Brotherhood. “Anything with intellect they destroyed in those days,” said Abu Baha. “They killed doctors and judges.” His father-in-law added: “Now its goal is strife and destroying the economy – everything that is the state.” He claimed that Sunni shops that had been attacked in Homs’ majority Alawite neighbourhood of Hadara Street had been used as Sunni weapons depots. In fact, the shops had been attacked in revenge after three local Alawite youth were killed. Abu Baha blamed conservative Sunni Salafis. “They are like [former US President George W] Bush,” he said. “‘If you are not with us you’re against us.’ There is a Saudi takfiri mobilisation.”

They rejected the notion that Alawites benefitted from the regime. “This is a man that Al Jazeera calls shabiha,” said Abu Baha’s father in law, using the Syrian slang for a paid government thug. “And look how he lives. And this is a better [standard of living] than 70 per cent of the people in Ish al Warwar.”

More of Abu Baha’s relatives arrived and drank yerba mate. Like most Alawites, the family members strongly backed Bashar al-Assad, the former doctor-turned-president. Abu Baha claimed corrupt members of the government obstructed Bashar’s reforms and undermined him.

“Bashar is truthful and sincere,” Abu Baha concluded. “We are all with the doctor.”

Follow Nir Rosen on Twitter: @NirRosen

Source: Al Jazeera