That up-to-the-moment title comes from an article I wrote almost a quarter century ago, in February 1987, looking at the potential sectarian ramifications of Hafez al-Assad's demise. Although reputedly sickly at the time, the dictator eked out another thirteen years and managed to pass the rule on to his son Bashar.
The odd thing is, so little fundamental changed during the past quarter-century, my analysis from then, with its heavy emphasis on the Sunni-Alawi sectarian divide, retains its value today at a moment of unprecedented popular rebellion against the Assad dynasty. An excerpt from the article's conclusion:
Sunnis have a long list of grievances against 'Alawi rule. They dislike the domination of power by a people considered to be socially and religiously inferior. They resent the socialism which reduces their wealth, the indignities against Islam, the attacks on the PLO, and what they perceive to be cooperation with Maronites and Zionists. They live with the memory of Hama and other massacres.
A placard of the Assad dynasty, with Bashar to the left and Hafez to the right.
This hostility weighs heavily on the leadership; indeed, bedrock Sunni opposition remains the Asad regime's greatest and most abiding problem. As a small and divided minority, the 'Alawis know they cannot rule indefinitely against the wishes of almost 70 per cent of the population [that is Sunni Muslim]. Further, the traditional place of 'Alawis in Syrian society and the manner of their ascent this century both make 'Alawi power likely to be transient. That Sunni Muslims see 'Alawi rule as an aberration probably bears on the future of political power in Syria as much as anything else.
In the likely event that the ruling elite fights among itself … , 'Alawi weakness could provide the needed opening for Sunnis to reassert their power. The resentful majority population will fully exploit any faltering by the 'Alawis. The effects will be severe; as one analyst has observed, "in the long run, it is highly dangerous for the 'Alawis. If they lose their control, there will be a bloodbath.
For deeper background on the Alawis, see my 1989 article, "The Alawi Capture of Power in Syria." Here is the conclusion to that historical inquiry:
It appears inevitable that the 'Alawis - still a small and despised minority, for all their present power - will eventually lose their control over Syria. When this happens, it is likely that conflicts along communal lines will bring them down, with the critical battle taking place between the 'Alawi rulers and the Sunni majority. In this sense, the 'Alawis' fall - be it through assassinations of top figures, a palace coup, or a regional revolt - is likely to resemble their rise.
(March 30, 2011)
June 23, 2011 update: Ignored by conventional wisdom for decades, Sunni-Alawi tensions are finally getting noticed. One example, in an Associated Press dispatch by Zeina Karem, "Syria: dying illusions and a slow-burning fuse":
"Assad developed and modernized the country for himself and the interests of his sect," said Mustafa, a 23-year-old barber who fled to neighboring Lebanon a few weeks into the uprising. Often, the way up in jobs and education, he said, is via the shabiha, a shadowy pro-government militia. "An uneducated shabiha can get whatever he wants, versus the most educated person in Syria." The discrimination filters down to the small things, Mustafa said, giving only his first name during an interview, fearing reprisals, even in neighboring Lebanon where Syria has long held political sway. He gave as an example an old Sunni woman in his town of Banias who he said was paying four times more for electricity than an Alawite family.
July 1, 2011 update: Farid Ghadry, head of the Reform Party of Syria, writes on this topic in "Syria's Future: Alawite Military Coup, or Regional Civil War: A Sunni-Alawite bloodbath in Syria could lead to something similar happening throughout the region."
The ruling Alawites comprise only about 12 percent of Syria's population but largely dominate the government. The bloody repression of the opposition, which is largely Sunni, is creating communal tensions. Sunni Muslims, who outnumber Alawites by a margin of more than five-to-one, may view this as a Sunni-Alawites and equally a Sunni-Shia conflict.
The Syrian dictatorship has thus begun a blood feud regardless of these potential consequences. Many Syrians I have spoken with inside the country are seething with anger over the Alawite-led government's butchering of Sunnis. They are equally aware that Hezbollah and the Iranian regime support President Bashar al-Assad, Syria's dictator, secretly and cheer him publicly.
To try to convince enraged young revolutionaries that this is not religiously fostered but rather the work of thugs who happen to be Alawites is futile. Whether the revolution succeeds, is repressed, or continues, a communal war could be the result.
Ghadry suggests that the best way to avoid communal warfare is "a military coup led by an Alawite general who would free political prisoners, initiate real and major reforms, imprison those guilty of corruption and murder in the current government, and bring a transformation to democracy. By bringing the Alawites credit for ending what is widely perceived as an Alawite regime, such an act could defuse hatreds and lead to national conciliation."
Comment: I concur with this analysis.
July 6, 2011 update: Along similar lines, Gary Gambill, the Middle East Forum's new general editor, writes in "The Hard Man of Damascus":
The crux of the problem is Syria's unique minority-dominated power structure, which is most closely comparable to Saddam Hussein's Iraq. Alawites, a heterodox Islamic sect comprising roughly 12 percent of Syria's population, may not be the privileged minority suggested by some Western media reports, but they provide both the brains and the muscle for a secular authoritarian political order that would otherwise be untenable.
Alawite solidarity renders the loyalty of the internal military-security apparatus nearly inviolable, enabling Assad to mete out a level of repression far beyond the capacity of most autocrats. The bloodiest government reprisal during Poland's long struggle for democracy—the killing of nine Solidarity strikers in December 1981 -- would make for a very placid Friday afternoon in today's Syria, where over 1,400 have been gunned down in less than four months. Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak's police quickly disintegrated under comparable strains, while his army engineered his downfall in less than three weeks.
The powerful stigma associated with Alawite hegemony over a majority Sunni population both necessitates and enables this police state. While the sectarian identity of Assad and his chief lieutenants is not the primary grievance of most Syrians, a substantial minority—perhaps 10 to 20 percent, mostly religious Sunnis—loathe the regime so deeply that they cannot be co-opted and will exploit any respite from repression to mobilize against it. This feeds into the existential insecurities felt by most Alawites and makes it nearly impossible for the regime to safely liberalize.
July 19, 2011 update: Sectarian fissures seem to have taken a major step for the worse today due to the discovery of the mutilated bodies of three Alawites in Homs, Syria's third-largest city. This lead to Alawite riots against Sunnis, including the burning and vandalizing some 40 stores owned by Sunnis, and to the deaths of at about 30 more persons.
The specific source of the problem lies in the Shabiha, mostly Alawite plain-clothes security men, accused of vandalizing property, terrorizing the Sunni population, and killing thousands of civilians.
Nasser, an activist organizing the anti-regime protests, says that "Syria is moving from a political crisis to a national crisis, and signs of a sectarian conflict are emerging across the country. It's like a time bomb." Rami Abdul-Rahman of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights raises the prospect of a civil war. Nada Bakri of the New York Times calls these developments "a dangerous turn." I say the Syrian fin de régime is getting closer. And that the Iranian one might well be its consequence.
July 24, 2011 update: The New York Times published an analysis arguing that the longer Bashar al-Assad remains in power,
the less chance Syria has to avoid civil strife, sectarian cleansing and the kind of communal violence that killed at least two dozen people in Homs last week. … "If the government keeps playing the sectarian card, they're going to get what they want," said Iyad, 27. … "If this regime lasts, there's absolutely going to be a civil war, absolutely." … "The government is going to push us in the direction of violence," said a former Republican Guard officer who has joined the ranks of protesters in Homs, Syria's third-largest city, with a Sunni majority and Alawite minority. "A lot of guys think it's almost over, but I don't. The situation, very regrettably, is going to become a crisis," by which he meant bloodshed. …
July 31, 2011 update: Bassma Kodmani, executive director of the Arab Reform Initiative, writes today that to break the Assad regime, the rebels need to peel off the (Alawi) military brass, and to that requires assuring them that the Alawis will not be massacred.
What is keeping Mr. Assad in power is the extensive security apparatus that was engineered by his father, Hafez al-Assad, and is dominated by their fellow Alawites, a minority Shiite sect.
Alawites, who constitute just 12 percent of Syria's population, have mostly thrown their support behind Mr. Assad, fearful that if he is overthrown they will be massacred. If the democratic opposition in Syria is going to succeed, it must first convince the Alawites that they can safely turn against the Assad regime.
This is not as improbable as many observers believe. As the bodies have piled up security forces have killed around 1,500 civilians since March Alawite leaders have not been blind to the rapid erosion of the government's power and its inability to restore control.
If they are assured of their safety, key Alawite leaders might begin to withdraw their support for the Assad family and cast their lot with or at least tacitly assist the opposition. A signal from them could persuade powerful Alawite army commanders to defect and take other officers with them.
Kodmani goes on to argue that Bashar, who has not fully brought the Syrian security apparatus under his control, "hasn't altered the total domination of Syria's security forces by his Alawite clan." Indeed, since the rebellion began in March,
the army has purged officers and soldiers including many hitherto loyal Sunni troops to reduce the chance of a revolt. The infamous Fourth Division, led by Maher and composed mostly of die-hard Alawite loyalists, played a major role in the crackdown. It is backed by an organized group of thugs, who form a parallel militia in civilian clothes.
Even when a Sunni general is in command, an Alawite deputy is often the one who holds real power. As a result of this structure, the army cannot be relied upon to carry out violent repression, nor is it able to defect as a whole.
Kodmani believes that the Sunni majority has the burden "to reassure Alawites and other minorities like Christians, Druse and Shiites who believe they need the regime's protection that they will not be subjected to acts of vengeance."
Aug. 1, 2011 update: Asharq Al-Awsat reports that, under the lead of Colonel Riyad al-Asad, seven other officers of the Syrian Army announced their defection from the army, the formation of the "Free Syrian Army," and an invitation to "the Syrian Army's many honorable officers, non-commissioned officers, and men" to "immediately defect from the army, stop pointing their rifles at their people's chests, join the free army, and form a national army that can protect the revolution and all sections of the Syrian people with all their sects."
The free army, he said, will "work hand in hand with the people to achieve freedom and dignity to bring this regime down, protect the revolution and the country's resources, and stand in the face of the irresponsible military machine that protects the regime."
More broadly, Jeffrey White of Washington Institute for Near East Policy argues in "Syrian Army Shows Growing Signs of Strain" that
the loyalty of the army, one of the regime's pillars, is increasingly in doubt. As a conscript force in which largely Alawite officers lead largely Sunni soldiers, the army has traditionally been marked by a difficult relationship between officers and enlisted personnel, making it ill suited for the internal security missions it is now being given. There are signs that army units are increasingly identifying with protestors, especially where security forces are employing violence against unarmed demonstrators. The 5th Division showed appeared to exhibit such problems as early as April in Deraa, and more cases have been reported since, including clashes between army personnel and regime security forces in Jisr al-Shughour, Homs, Abu Kamal, and Dayr al-Zawr.
Oct. 1, 2011 update: "Key Syrian City Takes On the Tone of a Civil War" reports an unnamed reporter in The New York Times, referring to Homs.
in the targeted killings, the rival security checkpoints and the hardening of sectarian sentiments, the city offers a dark vision that could foretell the future of Syria's uprising as both the government and the opposition ready themselves for a protracted struggle over the endurance of a four-decade dictatorship. …
Homs is a microcosm of Syria, with a Sunni Muslim majority and minorities of Christians and Alawites, a heterodox Muslim sect from which President Bashar al-Assad draws much of his leadership. Six months of protests and crackdown here have frayed ties among those communities, forging the conditions for urban strife. … Tension has grown so dire that members of one sect are reluctant to travel to neighborhoods populated by other sects. Men in some parts of the city openly carry weapons.
Perhaps the most dramatic facet of the struggle is a series of assassinations this past week that have left nearly a dozen professors, doctors and informers dead in a paroxysm of violence that echoes the sectarian vendettas still besetting Iraq. Unlike the uprising's early days, when the government exercised a near monopoly on violence, fear is beginning to spread in the other direction, as insurgents kill government supporters and informers, residents say. …
Homs strikes an odd posture. Many of its Sunni residents are at once fearful and proud, empowered by their opposition to dictatorship. Many Alawites are terrified; they are often the victims of the most vulgar stereotypes and, in popular conversation, uniformly associated with the leadership.
In Alawite villages, only government television is watched. To do so in Sunni neighborhoods amounts to treason. There, Al Jazeera and Al Arabiya are the stations of choice. Suspicions give currency to the wildest of rumors; in one, a female butcher in Homs named Um Khaled asks the armed gangs to bring her the bodies of Alawites they capture so that she can cut them up and market the meat to her customers.
Centuries-old connections between sects still knit together the city, even as the suggestion of civil war threatens to sever them forever. The countryside, residents say, is roiled by far more sectarian hatred. Government checkpoints separate Sunni from Alawite. "One side kills an Alawite, the other kills a Sunni," a 46-year-old activist said.
Nov. 19, 2011 update: "A harrowing sectarian war has spread across the Syrian city of Homs this month," writes Anthony Shadid in "Sectarian Strife in City Bodes Ill for All of Syria" for The New York Times. Extracts:
As it descends into sectarian hatred, Homs has emerged as a chilling window on what civil war in Syria could look like, just as some of Syria's closest allies say the country appears to be heading in that direction. …
Homs, Syria's third-largest city, has a sectarian mix that mirrors the nation. The majority is Sunni Muslim, with sizable minorities of Christians and Alawites, a heterodox Muslim sect from which Mr. Assad draws much of his top leadership. Though some Alawites support the uprising, and some Sunnis still back the government, both communities have overwhelmingly gathered on opposite sides in the revolt.
Here it is not so much a fight between armed defectors and government security forces, or protesters defying a crackdown. Rather, the struggle in Homs has dragged the communities themselves into a battle that residents fear, even as they accuse the government of trying to incite it as a way to divide and rule the diverse country.
Fear has become so pronounced that, residents say, Alawites wear Christian crosses to avoid being abducted or killed when passing through the most restive Sunni neighborhoods. …
even as the death toll has dropped in Homs in recent days, the sectarian strife seems to have gathered a relentless momentum that has defied the attempts of both Sunni and Alawite residents to stanch it. …
in a dozen interviews with residents in Homs, people spoke of the city's fabric being torn apart. Paramilitaries on both sides have burned houses and shops, they say. Alawite residents have been forced to flee to their native villages. Kidnappings, many of them random, have accelerated. Numbers are impossible to gauge, but scores have been abducted. Residents say some captives are used as bargaining chips, but not always.
Dec. 3, 2011 update: From an Associated Press report on the emergence of the Free Syrian Army:
The sectarian divide in Syria, where members of Assad's minority Alawite sect rule over a Sunni Muslim majority and others, means an insurgency could escalate quickly. The FSA's leader acknowledges nearly all the defectors under his command - he estimates there are some 15,000, although the figure could be lower - are low-level Sunni conscripts. … A recent U.N. report estimated that Alawites make up the majority of the key positions in the country's security apparatus, including the officer corps of the armed forces, the Republican Guard and the feared 4th Division.
Free Syrian Army logo.
Dec. 7, 2011 update: From the New York Times on the Syrian government's stubbornness:
Government supporters warn darkly that a gruesome, sectarian civil war may be at hand. "If you are a Christian or an Alawite, you will be slain," said Cherif Abaza, a former member of Parliament. Dissidents accuse the government of fear-mongering and abetting the violence by arming the Alawites. Officials deny it. "That is ridiculous," [presidential political and media adviser Buthaina] Shaaban said. "Is there any government in the world that pushes for a civil war?"
Supporters of the protest movement argue that communal hatred expressed toward the Alawites, the heterodox Muslim sect, stems less from their sect than their domination of the government, starting with Mr. Assad, and especially the dreaded secret police. But that distinction is fading.
After President Hafez al-Assad seized power in 1970, Alawites so prevailed as undercover agents that people feared naming the sect in public. The preferred euphemism was "the Germans." Now, in a sign of both alienation and diminishing fear, some Syrians call them "mundas," or infiltrators in Arabic.
Gauging shifts in support for the government is difficult. It has clearly lost control over large areas of the country, but the fear about what comes next seems a common sentiment in Damascus that has kept the city in line. "We are scared it will be death by ID card, poverty and the Iraq scenario," said a businessman interviewed amid the bazaars of old Damascus. "We want change, we just don't want blood."
Dec. 16, 2011 update: From a Los Angeles Times account of Syrian refugees in Lebanon by Alexandra Zavis and Rima Marrouch:
The more lives lost, the bigger the protests became, they said. Before sunrise one August morning, electricity in the [unnamed Syrian] village was cut and armed forces swooped in. … Among those taking part in the raid were people they said they recognized from a neighboring Alawite village who had joined pro-Assad militias known as the shabiha, an expression derived from the Arabic word for ghosts. Assad retains considerable support among minorities who fear they will be killed if the government falls.
Seventy-five people were arrested in the village that day, according to the family. The bodies of two were returned to their families and, of the others, three have not been heard from since, they said.
Son Abu Abdu, 35, said he attended the funeral of another Sunni, who witnesses said had been seized from a taxi by militiamen in an Alawite village. The man's family was told to collect his decapitated body from a hospital in Homs, he said.
Abu Faris said he thought the slaying was in revenge for the killing of an Alawite who would come to their village to hire workers. He blamed that death on security forces, who he said were trying to ignite a sectarian war. But he conceded that no one really knows.
His wife said Alawites used to come to their farm to buy butter, milk and cheese, and that members of the family would go to Alawite villages if they needed a refrigerator or television set. "We were very close before," she said. "But after the army came, no one had the courage to visit the other."
Even the Alawite veterinarian, a longtime friend, refused to come vaccinate their cows. Abu Faris asked him why. "He said, 'You are killing people over there,'" Abu Faris said. …
Many refugees here are convinced that it is only a matter of time before Assad falls, but some fear that such brutality will continue tearing at Syria's social fabric. "Even if the regime falls," Abu Faris said sadly, "there is no trust between us now."
Dec. 28, 2011 update: MEMRI has excerpted remarks by Syrian opposition leader Mamoun Al-Homsi in a statement posted on Dec. 20:
From this day on, you despicable Alawites, either you renounce Al-Assad, or else Syria will become your graveyard. Enough of your silence, enough killing of Sunnis. From this day on, we will not remain silent. An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth. … I swear that if you do not renounce that gang and those killings, we [Sunnis] will teach you a lesson that you will never forget. We will wipe you out from the land of Syria. Ten months of killing women and children are enough. Today, Al-Midan lies bleeding. Homs lies bleeding, Hama lies bleeding, and so does Deir Al-Zour. From this day on, we will not be silent. The entire world condemns you. We will turn Syria into the graveyard of the Alawites if they do not stop the killing. Long live Syria. Down with the lowlife traitors. Down with the despicable political Shi'a. From this day on, you will see what we Sunnis are made of.
Jan. 4, 2012 update: Deborah Amos reports from eastern Lebanon for National Public Radio on "Syrian Uprising Raises the Specter of Sectarian War."
To see how sectarian differences shape life in the Middle East, you need spend only a little time in this community made up of Alawites, an offshoot of Shiite Islam, and listen to the fears the residents express. Everyone here is an Alawite — the same faith as Syria's President Bashar Assad. And Assad is smiling down on this neighborhood, from posters at the barbershop, on apartment buildings, and in every restaurant.
At a coffeehouse, over a heated card game, the players worry that a revolt that calls for an end to the Assad regime is directed against them. "Bashar Assad, he's the best, believe me," says one man. Asked if the Alawites would suffer if Assad is ousted, he replies: "Of course. It's so bad. For Alawites, for Christians." Syrian television plays in the background — a big plasma screen next to a picture of Assad with his father, Hafez Assad, who began the Alawite dynasty in 1970, ending the domination of the Sunni Muslim majority in Syria.
Rifaat Eid, a local political leader, also says he feels threatened these days. "I am Alawite, OK. But I feel like it's because I'm Alawite, someone wants to kill me," he says. Just outside his office, Alawite children are literally singing the praises of the Syrian president.
This scene, again is in Lebanon, not in Syria. Amos is reporting from Jabal Moshen, near Tripoli, 15 miles from the Syrian border.
Sectarian identity trumps borders for Rifaat Eid. Alawites are a minority in both Syria and Lebanon, and Eid sees a shared destiny. You always need a protector, he says. And as long as Assad is the strongman in Syria, Eid feels safe here. "You know now why we are with Bashar al-Assad? Because we are in the Middle East, and in the Middle East the big fish always eats the small fish," he says. …
Vali Nasr, a Middle East scholar at Tufts University, describes what might be called Sectarianism 101. The Syrian regime incites sectarian tensions, then presents itself as the only force that can hold the country together. It needs to make sure that its Alawite base, and also the Christians in the country, remain in its corner, and then it can go to battle against the Sunnis trying to divide them, co-opt them or intimidate them, according to Nasr. But the Assad regime needs to make sure that the 20 percent of the country that has sided with it remains supportive. Without that, the regime doesn't have a chance, Nasr adds.
Syria's protest movement is trying to break through the sectarian divide, says human rights activist Wissam Tarif. "In Syria, in particular, it is a revolution of young people, and the young people are not sectarian," he says. "We don't know the language, we don't understand the concept." He points to the young Christians and young Alawites who have joined the protest, standing with Sunni Muslims, risking everything for change. …
With more than 5,000 dead since last spring, Syria's divide between pro- and anti-government forces is starker than ever, he says. "And now people are gathered around a concept of fear," he says. "When a family is sitting at night before they go to bed, they are not sectarian, they are afraid — they are afraid from the neighbor who is different, who is loyal to the regime or vice versa. It is fear."
Events in Syria have implications well beyond the country's borders:
Everyone in the region — already suffering from a dangerous sectarian divide — is watching Syria closely. The Sunni powers, led by Turkey and Saudi Arabia, have lined up to support the protests. Meanwhile, Syria's allies — Iran, Iraq and Hezbollah, the Shiite power in Lebanon — stand against them. A sectarian war in Syria would inflame the broader region. Fears of that nightmare scenario have left some countries paralyzed when it comes policy choices, discouraged international intervention and has helped keep the Assad regime in power.
Jan. 13, 2012 update: Dore Gold of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs looks at the Alawi background of Syria's rulers in "Assad's Alawi Allies" and concludes:
In recent months, Alawis were reminded of how Sunni clerics from Islamist circles view them. Sheik Yusuf Qaradawi, the spiritual leader of the Global Muslim Brotherhood, called the Assad government "a heretical regime." Sheik Adnan al-Arour a Syrian Sunni religious leader appeared on a Saudi television network in June and addressed his words specifically to the Alawis who were opposing the Syrian uprising: "I swear by God we will mince them in grinders and feed their flesh to the dogs." Given the prevalence of these sentiments, the revolt in Syria has all the trappings of an existential war for the Alawi minority, which explains, but hardly justifies, the reprehensible policies their army has adopted.
Jan. 20, 2012 update: Elliot Jager paraphrases W. Andrew Terrill of the U.S. Army War College predicting that "the post-Assad Alawites may be forced to retreat en masse to their historic mountain region above the coastal city of Latakia. Lately, there's been talk of their seeking refuge on the Golan Heights. In the worst case, they face a massacre."
For more on that "talk of their seeking refuge on the Golan Heights," see Isabel Kershner, "Israel, Expecting Syrian Collapse, Braces for Refugees" in the New York Times. Excerpts:
Addressing a closed meeting of the Israeli Parliament's Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, the [Israeli military] chief, Lt. Gen. Benny Gantz, said that Israel was preparing to absorb the refugees in a buffer zone between Syria and the Golan, a strategic area that Israel seized from Syria in the 1967 war, and which remains an area of disputed sovereignty.
The plans included defensive measures and humanitarian assistance for those in flight, including thousands from the ruling Alawite sect, the small minority to which Mr. Assad belongs. "I am not sure all the Alawites will run toward Israel," General Gantz was quoted as saying, but he said he could not rule out the possibility that some would.
How would that work, where would they go in the Golan Heights?
Israel has extended its law to the area, but for the 20,000 or so Syrians of the Druze religious sect who live there, it remains Syrian territory. Most refused to take Israeli citizenship, and might not tolerate thousands of Alawites trekking through their territory.
A more likely spot is the village of Ghajar, which straddles Israel's frontier with Lebanon, sits close to the Syrian border and is home to more than 2,000 members of the Alawite sect. The village came under Israeli control along with the Golan Heights. When Israel annexed the area in 1981, the villagers chose to become Israeli citizens.
Feb. 3, 2012 update: From a New York Times report on the worsening situation in Damascus, written by Nada Bakri:
A 34-year-old teacher from the Alawite sect said her life had changed in ways she never imagined. Six months ago, she started covering her head like Sunni Muslim women, hoping not to stand out. Her husband, an officer in the Syrian Army, rarely leaves his base to come home. She said she and their two sons had not seen him in months.
A few weeks ago, her landlord, a Sunni, asked her to leave the house because his newly married son wanted to move in. "Sunnis have begun to feel empowered," the teacher said. "A year ago, no one would have expected this to happen." She had already made plans to return to her village.
The teacher said that most Alawites in the Damascus neighborhoods of al-Hajar al-Aswad and Qadam had left or were planning to go to their native villages. So are families in towns on the outskirts of the capital, including Douma, Saqba and Arbeen, where heavy and persistent clashes have occurred between state security forces and rebels for the past two weeks.
"Who lost a son or a brother wants revenge, and he will take vengeance from Alawites before anyone else because most Alawites are commanders of security forces," the teacher said. "I am sorry to say this, but I think the Assad regime is using us in the crackdown, and when it will falls, they will run away, and we will pay the heavy price."
Feb. 6, 2012 update: The Reform Party of Syria's Farid Ghadry writes:
the Alawite community-at-large distancing itself from Assad would have been a foregone conclusion had not the Obama administration outsourced the Syrian policy to PM Erdogan of Turkey who gave the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood the seat at the head of the table. If we wanted to protect Assad, we could not have done a better job unfortunately. Today, the situation in Syria is dire for all of us. The minorities are caught between supporting the terror of Assad against his own people and the Muslim Brotherhood sharpening their knives for the kill. Not an enviable situation at all. …
the Alawites need to drop Assad for the burden he is and start lobbying for the next generation of government we all want to see in Syria. Standing-up by Assad, so late in the game, is an ill-conceived policy because time is running out for all of us to shape Syria's destiny. None of us want the Islamists to rule Syria. But to achieve this goal, the Alawites can no longer pretend "The Assads will survive as they have always in the past". This time around, they won't regardless of the position taken by Russia and China at the UN. The regime will eventually implode.
Sep. 3, 2012 update: There's been too much on Sunni-'Alawi tensions for me to keep up, but here is a major article on the topic, by David D. Kirkpatrick, "Syrian Children Offer Glimpse of a Future of Reprisals," reporting from a desert refugee camp in Zaatari, Jordan, in the New York Times. Excerpts:
Like all the small children in the here, Ibtisam, 11, is eager to go home to the toys, bicycles, books, cartoons and classmates she left behind in Syria. But not if that means living with Alawites, members of the same minority offshoot of Shiite Islam as Syria's president, Bashar al-Assad. "I hate the Alawites and the Shiites," Ibtisam said as a crowd of children and adults nodded in agreement. "We are going to kill them with our knives, just like they killed us."
If the fighters seeking to oust Mr. Assad sometimes portray their battle as a struggle for democracy, the Sunni Muslim children of the Zaatari camp tell a much uglier story of sectarian revenge. Asked for their own views of the grown-up battle that drove them from their homes, child after child brought up their hatred of the Alawites and a thirst for revenge. Children as young as 10 or 11 vowed never to play with Syrian Alawite children or even pledged to kill them. Parroting older relatives some of whom openly egged them on the youngsters offered a disturbing premonition of the road ahead for Syria. …
"We hear it all the time from the kids, but also from the parents that this is not political at all, and not a call for democracy, but is about people fed up and angry at rule by a minority, the Alawites," said Saba al-Mobaslat, director for Jordan of the nonprofit group Save the Children, which provides toys to refugee children and tries to teach them understanding. "There is a concern that this is a whole generation that is being brought up to hate, that can't see the other's side." …
"Why are they bombing us?" Ahmed, 12, from the Hauran region near the border with Jordan, asked rhetorically. "Because we are asking for our freedom." His father interrupted to explain what freedom might mean. "The biggest general in Hauran, a young Alawite soldier can step his foot on the general's head," his father said. "A young Alawite soldier can humiliate the biggest officer." His son picked up the theme. "The Alawites say, 'Kneel in front of my shoe'," Ahmed said before looping the subject back to the revolt. "We can't be free with Assad because he kills us."
The convictions of Heza, 13, were blunt. "We will never live together," he said. "All the Alawites are security agents. After the revolution, we want to kill them." Even if it might mean killing a Syrian child his own age? "I will kill him," Heza said. "It doesn't matter." …
Ranya, 13, insisted that "there will always be a problem between Sunnis and Alawites, because they are the ones who are doing this to us." She hates the Alawites, she said, but not exclusively. She also hates Hassan Nasrallah the leader of the Iranian-backed Lebanese Shiite militia Hezbollah, which supports the Assad government as well China and Russia, Mr. Assad's other foreign backers.
Dec. 23, 2012 update: What's delicately called "an EMPLOYEE of THE NEW YORK TIMES in Syria" and Neil MacFarquhar have jointly authored an article titled "In Ravaged Syria, Beach Town May Be Loyalists' Last Resort" which tells how Tartus has emerged as the nascent capital of a potential Alawi state. They tell how this boom town differs from the rest of the country, torn by civil war:
Loyalists who support the government of President Bashar al-Assad are flocking to the Mediterranean port of Tartus, creating an overflowing boomtown far removed from the tangled, scorched rubble that now mars most Syrian cities. There are no shellings or air raids to interrupt the daily calm. Families pack the cafes lining the town's seaside corniche, usually abandoned in December to the salty winter winds. The real estate market is brisk. A small Russian naval base provides at least the impression that salvation, if needed, is near.
Many of the new residents are members of the Alawite minority, the same Shiite Muslim sect to which Mr. Assad belongs. The latest influx is fleeing from Damascus, people who have decided that summer villas, however chilly, are preferable to the looming battle for the capital. "Going to Tartus is like going to a different country," said a Syrian journalist who recently met residents here. "It feels totally unaffected and safe. The attitude is, 'We are enjoying our lives while our army is fighting overseas.' "
Should Damascus fall to the opposition, Tartus could become the heart of an attempt to create a different country. Some expect Mr. Assad and the security elite will try to survive the collapse by establishing a rump Alawite state along the coast, with Tartus as their new capital.
The town is getting a full-fledged airport and boasts intensive security. A real estate agent tells how he is getting about 25 calls a day from potential customers. Curiously, the old terrorist Ahmed Jibril of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine - General Command is said to have fled to Tartus. One estimate finds at least 230,000 war refugees in Tartus, another holds that the population of Tartus Governate has nearly doubled.
Most are Alawites, including countless government employees who have returned to their home province. But many are Sunnis, Christians or others close to the government who no longer felt safe elsewhere. … Alawites in the town barred other minorities and members of Syria's Sunni majority from entering their neighborhoods, and the two sides no longer frequent each other's stores. The Sunni population has been collecting weapons to fight any future attempt to drive them out.
Dec. 27, 2012 update: An anonymous Alawi religious figure who fled to Turkey reported that "the Alawite community is living in a state of great fear, after we have become aware that the collapse of the al-Assad regime is imminent, which will place us at the mercy of fierce reprisals from the Sunni majority," adding that "many Alawite families have already fled their homes in Damascus and returned to their villages in the Lattakia countryside."
He also claimed that the Assad regime "has embroiled us in a sectarian war against the Sunnis, and if the Alawites had participated in the revolution since the beginning the regime would have been toppled, whilst the Alawite community would have no reason to fear. However after all this bloodshed, it is very difficult." The account in Asharq Al-Awsat goes on:
Commenting on the relationship between the al-Assad regime and the Alawite community, the Alawite cleric acknowledged that this was very close, adding "the heads of the security apparatus acquire their legitimacy from Alawite religious clerics with the objective of covering up their corruption, and we find that every security officer is accompanied by a religious cleric." However he also stressed that this is not a systematic policy of the al-Assad regime or Alawite sect, denying that there was any "[formal] alliance between the Alawite religious establishment and al-Assad family."