Without the active and passive support of Syria’s Alawite community, the regime of Bashar al-Assad is finished. This is the regime’s Achilles Heel, its worst nightmare, the proverbial kiss of death to be avoided at all costs and therefore one of the most pressing tasks facing Syria’s democratic revolution is to split the Alawites from the Assads.
Easier said than done.
Assad is acutely aware of his regime’s critical weakness and did everything in his power to divert the path of an originally non-sectarian peaceful struggle for reform that could not be defeated morally towards a bloody, divisive sectarian military struggle that could not be won quickly or easily by the opposition, enabling the ruling Alawite families (Assad, Maklouf, and Shalish) to cling to power and billions of dollars in assets for the time being.
Controlling the Alawites has been the lynchpin of this counter-revolutionary strategy.
Baniyas, March 18, 2011: Chants of
“God is Great!” and “Sunnis and Alawites, we all want freedom.”
Within the first week of the revolution’s beginning on March 15, 2011, there were peaceful protests not only in majority Sunni areas like Dara but in areas with significant minority populations like Baniyas and Salamiya. Protesters named the fourteenth Friday protest of the revolution,“The Honorable – Saleh al-Ali,” a reference to the Alawite who dealt French colonialism its first defeat in the ultimately abortive 1919 uprising.
Faced with a multi-sect grassroots uprising, the regime knew that it would take more than a purely military strategy of Hama-style massacres to persevere against this new and unprecedented enemy known as the Syrian people. While they were just waking up and their protest movement at the very early stages of gaining steam, the regime was thinking two and three steps ahead politically, focusing on how it would keep the Alawites (and other minority groups) from defecting, to keep them pinned and cornered in the regime’s camp.
So even as the regime was shooting unarmed protesters, it declared an amnesty for Islamists and freed them from Sednaya prison within the first week of the uprising. The regime’s aim was simple: turn the peaceful multi-sect movement that spoke of freedom and democracy, a message that would resonate with practically everyone in the country, into something else — an Sunni Islamist-led insurrection that spoke of sharia (Islamic law) and kufr (disbelief), messages that would limit the uprising’s appeal to Sunnis, and only religious Sunnis at that. Although this particular aspect of regime strategy failed in 2011 because the armed struggle was spearheaded by the non-ideological Free Syrian Army rather than political Islamists, free Alawites remained the exception rather than the rule. The revolution was too disorganized and overwhelmed with physically surviving murder repression to cohere into credible political alternative that could develop a strategy for seriously contesting the loyalty of Assad’s power base.
Afak Ahmad, former director of the
Syrian Special Forces Operations Bureau
under the command of Syria’s Air Force Intelligence,
was the first Alawite to defect in late 2011.
The war the regime worked hard to foment nearly destroyed it in 2012 as one-half of Aleppo fell to extremely disorganized and poorly armed rebels from the countryside and as the army evaporated in defections; only the intervention of Iran and Hezbollah saved the day and held the inevitable rebel victory at bay. With their assistance, the regime temporarily overcame its manpower shortage through the creation of its own sectarian, Alawite militias — the National Defense Forces.
In a historic shift, the coup-paranoid regime decentralized its command structure once micro-managing a multi-front total war on the Syrian people from the presidential palace became impossible and gave commanders more autonomy and flexibility. However, this decision will end up haunting the regime given its chronic inability to deliver total victory. As Aboud Dandachi explained:
“[R]ecent events on the ground in Homs, where a UN and Red Crescent aid convoy to besieged rebel areas was shelled and shot up by regime shabihas in the city, and the murder of the British doctor Abbas Khan, just mere hours before his scheduled release from the regime jails, clearly indicate that far from being a president in firm control of his intelligence services and militiamen, Bashar Assad is a man who finds himself trapped by a narrative of his own making.
“By failing to defeat an opposition he has consistently painted as posing an existential threat to his own Alawite constituency, a narrative that has also made impossible even minor confidence building measures such as permitting aid to the besieged rebel areas, and the release of high profile prisoners such as Dr Khan, measures which could have been built on to eventually ensure a political arrangement to end the conflict, Assad has trapped himself in a course of action that can only end in one way; his death at the hands of his fellow Alawites.
“That there should be bitter opposition to even such minor compromises among the regime’s supporters will come as no surprise to anyone closely following events in Syria. In June 2013, when the Syrian army, backed by units from the Lebanese terrorist organization Hizbollah invaded my home town of Telkelakh, the army and mukhabarat went door to door, ransacking homes and arresting people pretty much at random. A relative of mine in the town at the time, whose son had for years enjoyed close ties to very senior regime officials, thought that his family’s well known relations with the regime would protect him.
“When regime shabihas burst into his home, this relative immediately held up a picture of his son shaking hands with none other than El Presidente, the Eye Doctor himself. ‘Look, look!’ he said, ‘my son with el-doktor Bashar’ .
“The shabihas took one look at the picture, and broke my relative’s jaw. ‘Kess emak ‘ala em el doktor Bashar!’”
As the regime slowly edges ever-closer to defeat, dissension among Alawites will only rise in both pro and anti-revolutionary directions.
Some will blame the regime’s defeat and their community’s fate on Bashar’s weakness, incompetence, stupidity, and failure to be as tough and brutal(!) as his father Hafez; they will fire mortars at U.N. personnel delivering humanitarian aid and fight to the death against any compromise however insignificant or cosmetic. Others will seek to meet the revolution half way, to find a way out of the dilemma Bashar has put them in by chaining their fate as a people to the existence of his rule, to liquidate him before they themselves are liquidated. Anyone who doubts this should remember the example of Adolf Hitler who was nearly assassinated by his own high command as Soviet troops closed in on Berlin.
Rumblings of discontent among Alawites are no longer a theoretical possibility. Alawite activists in Tartous from the Souriya Al Jadid (New Syria) Party were brutally suppressed for rejecting both the opposition and Assad while elders of the Qardaha-based Al-Kalazat clan agreed with opposition activists on the following:
- A delegation of leaders will head to the Republican Palace in Qardahah, to ask Assad to outline a clear time period to end military operations.
- Qardahah leaders will ask their children in the security services to stop torturing the detainees, to the treat them correctly, and close their cases to smooth the way for their release.
- Qardahah leaders will ask their children in the army to stop accurately shelling villages and towns and executing orders to storm both towns and villages.
- Qardahah leaders will ask their children in the mukhabarat, the army, and the security services not to cooperate with both Hezbollah and Iranian militias.
Even if Assad rejects these requests, he will be hard-pressed to arrest or kill these elders without risking defections and creating a veritable civil war within the ranks of the security services. The regime cannot afford the inner-Alawite warfare such as the street battles that raged in Qardahah in late 2012 now that rebels are advancing in the south and Saudi Arabia is promising to deliver much-needed anti-air weaponry after Geneva 2 failed to end any of the regime’s sieges of civilian areas.
The walls are closing in on Assad as he runs out of (Alawite) Syrians who will kill their (Sunni) countrymen in defense of the three ruling families. The regime bought time to gain advantage by trying to twist the revolution into a sectarian civil war, but ultimately this sealed the regime’s fate for one simple reason: it will run out of Alawites before the armed brigades run out of Sunnis.