Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change
Bullet-riddled wall in Homs, Syria. (Photo: Homs Local Coordination Committee)
Although President Bashar al-Assad’s regime is closely associated with the Alawite community from which he comes, not all members of this minority branch of Islam are lining up to support him. IWPR editor Salam Hafez speaks to an Alawite member of the Syrian Revolution General Council, the political group representing demonstrators on the ground, from the embattled city of Homs.
How dangerous is it to come from the Alawite community, yet be part of the opposition and active in the demonstrations?
The danger is ever-present. Everyone is in danger, but the regime reserves extra punishment for those Alawites who break ranks and speak or act against it. We are under their watchful eye. Breaking ranks will bring in expulsion from your sect and your family, and [an end of] protection from the regime at a time where people are taking sides –either with or against the regime.
The regime relies on the Alawites, and derives its power from us. It relies on us for staying in power, and it is turning the rest of Syria against us. Thus far, the regime has confidence that we will keep it in power. It cannot even conceive of the idea that Alawites could be in opposition.
And if it finds us, it kills us in the most brutal ways, as a lesson to others.
Are there many Alawites in the Syrian security forces and the “shabiha”, the state-sponsored militia?
They come from our sect, I am afraid to say. They are pumped up on fear that if this revolution is successful, then it’s the end of everyone in the sect. They have resorted to the most disgusting ways of suppressing the protest movement, deploying unimaginable violence, torture and killing of ordinary civilians.
As Alawites, we have all been armed and asked to help suppress the uprising. The regime has made it our duty as a community to do so, saying it’s for our own survival, but that isn’t true.
The regime has no concept of an Alawite being in opposition or being a demonstrator. You are either an Alawite loyalist or a dead one.
Does the Syrian Revolution General Council, SRGC, have any figures for Alawite participation?
There are around three million Alawites in Syria, of whom 100,000 are participating in demonstrations or support the opposition. There are around 50,000 shabiha, funded by around 5,000 individuals that we know of.
On the other hand, there are 15 million Sunni Muslims, with over a million demonstrating and a wider movement of around four million. The majority are scared to come out, but they support the uprising.
What is the current situation in Homs?
It is exactly as you see it in video footage or on television. The regime has used its media outlets – which are followed by our community - to manipulate us and tell us that what other media say is a lie, which it isn’t. The reality on the ground is even worse than some of the reports the [protest] co-ordinators post and that are broadcast by satellite television stations.
How much of the protest is peaceful? Are any protestors now targeting the Alawite community with acts of violence?
The revolution started out 100 per cent peaceful. [But] any Alawite who was involved in the protests was killed, and the regime blamed these actions on Sunnis. In the third and fourth month of the uprising, the regime crushed any dissent in all the Alawite villages, and gained the support of the majority of the sect.
If we are seeing violence against Alawites now, it is because after eight months, people have had enough. I don’t blame them – there’s only so much people can take. Remember, the shabiha are recruited from among us, so it’s natural to hold our sect responsible.
What do you think will happen to the Alawite community if and when the regime falls?
There could be reprisals, and I expect a few individual cases to occur. But everyone in the protest movement, from each individual protestor to the politicians in the Syrian National Council, SNC, is working hard to maintain the peace between communities.
I think the Syrian media have played a big part in creating fear within the Alawite community. We hope to see better media coverage and more outreach from all parts of the opposition, to ease fears and offer guarantees of peace.
Let’s be honest – most of the killing is being done by Alawite shabiha, so people are naturally upset and hold a grudge against us.
People who attend protests don’t know that I am Alawite. That’s on the direct orders of the SRGC, to protect my identity.
Do you expect to see civil war across Syria, pitting Alawite government supporters against the protest movement?
That’s what is happening in Homs, which is already in a state of war. Right now there’s a war between Sunni and Alawites.
Will this spread further? I don’t think so. Homs is a special case, as it’s the closest major city to the Alawite areas, and the regime has dealt with it differently.
It is becoming very dangerous for people like me, as I live in an Alawite neighbourhood but attend protests in Sunni-majority areas. I could be attacked by the regime as well as by protestors, as Homs is now in a state of chaos. No one in the city is secure; everyone runs the risk of being killed for no reason.
But so far, this has been the case only in Homs and Deraa, not in other places. Not even Hama has experienced what we’ve seen in Homs during this uprising.
There have been two or three cases of Alawites being killed in demonstrations, not forgetting those who have been assassinated for not supporting the regime. But the reality is that few of us are in opposition and attending protests.
How much has fear played a part in the uprising?
Everyone is scared. The regime has played the fear game very well, gaining the support of the Alawite community, some Christian minorities, and some Sunni businessmen by telling them they will be massacred if the regime falls, and that it is protecting them. It has intimidated the rest of the population – if you demonstrate, you will be arrested, tortured and killed.
We need to break down the myth that the regime is the defender of Alawites and other minorities. It is just defending itself, and using us for its own ends.
Alawites are a minority, and the government has sown the fear of being wiped out. That’s why the shabiha are still there. They believe the regime is protecting the country from civil war. They are afraid of a long, protracted civil conflict like the one in Lebanon.
Alawites are a cohesive, tight-knit group, whereas other Muslims and Christians are divided by sect, tribe and dogma.
I am not authorised to speak on behalf of the Alawite community, but I speak as a Syrian and a member of the SRGC. The Syrian National Council, SNC, represents me.
I am secular and I want a secular democracy. I demonstrate on those principles, as do the overwhelming majority of Syrians in every town and city.
The SNC and SRGC have given assurances that there will be an amnesty, and no reprisals. So why are minorities still scared?
Alawites look at it differently. We know the country could be heading for civil war, and that chaos could continue for some considerable time. We also know it isn’t just the regime that is armed – weapons have become available in the last few weeks, and the number of deserters with access to arms is increasing. So the way Alawites see it is – do we even want to risk a civil war?
I guess Alawites were happy with the status quo before, and would now prefer short-term instability and maintaining the regime to the unknown.
What is the relationship between Alawites and the Free Syrian Army, FSA? Do you feel the latter is sectarian?
I’m sorry to say so, but the FSA is sectarian. Not sectarian in politics but in [recruiting military] deserters and in the areas that takes places.
It is not targeting Alawites [for attack], but it is targeting shabiha who are Alawites.
It is also fearful and mistrustful of our community, for reasons that are valid. Defectors have been betrayed by Alawites on many occasions.
But there have been Alawite deserters, too. In one instance we [the SRGC] had a defecting Alawite general whom we couldn’t get out to Turkey, or link up with the FSA.
If you had one thing to say to Syrian protestors elsewhere, what would it be?
That the Syrian people are one, and that you should remain strong in your resolve to bring down the regime.
As for those who support the regime – May God guide you onto the right path.
(Interviewee’s name withheld for security reasons.)
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