Syria`s Alawites are often portrayed as a monolithic religious community which has unconditionally and unwavering supported the Syrian regime through the crisis which has shaken the country since March 2011. However, very little attention has been paid to the community’s diversity and to reasons for its support of the regime that might extend beyond the simplistic equation: "The ruling family is Alawite, and therefore Syria’s Alawites support the regime." While emphasizing the Alawite community’s diversity in the context of the current situation, this research analyzes the fears for survival and the socio-economic conditions which underpin the current expressions of Alawite solidarity with the regime.
This study focuses on the Alawite community of Homs, a city located in the economic and strategic centre of the country with its numerous factories, oil refineries, fertilizer plants, power plants, gas storage facilities, etc. This region is militarily important, as it is the seat of the country’s most important military institutions. Alawites from Homs and its environs are employed in great numbers by these state-run industries and military institutions, and the region has suffered economically due to the current crisis, especially since late 2011 and early 2012. The Alawites from Homs and its environs are employed in great numbers by these state-run industries and military institutions, and the region has suffered economically due to the current crisis, especially since late 2011 and early 2012. The Alawites of Homs and the surrounding region are a minority, and their presence in the city is relatively recent, stretching back only twenty to thirty years. Most Alawites came to the city from the surrounding towns or villages and it is in fact not possible to discuss the Alawites of Homs without referring to the villages of origin with which individual Alawites maintain strong links, whether through the presence of relatives, houses or land that they continue to cultivate. From within their neighbourhoods, Alawite residents of the city tend to cluster amongst those who originate from the same villages. It would not be an exaggeration to state that the Alawites have moved their villages to the city. In fact, some consider the city`s expansion a result of the extension of surround villages into the city, rather than the more traditional movement of outward growth from within the city to the country. Before March 2011, while the different neighbourhoods of Homs tended to be dominated by one community - whether Sunni, Alawite, Christian, or Shiite, a peaceful pluralistic society generally prevailed. It was not uncommon to find minority-owned businesses, such as Sunni shops in Alawite neighbourhoods. In some of the newer areas developed in the mid-1990s, the population was mixed, a trend which has progressively reversed since March 2011.
The study differentiates between the hinterland (dakhel), i.e. the Homs-Hama region, and those from the Mediterranean coastal region (sahel) and it argues that Alawite solidarity does not represent a monolithic community. Another key objective of this study is to demonstrate the difference between the lived experiences of Alawites of the hinterland/dakhel and those of the coastal region/sahel. The distinction has historical antecedents, but appears to have become further exacerbated by the current situation of turmoil. Alawites from the Homs region consider themselves particularly vulnerable compared with their counterparts in the coastal region, where Alawites remain a majority. The Alawites from Homs also feel excluded from the power structure which, in their eyes, is monopolized by Alawites from the coastal areas. However, due to the nature of the current turmoil in Syria, these differences operate to reinforce or create sentiments of a common group affiliation, re-establishing social cohesion from within the Alawite community as a whole.
This study will also demonstrate that support for the regime by the Alawites from Homs is multi-faceted. The Alawites not only work for state-run economic and military institutions where they earn incomes which they depend on for their livelihoods, but they fundamentally fear for their lives as the present uprising is increasingly seen as an anti-Alawite movement rather than a popular revolution. Consequently, the Alawites are not able to conceive of a viable alternative for their survival other than acceptance and support for the present regime. For many Alawites, support for President Bashar al-Assad and his regime is not simply a matter of endorsement, but has evolved into a basic fear for the lives of family members or neighbours whose employment in the army, the secret service or paramilitary groups – the notorious Shabiha. This support can be regarded as a manner in which Alawites seek protection and a key to their basis survival.
This research will also demonstrate how the regime has used the secret service to garner the allegiance of Homs’ Alawites who broadly perceive the Mukhabarat as an institution which is controlled and dominated by coastal Alawites. Finally, it will show that despite the fact that the Alawites of Homs remain civilians, most have family members or neighbours who work for the army, the secret service or the paramilitary and this has contributed to the greater "militarization" of the community. In this, context, the rise of the Shabiha inHoms can be associated rather with the communitiy`s militarization rather than with a concerted strategy to suppress the uprising. There are other factors which have also strengthened the community’s sense of cohesion, most notably shared religious values at a time of heightened sectarian tensions, as well as the influence of the media, both state-run television and social media networks.
This study is based on observations and interviews conducted with members of the Alawite community in the Homs area during the summer of 2012. The interviewees range from army officers to paramilitaries and civilians, including students, academics, businessmen and individuals from diverse backgrounds. While some identified themselves explicitly as religiously observant Alawites, others consider themselves trapped in the "Alawite box" as a result of the current crisis. Some interviewees were aware of the research, whereas others were not aware of the aims of our discussions. This was particularly true of the Shabiha with whom I spent time as a "participant observer." Some of the interviews and observations gathered in outlying villages were provided by intermediaries. The interviewed sample is not representative in that it does not reflect a broad cross sectional range of views by Alawites, although it nevertheless provides some insight into the Alawite community in Homs. The objective is neither to censure nor to defend but to shed light on the multifaceted and often complex political and social realities of the Alawite community in Homs today.
Army, Paramlilitary Forces, and the Alawite Community in Homs
Ambitions and Economic Motivations
Homs is the main location where army officers are trained in Syria. Military institutions in Homs have been and remain important pull-factors for Alawites to the city, particularly following Hafez al-Assad’s rise to power in 1970. For those living in the surrounding villages as well as those raised in Homs, joining the army represents a desirable means of securing an income.
A case in point is Salem. In 1985, Salem, while in his twenties, enlisted in Homs’ famous military academy (kulliya harbiya) located in al-Wa’er, where all highranking officers start their careers. While his family originates from a village to the east of Homs, Salem was born in Nuzha and now lives in Wadi al-Dahab, two mainly Alawite neighbourhoods in the southern part of the city. Salem maintains strong links with relatives in the village where he also continues to own land. Salem, who is now in his fifties, is a Colonel (‘aqid) in the army. He enrolled at the military academy hoping to eventually become a high ranking officer. Salem explains that to achieve this goal, he »should work hard and follow the rules«. Salem also explains that joining the army would guarantee a stable income even if he did not attain the desired position. Salem was based in Damascus for about a dozen years before returning to Homs six years ago.
At the time when Salem enrolled as a young man, circumstances would have been difficult given his lack of connections in business and other sectors of the economy. Today, Salem considers joining the army represents a "hard life" and he hopes that his sons will not follow in his footsteps. Salem, however, also realizes the challenges of changing professions.
Vulnerability and Defending the Regime for the Sake of Survival
Salem cites and economic and ideological reasons as motivating factors for remaining in the armed forces. "We depend on the regime economically speaking, but we also depend on it for safety." Since March 2011, he sees his role in the army as a guardian of the homeland (watan) and of civil peace (silm ahli), clarifying that "any attempt to overthrow the regime will render Syria very dangerous." He explains that in late 2010 and early 2011, in the weeks following the initial events in Tunis, he received a message from Damascus, sent to army officers throughout Syria, warning that units may come under attack by Islamist radical groups. At the time, the Colonel took this warning very seriously. Eighteen months later, in the summer of 2012, he declares, "look what is happening now, they were right."
Since March 2011, Salem has stopped wearing his army uniform when traveling between the office and home fearing targeting. He only wears his military uniform when engaging in combat. Salem’s task at the outset of the crisis was to "escort" pro-regime demonstrations. Later, he participated in military incursions to areas held by the "opposition". Echoing the regime’s official rhetoric, the opposition is referred to as "terrorists" and "armed gangs". For a time, Salem was also charged with managing strategic checkpoints in conflict areas, notably Baba Amr when it came under heavy fire. He recalls asking his superiors if he could mobilize the young men of his neighbourhood to assist the army, but his request was declined. "At the time", he explains, "my superiors were not enthusiastic about the idea of having militias directly linked to the army." Here, it should be noted that the regime’s initial strategy was to maintain distinct divisions between the army, the militias and the secret service. However, with the deteriorating situation, the secret service was charged with organizing paramilitary groups which then established a direct link to the army.
The Colonel considers that today it is not just the army which is a target, but "Syria as a whole. The target is Syria’s unity (al-hadaf huwa wahdat Suriya)", he says. In his view, defending what he refers to as the country’s existing unity signifies above all maintaining the status quo as a necessary condition for the safety of Alawites. He describes the situation of Alawites from the hinterland/dakhel: "We are a minority here and the Sunnis want to drive us out." According to him, "the question isn’t about Bashar [al-Assad] as a person, but if he goes, Alawites will be in danger, especially those in and around Homs and more so than those on the coast."For Colonel Salem, the survival of the regime thus represents the survival of Syria’s Alawites, especially for those from the hinterland.
This last point is of particular significance, as it helps to open the "black box" which the Alawite community of the Homs region represents, and it addresses the greater vulnerability they feel when compared with the Alawites from the coast. This sentiment is echoed by Abu Ayman, an Alawite originally from a village of the coastal region who now lives in Homs. Abu Ayman explains that in general he still feels safer on the coast. He also highlights further inequalities amongst the Alawites, in particular from within the army. This divide exists not only between the sahel and the dakhel, where the former rise to higher, more powerful positions, but it also exists between the coastal Alawites themselves. Abu Ayman was previously a Lieutenant Colonel (muqaddam) in the army for twenty years. He explains, "I realised that I couldn’t get a good position because of the existing regionalism among the Alawite sect on the coast." Abu Ayman further notes that "in order to reach a high rank and especially a powerful and influential position in the army, one needs to be from a certain clan." Therefore, even though Abu Ayman originates from the coastal region, where most of the powerful men in the army and the regime originate, his clan affiliation prevents him from rising to a position of influence. After realizing that he could not reach the position he had hoped for, he resigned from the army four years ago. "I quit my position as a Lieutenant Colonel in the army and it was not easy. I needed good connections (wasta) to do so." His resignation was facilitated due to his contacts to persons in positions of power, connections in the business sector, in addition to the fact that Abu Ayman has family living abroad. Like Salem, Abu Ayman attended the Homs military academy and was then based in Damascus. Following his resignation from the army, he settled in the eastern neighbourhood of Akrama in Homs where his wife originates and continued working as a building contractor.
The Alawite Dilemma
In addition to feeling particularly vulnerable compared with their coastal counterparts, after March 2011, the Alawites of Homs began to face the increasingly volatile dilemma of their political stance, namely whether to stand behind the regime, whether to oppose it, or whether to distance themselves from the uprising. The regime took all means necessary to ensure allegiance from the outset, and Abu Ayman regards the Secret Service (Mukhabarat) as essential in that process. According to him, it is they who hold the real power in Homs. "From the very beginning", he says, "the security forces worked worked to mobilize Alawites, especially the young who were out of work. They mobilized them and organized them and sent them to Sunni areas of Homs to lead demonstrations in favor of the regime." According to Abu Ayman, this move complicated relations between the different communities and areas of Homs.
Abu Ayman recounts several incidents that contributed to shaping to shaping the stance of the Alawite community in Homs. He notes, in particular, the killing of Brigadier General Abdu Telawi, his two sons, and a nephew near Zahra in April 2011 at a time of heightened anti-regime demonstrations. The event was highly publicized with the mutilated bodies of the men and the funeral in Wadi al-Dahab widely broadcast on television. Interviews with the general’s daughter and his wife speaking in recognizable Alawite accents also highlighted the family’s sectarian affiliation. This incident is considered a major turning-point for the Alawite community of Homs, as fear and anger dominated the discourse from within the community, ultimately motivating many Alawites to support the side of the regime. Relations with other communities quickly deteriorated with tit-for-tat killings and abductions based on sectarian affiliations multiplying.
Abu Ayman knows many people who have been killed or kidnapped in Homs. He explains that his relations with Sunni business partners gradually ceased, as they were no longer able to travel between neighbourhoods with the rise of sectarian divisions. Or Abu Ayman simply explains, "they just stopped answering my calls."
Both the narratives of Salem and Abu Ayman draw a similar experience which emphasizes distinctions between the Alawites from the hinterlandand those from the coast. In the words of Ghandi, a young agricultural engineering student at the Baath University of Homs, "we are so very far from Qardaha", the Assad family’s village of origin.
Ghandi is from a village close to Maysaf, a town north-west of Homs, near Hama. He relocated to Homs to study and currently lives in the neighbourhood of Zahra. His father is an Alawite religious sheikh (cleric) as well as an officer in the army, while one of his brothers works for the Mukhabarat. Ghandi has never felt safe in "non-Alawite neighborhoods." He states, for example, that "the souk is not ours," and he will not allow his family to leave the natal village because "they are safer there than anywhere else". In his view, the uprising in Syria targets Alawites. "Sunnis want to drive us out to the coast, which is historically where Alawites have always been chased," he states. He explains that this situation long pre-dates the start of the March 2011 uprising. "[Sunnis] already hated us before (...) not all Sunnis, just the Muslim Brotherhood because they want to create an Islamic religious state."
[This report was issued by the Fredrich-Ebert Foundation. Click here to download the full report with maps and footnotes.]