Wednesday,15 August, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1206, (17-23 July 2014)
Wednesday,15 August, 2018
Issue 1206, (17-23 July 2014)

Ahram Weekly

Choosing sides

Alawite support for the Al-Assad regime in Syria may be putting the entire community at risk, writes Bassel Oudat in Damascus

Al-Ahram Weekly

The Syrian Alawite community has tended to take the side of the regime led by Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad in the current conflict. Not only do Alawites serve in the top echelons of the Syrian army and police, but civilians from the community have been implicated in some of the worst practices of the irregular militia the regime has formed to shore up its position.

As what started in Syria as a revolt against tyranny turns into a sectarian conflict, the position of the Alawites is becoming more and more untenable, say members of the Syrian opposition.

In its efforts to recruit the Alawites, the regime has tried to convince them that any other government will turn them into second-class citizens. Yet, opposition members recall that the Alawites lived in peace with the rest of the Syrians until Hafez Al-Assad, Bashar’s father, took power in the country some 40 years ago.

It was Hafez Al-Assad who showered privileges on his Alawite clan, buying their loyalty with money and giving them top posts in the administration, while at the same time ultimately putting them in harm’s way.

Since the start of the revolution in Syria, the Alawites have found it hard to remain neutral. Their ties with the regime have become so strong over the years that for many of them there is no turning back.

Two developments have deepened Alawite involvement in the country’s sectarian strife. One has been the contributions made by Alawite societies to pro-regime paramilitary gangs. The other has been the fact that many young Alawites have joined these gangs, thus becoming part of the regime’s killing machine.

Iran has also been instrumental in fomenting sectarian tensions in the country. Since the beginning of the conflict, Tehran has sent hundreds of military experts to Syria and ordered Hizbullah in Lebanon to send its battle-hardened combatants to support the regime. As the war has dragged on, Iran has sent more Shia into the country, among them militiamen from Iraq and Yemen, on the ostensible mission of protecting Shia holy sites.

The foreign Shia fighters sent into Syria have had no doubt in their minds about what kind of war they are fighting. For them, the Syrian war is not a conflict between freedom and despotism, as the revolution intended it to be, but between the Shia supporters of Hussein and the Sunni supporters of Yazid – a reference to a conflict that many thought had ended 13 centuries ago.

Even Iranian, Iraqi and Lebanese officials have confirmed their fanatical zeal, many making public statements to the effect that the Syrian war is one fought between Sunnis on the one side and Shiites on the other.

The Al-Assad regime has promoted this distorted discourse, for without the conflict turning sectarian its chances of survival are minimal. It has only been if the regime can pose as the protector of the Shia community, and particularly of the Alawites, that it can justify its acts.

For Al-Assad, Iran has not just been an ally; it has also been a lifeline. Tehran has felt the same, for without Damascus on its side its presence in Lebanon would be in jeopardy and even its hopes for the domination of Iraq might come to an end.

Louay Safi, spokesman for the opposition National Coalition of Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces (NCSROF), believes that Tehran, not the Al-Assad regime, is now calling the shots in Syria.

“The Syrian regime has destroyed Syrian military power because of its recklessness and lack of care for the Syrian people. In its war against the Syrian people, the regime has been totally reliant on Iranian-backed sectarian militias and Tehran-funded weapons from Russia and Iran,” he said.

“Tehran has spent nearly $12 billion supporting the regime. This regime, which has no plan left but bloodletting, has turned the country into an Iranian protectorate as a result.”

“The alliance between Iran and Al-Assad is not based on national interests or religious values, but on a pact of mutual interests between two repressive regimes. It is in the interest of both Damascus and Tehran to portray the Syrian conflict as a sectarian one,” he added.

According to the opposition, the real power in Syria at present is wielded not by the incumbent president but by Qassem Suleimani, commander of the Al-Quds Force of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard (IRG).

By aligning themselves so closely with the regime, the Alawites are exposing themselves to great risks, for sectarian resentment may last longer than the current regime and its alliances.

Nasser Al-Naqri, an Alawite opposition member, said that the alliance between the regime and the Alawite community was a fragile one. “This alliance is based not on religion but on politics. What we see is not an alliance between the Shia and the Alawites, but between the Iranian Shiites and the regime.”

According to Al-Naqri, Damascus used to ban Shia proselytising in Alawite areas, but this ban has recently been lifted. “Hafez Al-Assad, Bashar’s father, allowed Iran to proselytise in various parts of Syria, but not in the Alawite areas. Iran agreed to such an arrangement for years. It established cultural centres and television programmes and pumped money into the countryside. It turned burial places into Shia sanctuaries. But its proselytising efforts weren’t met with much success,” he said.

“However, what is happening now is different. Bashar has allowed the Iranians to proselytise among the Alawites, and Tehran is planning to build five Shia religious centres in the Alawite areas,” Al-Naqri said.

Unlike the Shia, the Alawites have no clerical authorities. But the Iranians want to change that. “Among the Alawites, there is no councils of clerics. Bashar Al-Assad is now wrecking the tenets of the Alawite people and creating a group of thugs posing as clerics. He has imported mercenary clerics from Hizbullah and Iran. They are the ones who armed the population in Homs and let them loose against the Sunnis,” he added.

According to Al-Naqri, the alliance between Tehran and the Syrian regime is fragile and is likely to end with Al-Assad’s fall. Over the past 14 years, the Syrian president has given a lot of leeway to Iran, allowing it to interfere in Syrian politics. Many Syrian industries, including chemicals, pharmaceuticals, metallurgical industries, cars, power stations and communications networks, are owned by Iranians.

The two countries have also signed dozens of agreements offering Tehran privileges in culture, education, science and construction. In recent years, the Iranians have started creating new universities in Syria and are said to be influencing amendments to the Syrian school curriculum.

For Iran, the current chaos in Syria is merely an opportunity. It was in similar circumstances that Hizbullah appeared in Lebanon, that the Abul Fadl Al-Abbas group appeared in Iraq, and that the Houthis rose to eminence in Yemen, all of them linked to Tehran.

But now that Iran is acutely aware of the impending end of the Al-Assad regime, it is trying to hold the entire Alawite community hostage. Will the Alawites fall into the trap? Or will they distance themselves in a timely fashion from the flagging fortunes of Bashar Al-Assad and his Iranian allies?

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