The Alawites emerged in the 9th century. Led by Muhammad ibn Nusayr, they broke with the Shi‘ites, who now form majorities in Bahrain, Lebanon and Iran, embracing doctrines that remain largely obscure to this day. For centuries the Alawites were marginalized, deemed heretics by the larger Islamic community. To avoid persecution, they established villages in the remote mountain chains of Lebanon, Syria and Turkey, far from the coastal areas and plains dominated by Sunnis. When the French moved to give Syria independence, some Alawites agitated for their own state — in vain. However, in 1963, Hafez Assad, an Alawite, along with two other military officers, brought the sect to power in Syria.
The Alawites, also known as the Alawis, appeared to coalesce around the new regime, which promoted members of the sect to positions of influence and power in the government and, more importantly, the military. When Hafez Assad died in 2000, his son Bashar Assad succeeded him as President. Since March 2011, Bashar Assad has been trying to suppress an uprising that has become a civil war. For the most part, his fellow Alawites have stuck by him in the increasingly bloody fighting. But not all.
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Sect members are increasingly breaking rank, as defections swell along with mounting uneasiness about the government’s crackdown against what started as a peaceful protest movement.
Captain Umar in Syria is a rebel fighter and an Alawite, and he considers Assad a “butcher.” The officer no longer believes the regime’s propaganda and says he abandoned his unit after the government began shelling civilian neighborhoods in his hometown. But Umar says it is Assad who is injecting the conflict with a sectarian hue. “Bashar is telling us the Sunnis will slaughter us,” he says via Skype from Syria. “He is scaring Alawis and pushing them to the edge. This is why the army is killing the people in the street. They are scared the Sunnis will massacre us.”
Umar says that it was the military’s daily shelling of civilian areas that pushed him to defect. “I just couldn’t see Syrians dying anymore.” He refuses to reveal how many Alawite officers have defected, but he does say the “number is significant.”
Others with ties to the security forces have also turned their back on the Alawite leadership. Luban Mrai’s father is a senior leader in the paramilitary organization known as the shabiha that targets civilians. She recently left the country after experiencing “serious moral and ethical dilemmas” stemming from the targeting of civilians. Today she resides in Istanbul, trying to mobilize support for the rebels. “The regime is using our religion for political ends,” she explains in a phone conversation. “Alawis are killing Syrians for no reason. This is wrong.”
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Leading Alawite intellectuals have abandoned the regime as well. Rasha Omran is one of Syria’s better-known poets and has been invited to read her poetry at literature festivals throughout Europe. Since the beginning of the uprising, she has lent her voice and pen to the cause. Omran announced her support of the revolution within days of its eruption on her Facebook page. She marched in protests and spoke out against Assad. “This is a dictatorial regime,” she said in a phone call from Egypt. “How can I support a government that kills its citizens?”
Omran sees herself as a Syrian rather than as an Alawite. She emphasizes that the country is composed of a number of minorities whose identity is shaped by the larger Syrian state. She believes Assad and his inner circle are destroying this delicate mosaic by stirring up ethnic hatreds. “We are all Syrians. But Assad is working to demolish our country.”
Omran wanted to support the revolution by remaining in Syria. But her vocal protests embarrassed a regime trying to project sectarian unity. Because she belongs to a respected Alawite family, the government risked an Alawite backlash if it arrested her. Instead, she says, intelligence agents pressured her to leave the country in a series of visits to her house. She finally left Syria at the beginning of the year.