Syria’s Minority Alawites Cling to Assad, Hope for Peace

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A Syrian army soldier walks on a street in the Jobar neighborhood of Damascus, Syria, Aug. 24, 2013.

As far as Abu Khader is concerned, Syrian President Bashar Assad is a “thief” who is leading Syria “to hell.” That doesn’t mean he will stop fighting for the regime. As an Alawite soldier serving in the Republican Guard, Abu Khader feels that he must keep fighting for Assad, a member of the same religious minority, in order to preserve his sect’s very existence in a country dominated by Sunni Muslims. He blames Assad for leading Alawites into a sectarian war but sees no alternative to supporting the President. Assad, says Abu Khader, “got us into this war to keep his authority. But as Alawites, we are forced to fight, because the opposition is all Sunnis, and they want to kill us all.”

As U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry lobbies in Europe this week to bring Syria’s squabbling opposition groups, and their equally fractious international supporters, to peace negotiations in Geneva slated for the end of November, he may be overlooking one key interest group: an Alawite population that does not necessarily embrace Assad but is terrified by the prospect of a Syria without him. Assad, who sees himself in the ascendency, refuses to negotiate with “terrorists,” his term for the armed opposition. The opposition, for its part, is divided over whether Assad should have any role at all, either in negotiations or in a proposed transitional government. About the only group eager for negotiations is Alawites who want to see the war end. Geneva is the best chance for peace, says Abu Khader: “We can continue our lives together if we forget the religious and political differences.” He agrees that it won’t be easy, especially after two and a half years of fighting. “The Sunnis will not lay down their weapons so easily after we killed a lot of them and destroyed their homes,” he says. But the only alternative is continued war. If the warring camps can’t make it to the negotiating table in November, Syria’s bloody stalemate is likely to flare into a regional conflagration as rival backers — Saudi Arabia, the Gulf states and Turkey on the opposition side; Iran and the powerful Lebanese militia Hizballah with the regime — seek to force their preferred outcome by backing local proxies. Alawites fear that whatever happens, they are likely to lose the most.

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Alawites account for about 12% of Syria’s population, but they have a disproportionate representation in Syria’s security apparatus, government and military leadership, the legacy of an Assad family rule that has lasted more than 40 years. That has forced many Alawites, who didn’t necessarily support Assad, to bear the brunt of the largely Sunni opposition’s sectarian-tinged wrath. The opposition’s political and military leadership, based in Turkey, may refrain from using sectarian terms to describe the war, but rebel fighters on the ground, speaking to TIME via Skype, routinely refer to Alawite soldiers fighting for Assad as “infidels,” “apostates” and “dogs” destined for “extermination.” It’s no wonder that soldiers like Abu Khader, who spoke to TIME in the Alawite enclave of Tartous, on the Mediterranean coast, see the war in existential terms. Abu Tariq, another soldier on home leave in Tartous, is adamant that he does not fight in defense of Assad, but for the defense of the Alawite sect. “I know that Assad is a thief [who] rules this country by force not by justice, but to abandon him means abandoning ourselves because he is the only one who is capable to lead us in this war.” Like Abu Khader, Abu Tariq spoke to TIME on condition that only his nickname be used, in order to protect his family.

Abu Khader and Abu Tariq agree that Assad has made their lives worse, first with his authoritarian rule, and then by bringing his co-religionists into what has devolved into a sectarian war. Despite their disgust, they say Assad’s departure cannot be a precondition to negotiations. If Assad is not allowed to be part of the transition, they see little assurance that their own rights as a minority will be protected, not just from Sunnis seeking revenge, but also from the greater threat of al-Qaeda-affiliated groups among the opposition ranks. Neither feels that the opposition leadership has done enough to guarantee the safety of Alawites in a Syria without Assad. Until then, they will keep fighting for a man they loathe.

— With reporting by a special correspondent in Tartous, Syria

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