Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Dissent Among the Alawites

Dissent Among the Alawites: Syria’s Ruling Sect Does Not Speak with One Voice
Considered heretics by many mainstream Sunnis, the Alawites have long been perceived as a solid bloc of support for their co-religionists in the Assad dynasty. Not so now

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.

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.”

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.

Syria defector Manaf Tlas hints at French intelligence aid

Key Syrian defector Gen Manaf Tlas has hinted that French secret agents helped him flee Syria in early July.

He said French "services" had helped him escape but refused to be drawn on how, only thanking the French government.

He warned that if the Damascus regime was subjected to more pressure, it could resort to using chemical weapons.

Gen Tlas was speaking from his refuge in Paris to interviewers from BBC Arabic and French news channel BFMTV.

His defection was seen as a major blow to the Damascus government.

Not only did he command the elite 10th Brigade of the Republican Guard, but his father Mustafa Tlas served as defence minister for 30 years and was a confidant of Hafez al-Assad, the president's father and predecessor.

Gen Tlas has been touted as a potential figurehead for the opposition but many reject him as too deeply compromised, reports the BBC's Arab affairs editor Sebastian Usher.
'Dangerous crossroads'

Gen Tlas would not specify exactly which French organisation had assisted his escape, saying he feared he could endanger those who had helped him.

New UN-Arab League envoy to Syria Lakhdar Brahimi in Cairo on Monday

New UN-Arab League envoy to Syria, Lakhdar Brahimi, admits his task is a daunting one

As well as French groups, Gen Tlas said the Free Syrian Army had helped him escape "from a distance".

He warned the regime - under pressure - could resort to using chemical weapons "in limited areas", adding: "If they used tanks and warplanes against civilians what would keep them from using anything else?"

Syria is at a "dangerous crossroads", Gen Tlas warned, and he urged the international community to "focus all its efforts to draft a real road map to get Syria out of this crisis".
But he said he was "of course against foreign intervention of any shape or form in Syria", saying the Syrian people had to "achieve their own victory" and the international community could only help by "putting a new strategy for the revolution".

The question of foreign intervention has divided the UN over Syria, with Russia and China refusing to back UN sanctions against their ally.

The new UN-Arab League envoy to Syria, Lakhdar Brahimi, began his first mission on Monday with a visit to Cairo, and is due to visit Damascus in the coming days. But he has acknowledged the difficulty of the mission which defeated his predecessor, Kofi Annan.
Gen Tlas suggested that his "defection" from the government had begun long before he physically fled his country when he withdrew to his office, alienated by the authorities' violent response to protests.
"On the third month of the revolution, I defected from the regime," he said.

"I met demonstrators and rebels, listened to their demands and felt that the regime is not willing to change.

"I felt that the regime was lying to the rebels and was searching for shortcuts. I withdrew to my office, did not listen to anyone and decided to defect and help the rebels."
Conference proposal

Gen Tlas said many of the rebels he had met had been "imprisoned, murdered or tortured as a result of making real humanitarian demands".

He urged his former friend, President Bashar al-Assad, to give up power not just for Syria's sake, but for that of his family.

On Monday, it emerged that Russia was proposing organising a conference bringing together "all the players" of the deadly Syria conflict, including opposition groups, ordinary citizens and the ruling regime.

In an interview scheduled to be published by leading French daily Le Figaro on Wednesday, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov reportedly said the conference would be organised along the lines of the Taif conference that ended Lebanon's civil war in 1990.

According to the UN, more than 18,000 people have been killed since the conflict began in March 2011. Activists put the death toll at 23,000.

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