Sunday, August 30, 2015

The current crisis in the light of Alawite history

Leon T. Goldsmith from the Sultan Qaboos Unuversity in Oman is the author of a recently published monograph on the Alawites of Syria (I've ordered already). A worth reading piece by him about the current crisis of the Alawites in the light of history can be found on the publishing house's homepage.

Is Alawite Solidarity Finally Breaking?
by Leon T. Goldsmith
On 8 August 2015 large crowds of Alawites demonstrated in Latakia in western Syria, with many demanding the execution of Suleiman Hilal al-Asad, a relative of Bashar al-Asad who murdered—mafia style—the Alawi Colonel Hassan al-Sheikh during an apparent road rage incident. While the regime ordered the arrest of Suleiman, who at the time of writing remains defiant and at large, this incident reflects rising Alawite discontentment with the narrow Asad clique which has been at the centre of Syrian and Alawi power since 1970. Alawites have paid a heavy price in lives in the struggle to preserve Asad rule, and they have become increasingly frustrated at the inability of the regime to make good on its promises to defeat so-called foreign-backed ‘terrorists’—a blanket term in regime discourse that encapsulates the moderate opposition and more extremist groups. Back in July 2012 the regime rallied its loyal forces for a mass assault on rebels in Aleppo, Syria’s commercial hub, promising that this would be ‘the last battle waged by the Syrian army to crush the terrorists and after that Syria will emerge from the crisis.’ (Al-Watan, Damascus, 26 July 2012) This promise proved hollow and the sect’s frustration was shown in Alawite protests following a brutal massacre of mainly Alawite soldiers by ISIS fighters at Taqba airbase in Raqqa province in August 2014. Alawites protested in Homs after a suicide bomber targeted a school in an Alawite neighbourhood in October 2014 killing around forty-one children.
Nonetheless, four-and-a-half years into the Syrian conflagration Alawite solidarity has largely remained intact in support of the Asad regime. Fear of majoritarian Sunni revanchism—perceived or real—has welded the community to the regime and seemingly intertwined their fates. But while many observers rarely differentiate greatly between the 1000-year-old Shi’a-derived Alawite sect and the fifty-two-year-old Ba’athist regime, the picture is not so simple. To suggest that the conflict is a zero sum game between the opposition groups and the Alawites (alongside other minorities) ignores much of historical reality. History would in fact suggest that a turning point could emerge in the near to medium term where Alawites may look to extricate their interests from those of Bashar al-Asad and his inner core. Rather than a turn to the opposition this would actually reflect a narrowing of Alawite interests and an impulse to activate longstanding pragmatic methods of communal survival. (...)
After giving a historical overview of Alawite survival strategies the author presents his main argument, namely that the Alawites might get rid of Assad to prevent further extential harm to the community.
Since 2012 Alawites have been relocating out of the cities of the Syrian interior and heading for the relative safety of the coast and mountains of north-west Syria. This retreat may prove to be only a temporary reprieve, however. If Bashar al-Asad loses control of Damascus and retreats back to Latakia or the Asad clan’s home village of Qurdaha the various opposition factions, including those extremist groups bent on extinguishing the ‘heretic’ Alawites from Syria, will bear down on the coastal region. For Alawites, their chances of finding a secure place in a new Syria could be enhanced if they sought separate accommodation with the moderate Syrian opposition—including the remaining Free Syrian Army forces in the north and the Southern Front opposition formations in the south—and distanced themselves from Bashar al-Asad similarly to the way that Alawites gave up Ismail Khayr Bey to the Ottomans in the 1850s. Many Alawites have no love for Asad and would be happy to make the transaction. The previously influential Kana’an clan from B’hamra, for example, have never forgiven him for the thinly veiled ‘suicides’ in 2005 of their patriarch Ghazi Kana’an and his brother ‘Ali—Ghazi was found dead in his interior ministry office and Ali on a railway line.
It's a valid point of view but also very optimistic regarding an alternative to Assad i.e. the Free Syrian Army (FSA). The latter has proven to be very weak compared to Islamist militias - especially in the north. In fact in many parts of the country the FSA-allied militias are hardly decisive. Even more important is the fact that so far the FSA has  failed to present itself as a credible alternative and to reach out to the Alawites.

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