October 31, 2005

DIVIDE AND CONQUER:

Death of Syrian Minister Leaves A Sect Adrift in Time of Strife (Anthony Shadid, 10/31/05, Washington Post)

These are difficult days for Syria's Alawites, and in their sentiments may be hints of the vulnerability of Assad's government as it faces a crisis over the U.N. investigation. In villages like Bihamra, across forbidding mountains that spring from the Mediterranean coast, there is deep anxiety that in a time of strife, Alawites will bear the brunt of vendettas dating to the decades when they provided the leadership of the government, military and feared security services.

That apprehension comes as frustration surges that the very state they are tied to has abandoned them. The military that ended their historic marginalization is neglected and disrespected, some of their villages remain without running water and, many say, the government, despite its Alawite cast, no longer defends them.

"It's like people don't know we live in the country," said Kharfan Khazin Ahmed, a 61-year-old retired government employee from the Alawite village of Qarir. "Every person sitting in the chair of power cares about money, not about the people."
Rise to the Top

Alawites are a small but pivotal community in Syria's tapestry of sect and ethnicity. Syria is predominantly Arab, with a Kurdish minority in the northeast. But among the Arabs are many Muslim sects: Sunni Muslims are the majority, along with minorities of Alawis, Druze and Ismailis, all of whom trace their origins back to Shiite Islam. The Alawites are the largest of those religious minorities, representing probably about 12 percent of Syria's 18 million people. They are centered in the region around Bihamra.

For centuries, Alawites faced withering discrimination, in part over the suspicions generated by their secretive, loosely Shiite religious traditions. Their secluded mountain villages are a relic of that ostracism, and they were some of the poorest, least educated and most rural of Syria's inhabitants. As with other religious minorities in the Middle East, many Alawites turned to the Baath Party, drawn to its pan-Arab, leftist and secular ideology, hoping it might dilute Syria's Sunni dominance and provide a more inclusive notion of identity. To escape grinding poverty, they joined the military, soon filling the ranks of its senior officer corps. In modern Syria, those two institutions -- party and military -- have ruled for 35 years.

Assad is an Alawite, and during the presidency of his father and predecessor, Hafez Assad, the sect emerged from behind the scenes to command the government's most sensitive positions in the military and security services. While the elder Assad was careful to give a Sunni face to portfolios such as the defense and foreign ministries and to forge alliances with other groups, his inner circle was drawn from his own community, often his own Qalbiyya tribe and family. In that sense, he was not only Syria's strongman, but also the leader of his sect, responsible for its fortunes.

"You will remain eternal in our hearts forever," reads a billboard with the elder Assad's portrait at the entrance to Qurdaha, his home town, about a mile along a winding road of ancient, rounded hills from Kanaan's village of Bihamra.

Under the younger Assad, to a remarkable degree, the circle of Alawite dominance has narrowed to his family. Gone are some of the sect's most powerful men -- former intelligence chiefs such as Ali Duba and Mohammed Khouli, for instance. Kanaan, Syria's point man in Lebanon for two decades and later the interior minister, was one of the last and most prominent. A product of the feared Mukhabarat, or Syrian intelligence, his reputation in much of the country was of a fearsome, hard man; in Bihamra, it was of a charitable one.

"He helped everyone in the village," said a doctor who spoke on condition of anonymity. "He was like a father for this entire place. Any help you needed as a citizen, you could go to him. His door was open to both the poor and princes."

The doctor, Kanaan's relative and others sat in the courtyard of his stucco, red-roofed villa on a cool morning. They snacked on bananas and apples, drank coffee and smoked cigarettes, ignoring the dawn-to-dusk fast of the holy month of Ramadan. The Alawite region is one of Syria's most secular, reflecting the imprint of a Baath Party that saw tribe and religion as barriers to modernization. The veil is hardly seen; missing are the most conservative Arab traditions that discourage interaction between men and women.

Bihamra itself shows the legacy of Kanaan's power and influence: He provided money to build the Jaafar Tayar mosque, opened a library with seven computers and built a community center named for his father, Mohammed Ali. While in Lebanon, he visited every month or two. On his return to Damascus in 2002, he visited at least once every two weeks, more often for funerals. As a young man, the story goes, in one of the myths that can overshadow life's excesses, he gave part of his first lieutenant's salary to villagers.

"The difference is that he would help someone and expect nothing in return," his relative said.

"They're going to feel the emptiness," he added.

Two weeks after his body was found, Kanaan's death remains the talk of Damascus. Most often heard is speculation that he faced disgrace on corruption charges and chose suicide instead. But many speculate that he represented one of the few potential rivals to Bashar Assad, giving rise to a slew of conspiracy theories: that he was forced to kill himself or that he was murdered, possibly poisoned. One well-informed Syrian said that the day after Kanaan died, all the coffee cups from his Interior Ministry office were seized to conceal evidence of foul play.

"They committed his suicide," said a Syrian dissident, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

The talk in Bihamra, though, is more visceral and perhaps more telling. In the repercussions of Kanaan's death lies a truth about Syria and its government today: The younger Assad is viewed as less ta'ifi , or sectarian. His outlook is ostensibly more modern, possibly reformist; bucking tradition, he took for his wife a Sunni, not an Alawite. But as he struggles to put a more contemporary veneer on his rule, he faces a society still suffering deep cleavages that reflect unresolved questions of identity. The Baath Party offered one answer: The country is Arab. But other identities still compete -- Alawi, Sunni, Christian and so on -- in a zero-sum game of communal survival.

And in that question of survival, villagers say, Alawites lost one of their last, most prominent defenders in Kanaan. In his place, some Alawites say, is a government that cares about the military only to ensure it doesn't rebel; a ruling family most worried about its survival; and a state that promotes not the sect's interest, but networks bound by patronage and power that are growing richer. Even some Alawite intelligence officials are said to be disenchanted over the higher profile of Assad's family at their expense.


If Alawites desert Assad he's a minority of one.

Posted by Orrin Judd at October 31, 2005 8:30 AM
Comments

Well, a minority of six. With Kanaan out, he's now got his brothers and brothers-in-law in all the key positions. They only fight each other occasionally.

Posted by: pj at October 31, 2005 9:16 AM

This is good. Reacting to the external pressure the leadership contracts and consolidates around a smaller circle, increasing its isolation from the rest of Syrian society. How long before the outcasts realize "we are many, they are few" and force a change? Yes, very good...

Posted by: Luciferous at October 31, 2005 12:43 PM

The Shah always falls.

Posted by: Mikey at October 31, 2005 12:54 PM

so does the Carter :)

Posted by: anon at November 1, 2005 12:03 PM
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