Controversy was stirred on April 3, when the BBC published an article entitled “Syrian Alawites distance themselves from Assad”, that left many Syrian intellectuals and political dissidents questioning on Facebook whether the statement referred to in the news was actually written by Alawi leaders. They also wondered what effect this statement will have on the course of events in Syria, since the Alawi sect is often referred to as being pro-regime.
Germany-based Kurdish journalist Ahmad Hissou wrote: “The German newspaper, Welt am Sonntag, described them (the Alawi leaders) as the most dangerous “opposition party” against Asad. Will this initiative see the light of day and turn into a group that will shake Asad’s throne? It depends on the seriousness of the initiative and how our longstanding opposition accepts it.”
Who stands behind it?
The first of many questions raised by the statement is who penned it. There are no names attributed to the declaration, with the news saying it was released by “leaders of the Alawi sect”.
This brought the authenticity of the statement in question, with some attributing it to the “con artists of the Syrian opposition, who follow the (Islamic Sunni) madhhab (school of thought) [sic] of the Qatari Emir and Ottoman Sultan (Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan), who released the statement on behalf of the Alawites,” as secular-minded Alawi journalist Nizar Nayouf wrote. “The Wahhabist media deliberately published the statement under the title of ʻAlawites reject Bashar al-Asadʼ though it makes no mention of Bashar al-Asad. This confirms that the media operations of the Gulf are all the same,” continued Paris-based Nayouf, who was sentenced to ten years in prison in Syria in 1992 for disseminating “false information”.
Others, however, felt that the omission of names is normal, to protect those whose families may still be in Syria. This was not convincing to many though, as the lack of names is the first reason this news lost credibility. Indeed, doubt was cast on the ability to verify the leverage of the “leaders” with the Alawi community and in the public domain, especially since it is common knowledge that the regime prevents the formation of any organized opposition within the Alawi sect.
Individual members of the sect have become opposition figures, and they have paid a heavy price for it like Louay Hussein, who escaped to Spain in April 2015, before the end of his trial for “weakening national sentiment and the morale of the nation”. Hussein contends the statement is a fabrication. “The 8-page BBC report does not mention the names of any of the leaders, though the journalist claims to have been in contact with two of them. The report also did not publish the statement; as such, it is not based on honesty or accuracy,” he wrote.
Hussein, whose Building the Syrian State (BSS) movement has recently withdrawn from the Saudi-backed High Negotiations Committee (HNC), has also disputed the authenticity of the statement by stressing that Alawites have no option left but to support the regime against Sunni radical militants. “I have doubts about this report being released at this time, when extremist armed groups are calling for the extermination of the Alawi sect. This means that the options for the Alawi sect are non-existent and are limited to supporting the regime. In addition, the shabiha (pro-government militiamen) crush any Alawite against the regime. I think that this news is fabricated, in an attempt to undermine Bashar al-Asad in the midst of various military and political victories,” wrote the BSS leader.
This opinion was responded to by a Syrian citizen called Ahmad Talab an-Naser, who wrote that Louay Hussein’s statement is “what makes the Alawites threatened by extremists and shabiha” by fostering the notion that “the Alawites are with Hussein’s buddy (the regime) because of its victories.” This resulted in a fruitless debate between Louay and the readers on his Facebook page about sectarianism and secularism, and how Alawites can stay with the regime or possibly abandon it.
Because the declaration addressed the Syrian opposition, which represents the Sunni population to a certain extent, others expressed that there should be a reaction besides the skepticism from some or the cautious welcome from others. This was noted by Palestinian Syrian dissident writer Jamal Subh: “The truth is this movement comes a little late, but it is an important one to stop the grinder that the ʻAlawi State organization [a wordplay drawing a comparison with the Islamic State (IS) organization]ʼ has undertaken for the House of Asad. The opposition should connect with the (Alawi) group to determine the truth. If the intentions of these ʻrepresentativesʼ of the Alawi community is to stop this holocaust then we must welcome this initiative, and this is the best way to stop the war and to reconsider the status of Alawites, who for the past 50 years have been seen as an authority above all.”
However, this raises another important point, according to Subh: “How would anyone communicate with them, if they do not release their names?”
As for the supporters of the Syrian regime, they almost ignored the statement, refraining from posting any noteworthy comment on their social networks.
In theory, the statement may be a real one issued by members of Alawi community in secrecy in order to protect themselves and their families. It would not be the first time that such a statement was released; Alawi intellectuals and activists have previously released a declaration rejecting the link between the Alawi community and the regime, clearly calling for its overthrow.
The issue is not here, however. The issue lies in the extent that such a statement is able to influence reality. The Asad regime has virtually stripped the Alawi community of any leadership and sources of power, with no religious, social or tribal authority that can play an effective role. And this was confirmed by journalist Emad Ghalioun, who recalled a question he posed to the late Alawi dissident Wahid Saqr in 2012: “I asked him: ‘Is it possible to guarantee the defection of clerics and community leaders to the revolution or at least to see them distance themselves from the regime?’ He replied: ‘It would be impossible for something like this to happen. The regime controls the Alawi Council and makes it difficult for any to distance themselves from the regime.’ Yes, one cannot expect any expression of opinion from the leaders of the community, especially at this existential time which may determine their future and the future of Syria. What has happened these past five years is the bonding of the regime with the Alawi sect, and this cannot be undone now.”
Foreign actors are therefore more likely to have played a role in issuing this statement, especially since it focuses on the fact that Alawites are not Shi’a, which within the current frame of conflict between Iran and Saudi Arabia seems to be an attempt to offer an alternative to Alawites than sticking to Iran.
* Several authors contributed to this featured article.