Assad's Alawites: The guardians of the throne
Syria's Alawite community have a history of persecution, but dominate the ruling family's security forces.
Nir Rosen Last Modified: 10 Oct 2011 17:49
As we left the central Syrian city of Homs, Abu Laith pulled a 9mm Llama pistol from under his shirt, loaded it and placed it in the gap between our seats. He was a sergeant in Syria's State Security and drove a small Chinese-made taxi to avoid the attention of armed men looking for members of the security forces. Heading north to his village of Rabia, in Hama, we passed shops covered in gashes from gunfire.
"There was a sniper here," he said at one point on the road. "He shot six military buses." We drove by a Military Security building that had been attacked by armed opposition fighters.
"Here was a statue of the late President Hafez," he pointed at a now empty pedestal. Visibly offended, he added: "They took it down and put a live donkey there instead."
Abu Laith belongs to the Alawite sect who make up about ten per cent of Syria's population. Sunni Arabs comprise 65 per cent, while Sunni Kurds and Christians constitute ten per cent each. Druze, Shia, Ismailis and others make up the remainder. Since the Baathists seized power in Syria, sectarianism has been taboo, ever-present but unspoken of, with perpetrators of incitement harshly punished.
Prejudice in all its forms - racism, sexism, sectarianism - exist in all societies, but, in times of crisis, collective identity often comes to dominate social relations. Identity is complex and membership of ethno-religious sects is only one part of Syrian identity.
Social class, profession, nationalism, regional identities and other factors are all very important. But one is born into a sect and few but the wealthy elite transcend these classifications, typically revealed by one's name and place of birth. As in the Balkans, religious identities are often cultural identities and lead to ethnic-like divisions, even within same-language groups.
A history of persecution
In the Arab world, the Sunnis exercise a hegemony which has often made minority sects feel insecure. Shia and heterodox sects - such as the Alawites - have been persecuted.
Little is known about the history of the Alawite faith - even among the Alawite community - as its beliefs and practices are available only to the initiated few. It bears little resemblance to mainstream doctrines of Islam and involves belief in transmigration of the soul, reincarnation, the divinity of Ali ibn Abi Talib - the fourth Caliph and a cousin of Prophet Muhamad - and a holy trinity comprising Ali, Muhamad and one of the prophet's companions, Salman al Farisi.
A common theme to Alawite identity is a fear of Sunni hegemony, based on a history of persecution that only ended with the demise of the Ottoman empire. Sunni cultural hegemony, however, remains.
Beginning in the 1960s, the Syrian regime encouraged mainly Alawite peasants to migrate from the mountain regions to the plains, giving them ownership of lands that had belonged to a mainly Sunni elite.
But since the beginning of this year's uprising, some have sent their families back to rural areas for safety. Yahya al Ahmad, an Alawite doctor in Homs told me that his community were resented for migrating and finding work in the government and industry. "Sunnis say we took their jobs and should go back to the countryside," he said.
An Alawite friend told me he was outraged after seeing Sunni demonstrators in Latakia on television, chanting that they would send President Bashar "back to the farm". To him it meant that Sunnis wanted Alawites to go back to their villages.
"The lot of the 'Alawis was never enviable," wrote historian Hanna Batatu. "Under the Ottomans they were abused, reviled and ground down by exactions and, on occasions, their women and children led into captivity and disposed of by sale."
Empowerment and identity loss
The French mandate that replaced the Ottoman empire empowered minorities and weakened the older Sunni elite, while Alawites begged the French to grant them a separate state.
Minorities, especially Alawites, later saw the ruling Baath party and its pan-Arab ideology as a way to transcend narrow sectarian identities, while state employment and the military offered opportunities for social advancement and an escape from poverty.
In 1955, the majority of the military's non commissioned officers were Alawites, and early on, the party's Military Committee was also controlled by Alawites. They determined who went to the military academies, choosing people from social backgrounds they trusted - most often Alawites or rural Sunnis, encouraging loyal allies into the more powerful praetorian units.
In 1970, Hafez al-Assad, the Alawite minister of defence and a former military officer, seized power. He empowered close friends and relatives, including many Alawites from his home region of Latakia - though he also promoted some Sunni War College colleagues.
With Alawites gravitating towards government employment, combined with Assad's nepotism, the sect became over-represented within state institutions.
The state - even "Assadism" - supplanted the Alawite religion as the focus of their identity.
While Alawites identify as Muslims they have historically been rejected by mainstream Islam. To be accepted as leader, Assad had to persuade Sunnis and Alawites alike that Alawites were, in fact, mainstream Muslims. While Alawites have a powerful communal identity and still visit mazars, or shrines, and will have an Alawite sheikh at funerals and weddings, they do not necessarily know what it all means.
Wiped from the text books
Joshua Landis, director of the University of Oklahoma's Center for Middle East Studies, revealed that Alawites do not receive education about their own religion. Syrian school books on religion contain no mention of the word "Alawite".
"Islamic education in Syrian schools is traditional, rigid, and Sunni," he wrote. "The Ministry of Education makes no attempt to inculcate notions of tolerance or respect for religious traditions other than Sunni Islam." Christianity, noted Landis, was an exception to this.
The regime denied any public space for Alawites to practice their religion. They did not recognise any Alawite council that could provide religious rulings. This could have been a tool to clarify the Alawite religion to other sects and religions and to reduce suspicions over what many Syrians perceive as a mysterious faith.
Alawites struck a bargain; they lost their independence and had to accept the myth that they were "good Muslims" so as to win Sunni acceptance. Assadism then filled the gap left by the negation of traditional Alawite identity. The loss of the traditional role of community leaders fragmented Alawites, preventing them from establishing unified positions and from engaging as a community with other Syrian sects - reinforcing sectarian fears and distrust.
Without a central authority to represent them, Alawites were unable to engage and develop their teachings. Of Syria's sects, Alawites boast the largest number of cross-denominational marriages, and are the most integrated with other sects, in both personal and business relationships.
It's hard to say what makes someone an Alawite, except for being born an Alawite. Alawites only socialise as Alawites in mazars, in the security services and within state institutions.
With an identity based on Assad's rule, they have adopted slogans such as "Assad for ever", unable to separate themselves from the regime or imagine a Syria without Assad. Alawites who dare to oppose the regime believe they will face extra punishment for their "betrayal".
The Muslim Brotherhood rebellion which began in 1976 and led to a civil war between 1979 and 1982 determined how many Alawites see the current uprising. The Brotherhood attempted to rally the Sunnis into a sectarian struggle. Many Alawite intellectuals, judges and doctors were assassinated. The massacre of Alawite officer candidates in the Aleppo military academy in 1979 - as well as the assassination of Alawite Sheikh Yusuf Sarem - remain fresh in the community memory.
The Sunni majority, meanwhile, remember the brutality with which the Brotherhood's armed uprising was crushed. The Brotherhood was destroyed within Syria and remains largely absent from the current uprising, even if most of today's protesters are conservative Sunnis. This year's is also a popular and leaderless uprising, especially of the poor, unlike the Brotherhood's rebellion. While the Brotherhood lost much of its credibility after that crackdown, it remains influential in the diaspora-based opposition, which encourages Alawite fears.
The historian Hanna Batatu wrote in 1981: "Working for cohesion at the present juncture is the strong fear among Alawis of every rank that dire consequences for all Alawis could ensue from an overthrow or collapse of the existing regime."
Alawites perceive themselves to be more "liberal" and secular than mainstream Muslims. They point to their consumption of alcohol, the freer interaction between their men and women and the more western way their women dress and behave.
They also resent untrue rumours spread by the Sunni majority - inferring, for example, that their religious practices include orgies - as much as they resent hearing that Syria is an Alawite regime or that they benefit from it. In fact, Alawites support the Assad family itself more than they support the regime, readily criticising state corruption.
Denied the right to mobilise as Alawites, they look to the ruling family for leadership. But the regime does not act to further Alawite interests, it acts primarily to further its own interests.
The opposition has failed to articulate a vision for what will happen to the tens of thousands of Alawites in the security forces and the state. The demise of the regime will directly affect nearly every Alawite family. But some in the opposition, most importantly the firebrand sheikh Adnan al Arur, have called for those who actively support the regime to be punished in the future.
The Alawite blogger Karfan wrote: "By erasing all sort of religious identity while making sure that Alawies will not find another one elsewhere, Alawies were simply transformed into a sort of tribe, unified around one purpose: Keeping the king in power."
"A couple of tribes that does not have any real religious conviction or ideology but are held together by the fear of the others and the fear of revenge by the others for the regime's deeds. Meanwhile, everyone around them keeps labelling [it] an "Alawie Regime" and keeps throwing all the faults that this regime did on the Alawies' shoulders. We will be doomed to carry the burden of the faults of the same people who destroyed our religion and destroyed any religious identity we might have had."
When Hafez al-Assad took power, he eased the Baath Party's secularisation, attempting to reconcile Alawites with Sunni religious practices. He also proceeded to emasculate the Baath Party, turning it into the Assad Party. Alawite solidarity and the support of some rich Sunni families bound the regime together. And as the Baath Party, unions and syndicates were weakened, conservative Sunni Islam filled the social vacuum, with Islamic charities allowed to play a growing role. Sunni clerics were also given more freedom - which first increased the regime's base of support, but now fuels divisions between Sunni groups and the Alawite-dominated security services.
Iraq's Saddam Hussein "Islamised" his Baath party to legitimise his rule, but the Alawite Assad family appear to fear fear giving a democratic opening to the Sunni majority will cause the entire system to collapse. The weakness of the Baath party also means the regime cannot mobilise people around anything but Bashar al-Assad, who took power following his father's death in 2000.
It is easy to tell if you're in an Alawite area in Syria these days. It will be the place where every available space is festooned with pictures of President Bashar, his brother Maher or their father Hafez. It is a cult of personality, with walls bearing the graffiti: "Assad forever," while men zip back and forth on motorcycles, all wearing t-shirts bearing Bashar's portrait.
An Alawite accent can help get you through a military checkpoint. The taxi driver who took me to the Damascus suburb of Duma - an opposition stronghold - was an Alawite from Latakia. He spoke to the officers at the checkpoint in an Alawite accent and told them I was Lebanese. They waved us in without looking at my identity card. Leaving the town later, however, without the protection of the Alawite cabbie, I was stopped and removed from the car.
Back in Hama governorate, Abu Laith was worried about checkpoints staffed by the opposition. He was acutely aware of the cultural identity of each of the surrounding villages, as he turned off the main road to avoid the restive Sunni city of Hama. We passed the poor Alawite village of Alamein, near Tumin. "Tumin is a Christian village," he said, "Christians here are trustworthy. Tumin is rich and the people are very good."
We picked up a hitchhiker heading to Rabia. The traveller was a soldier returning from duty. "We don't have any jobs but that," Abu Laith said. The soldier was relieved when he saw Abu Laith. He was afraid to stand on the road he said, "afraid of terrorists". He wore civilian clothes. "Because they'll slaughter me," he explained. He was hostile to all Sunnis, blaming them for the brutality with which soldiers had been killed. Abu Laith was uncomfortable. "Not all of them are like that," he admonished.
Public buses now went through Rabia to avoid the "less secure" Sunni villages. Large stone barriers blocked the entrance to Rabia. We slowed down by three men with shotguns and belts full of rounds until they recognised Abu Laith. We passed more men patrolling on motorcycles with rifles slung on their shoulders, and drove to the town cemetery. Up to one thousand people were attending the funeral of a soldier named Naeem Tarif, who was killed in Hama. Many mourners carried rifles. Some children carried pictures of the president.
The western road leading out of town was also blocked by rocks and a checkpoint. Several men with rifles sat in a small wooden shack. On one side of the shack was written: "God, Syria, Bashar and that's it."
Many of Rabia's roads were unpaved. In the centre of town was a shiny copper colored statue of former president Hafez al-Assad holding a sword in one hand and an olive branch in the other. The townspeople put it up at their own expense one month earlier, Abu Laith told me.
"Rabia has only schools, no playgrounds or anything else," Abu Laith complained. He took me to his father's house, where his six-year-old son greeted me by asking directly: "Are you with us or with them?"
"Who are you with?" his father asked him. "I am with Syria," the boy replied.
Security men such as Abu Laith were busier than usual and rarely got to see their families. He had four brothers in the security forces and one who was unemployed. "Most men here are in the security forces," Abu Laith explained. "But we have very few officers. They don't let us be officers."
As of that day in August, Rabia had ten "martyrs" from the security forces and up to fifteen others had been wounded in battles with armed opposition fighters. Two more security officers from Rabia, both sergeants, were killed days later.
We visited the family of Naeem Tarif, the man whose funeral we had observed earlier, at a tent outside their home. Tarif was a 40-year-old sergeant in the army, a 20-year veteran. He had been killed in Hama one week earlier but his body was not found until the day I arrived. His head was cut off and his body burned, his brother Adil told me. Videos of armed men disposing of his body were found on captured mobile phones and shown on television and online.
"We feel afraid," one nephew told me. "The whole village is ready to be martyrs for the country," proclaimed another. They worried about armed groups, they said. "They were here before as sleeper cells," said one relative. All were angry at international media for failing to report what was happening to them.
I met with the family of Issa Bakir, an 11-year veteran police sergeant serving in Aleppo. After visiting his family in Rabia on July 5, Issa was driving back to Aleppo via Hama. On the outskirts of Hama he was stopped at a checkpoint. He was hit on the head with a club and his throat was then slit. "They stopped him, burned his car, slaughtered him and we found him next to the mosque," his father told me. Bakir's brother worked with him in the Aleppo police but now drove to work via Latakia to circumvent Hama. "They killed him for being Alawite," his father said. " My sons and I are a sacrifice for the homeland. We don't have sectarianism. Before, our relations [with the Sunni] were normal." The state was responsible for seeking justice for his son, he told me. "We don't want revenge," he said. "So there wont be sectarianism in Syria."
Not far away lived Muhamad Khazem, a 46-year-old State Security sergeant, a large and heavy man lying injured on a bed. He showed me where a bullet entered just below his throat and exited from his back one week earlier. He and several dozen other security men had gone out to remove opposition roadblocks in the city when he and two others were shot. "It's al-Qaeda," his brother claimed. "I fought in the 1973 war. If the Israelis wounded a Syrian they would take him to the hospital, and if they killed him they would bury him properly. Israelis have more mercy than them, they are savages."
Rabia bordered two Sunni villages - Tizeen and Kifr Tun. Rabia's electricity came from Tizeen and locals claimed its Sunni residents had recently cut the power supply. They also blamed the people of Tizeen for killing two Alawite men six days earlier. Several days earlier a military bus going through Tizeen was shot at, they said.
Alawites in Rabia said that the Sunni villages of Mitneen, Arzi and Kifr Tun had expelled Alawite families - and Rabia had welcomed the newly displaced people. Farmer Hamid Diab and his eight children were among the thirty families expelled from Kifr Tun where they had lived since 1959. Alawites in Kifr Tun had received threats, he said.
"We will slaughter you," people warned them. One week earlier, armed men attacked in the morning. "They burned tires and shot to scare us," he said. "Some Sunnis were good and did not accept this. It was a Sunni man who helped us get out. We told good Sunnis that we want to leave. Bad Sunnis said if you sleep here tonight we will slaughter you." He claimed that one of the attackers was a bedouin who called himself Dabih al Thawra, or "Slaughterer of the Revolution".
The people of Rabia welcomed them, he told me. But they left all their belongings in Kifr Tun. Now they could not access their farm and orchards. There had been no problems before the uprising, he said, and his children had gone to school with Sunni children. He suspected the hatred had been hidden before.
"It was the people of the village who attacked us," he said. "They had demonstrations starting in Ramadan and they sent salutations to Bandar and Arur," he said, referring to the powerful Saudi prince Bandar bin Sultan and to the exiled firebrand Syrian sheikh Adnan al Arur. "They all love Arur there and when he is on they turn up the volume and we could hear it in our house."
Hamid told me that on the same day villagers from Kifr Tun attacked an Alawite man from the village of Addas when he was passing through on his motorcycle, pouring benzine him. He was set on fire but other locals saved him.
There were no security forces in these villages, the men told me. There was one police station in the Alawite village of Jarjara which had jurisdiction over the many villages of the area. "We didn't have any weapons or we would have fought back," Hamid said. "Security needs tanks [to enter the village]. They [the opposition] have blocked off roads. We want the state to solve our problem and the army to return us to our land. The army has to enter the villages, but the army is busy in Hama. Why is the state taking its time?"
Abu Laith's father, Abu Iyad, a retired soldier, agreed: "Only the army can solve this," he said. "If we respond it will be sectarian and other villages will join them and they will be more than us - and his lordship the president has rejected this."
For its Sunni neighbours, Rabia is equally frightening, representing fanatic pro-regime Alawites. Firas, an opposition organiser in the nearby town of Rastan told me of his cousin Muhamad Hussein Shahul, a 35-year-old taxi driver not involved in the opposition. In July, Shahul took four labourers returning home from Lebanon to Tizeen. The road via Hama city was closed because of fighting, so they drove through the Christian town of Kfarbo and on to Rabia, where Firas said "an Assad gang of Alawites" ambushed them. One passenger escaped, but the remaining four men were tortured and executed. Their corpses were left in the car and it was abandoned near the town of Masyaf before their families were notified.
"We could not go ourselves," his cousin said, "because we would get killed." Army officers from Rastan coordinated with officers in Masyaf and Muhamad's body was taken to the border of an Alawite village, from where the family could collect it for burial.
Assad's Alawites: An entrenched community
Nir Rosen spends time deep inside Syria's pro-regime Alawite community.
Nir Rosen Last Modified: 12 Oct 2011 13:14
This is the second of a two-part series by Al Jazeera special correspondent Nir Rosen.
Driving near the high-altitude resort of Slonfeh in the Alawite mountains of the Latakia region, I passed a funeral tent for a Syrian soldier killed in the region the previous week, one of two military "martyrs" Slonfeh had lost to armed opposition activists. When my driver entered the village of Mazar al-Qatriyeh, he asked to be directed towards Sheikh Khalil Khatib, a respected Alawite elder. "Ask the rocks and they will tell you," said one man. "Everybody knows him."
The sheikh was an intense old man who lectured me while a television behind him screened the Hezbollah-affiliated al-Manar satellite channel.
"You can be called a sheikh for being old or for being educated," he explained to me. He blamed religious sheikhs for the crisis in Syria. "They aren't sheikhs of thought," he said. "They are sheikhs of air, that's why Syria has all these problems. I am a sheikh of logic."
I told him that the opposition said Alawites controlled the regime. "This is rejected," he said. "It's for justifying the attack against the regime." He listed ministers, governors, and director-generals and insisted very few were Alawites and most were Sunni.
"Our president is Alawite and we suffer from this," he said. "There are four million Alawites," he claimed with some exaggeration. "We don't have even one per cent of the positions in the government." He and his guests said they believed Syria was being pressured so it would make a deal with Israel. "If Bashar signs a humiliating peace we are against him," said Ali Janud, a professor of civil engineering. "I am not with Hezbollah because they are Shia," he said, "only because they are resistance."
The sheikh agreed. "We are with the devil if he fights Israel," he said. If outside powers intervened in Syria it would lead to armageddon, the sheikh said. "If they want to destroy us," he said, "they are welcome."
The 'ignorant' opposition
The sheikh conflated the protesters with the armed opposition. "The armed people are ignorant and don't have any education," he said. "In the mountains we are all educated," said one of his guests. "Our orientation is education." Janud agreed: "This is a conflict between ignorance and knowledge," he said. Bayda and Baniyas, two coastal towns that had seen demonstrations, had nobody educated in them, the sheikh said, and they were majority Sunni. "And the Alawite villages around [those towns] are all educated."
He recommended that I read the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, an infamous anti-semitic book about a fabricated Jewish conspiracy written in Russia a century ago - but still sometimes believed to be true. This would help me understand how Saudi Arabia was a chess piece in the hands of world Zionism, he said. "Jews are the cause of corruption in the world," he told me.
The Syrian Sunni opposition sheikhs were tied to Zionism by association, he said. "The uprising today is based on the same principles as the one of 1980," he said, referring the armed uprising of the Muslim Brotherhood in which many Alawites were killed. Protesters today were merely "tools executing policy on behalf of someone else," he said. "They do not have their own ideology." Their gamble to provoke a sectarian war would not succeed because Alawites would not kill anybody for sectarianism, he said, they would only defend themselves.
Alawites had an ideology which prevented them from pursuing a sectarian war, he told me. "We Alawites don't hate anybody," said the aging sheikh. Janud added: "The other side is sectarian." The sheikh concluded: "[Even] if 11 million people die in Syria there wont be a sectarian war."
These views were not uncommon. In Damascus I met with a general and a veteran sergeant of State Security. The general was an Alawite from Masyaf in Hama, his office decorated with large pictures of Bashar al-Assad and his father Hafez. The sergeant, also Alawite, hailed from a Latakia mountain village. They rejected the idea that the regime's crackdown on protesters made the situation worse, stating that the president's announced reforms should have been enough to placate the opposition. The regime's response was warranted as the opposition was armed, they told me. They emphasised the armed element of the uprising and blamed it all on "a foreign conspiracy". Syria was being attacked from outside because it supported resistance against Israel and the US, they told me. The general stressed there was a media war against Syria. "Outside media is only showing five per cent of the reality," he said.
The sergeant insisted that the US invaded Iraq because the Mahdi, a messianic figure awaited by Shia, was expected to return from his centuries-old occultation. It was a theory many Iraqi Shia had earlier illuminated to me. I told him most Americans had never heard of the Mahdi. The Americans were forging an alliance with Islamists, the sergeant said. They wanted to prevent China from controlling the Middle East. "They are using Muslim groups against China - they know that the Quran talks about the threat from 'a yellow race'," he said.
In late August I drove with an Alawite friend connected to Syrian security up to the village of Laqbee in the mountainous Masyaf area of Hama. That morning two State Security officers had been killed in an ambush on the road.
We drove past Alawite and Christian villages, avoiding Sunni dominated areas. Entrances to Alawite villages were blocked by stones and sandbags with armed civilians or security officers standing guard. We passed many children on the road, playing with toy guns. We saw few minarets as we entered Masyaf. "They don't sell land to Muslims," my friend said. "They don't want them to come and build mosques."
We wound up narrow roads past green mountain villages before coming to a one-room concrete structure where many officers and government officials had gathered to pay their respects to the family of Lieutenant Colonel Ahmad Shawkat Ahmad. He had been attending a military staff college in Algeria when a suicide bomber attacked the Algerian military and killed him and another Syrian officer. Outside, the structure was adorned with so many pictures of the Assads that it looked more like a shrine to the ruling family.
Laqbee had produced many officers including some of the most powerful in the country, such as Muhamad Nasif Kharbeg, the deputy vice president for security affairs. His son, and many other Nasifs, are also senior in internal security.
After the funeral, I had dinner with Kharbeg's nephew - a captain. We sat with other Alawites, including an officer in the feared airforce intelligence service. Over grilled meat and beer, they discussed the opposition - "extremists", the captain said. "They don't have a mind." He seemed baffled and frustrated by his mental image of the protesters: "How do you talk to somebody who wants to get seventy virgins and go to paradise and have rivers of wine? It's not reasonable that people are going forward and we are going backwards, and growing long beards."
One of the security men present blamed the crisis on Bashar's reforms. Mandatory paramilitary training for school children had been cancelled under Bashar, further weakening Baathist influence and the martial spirit that had once dominated the country, with children in uniform shouting "al-Assad for ever!"
They looked for explanations to discredit protesters, with one claiming they were descendants of Turkmen mercenaries brought to Syria by the Ottoman empire. The men held simplistic and conspiratorial views of international affairs, such as theorising that Egyptian Google executive and activist Wael Ghonim was a Mason. One asked why the United States would allow a US company such as Google to undermine Egypt's Mubarak, the closest ally of Israel and the United States.
The captain believed the United States controlled the world, giving orders other countries had to obey, and that they would order Turkey to attack Syria on their behalf. "The West only respects force," the airforce intelligence officer said. With the fall of Tripoli to the NATO-assisted Libyan rebels, the men were concerned about the possibility of a NATO war against Syria.
They asked me why the United States was "allying with Islamist parties in Tunisia, Egypt and Syria". To them, all these conservative religious groups were the same and sought to establish an emirate. The captain saw the regime's current struggle with the opposition as a continuation of an older conspiracy. In the 1960s, Egypt's Gamal Abdel Nasser had cooperated with the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood, the captain told me. Nasser had a radio program on Voice of the Arabs that targeted Syria's Baathists, he said. "It's just like Al Jazeera and Arur today," he said, referring to Sheikh Adnan al-Arur, an incendiary sectarian Sunni cleric broadcasting in support of the opposition from exile.
"The regime will never fall," the airforce intelligence officer said confidently. "Going after the security forces means the end of the state," the captain said, "which will lead to civil war." The captain denied that the security forces were dominated by Alawites. "60 per cent of officers are Sunni," he said, taking my notebook and writing the words "60 per cent" with an arrow to the word "officers".
We later returned to the Alawite village of Rabia. One of the roads leading to it was blocked by a checkpoint, where ten men in civilian clothes and armed with rifles stopped cars to identify passengers.
Visiting the slum
I was accompanied by a State Security sergeant named Shaaban. He lived in Rabia, but his family had a home in the Damascus Alawite slum of Ish al Warwar. He suggested I visit after I told him Sunnis said Alawites controlled Syria and benefitted from the regime. "Ish al Warwar is steep, above the city, and has poor services," he said, "so how can they say we took everything? We don't have anything."
I visited Ish al Warwar, or "Nest of the Bee-eater Bird" with Abu Baha, another sergeant in the security forces. The slum's half-finished houses seemed to be randomly scattered one on top of one other like a Brazilian favela. Below it was the majority Sunni neighbourhood of Birzeh. Ish al Warwar is home to many members of the security forces, but residents had to go to Birzeh for government offices and schools. Some of Birzeh's Sunni residents were threatened if they did not participate in demonstrations, I was told. One man there was suspected of being pro-regime merely for not demonstrating - and his car was blown up one day at 3am.
In the beginning of the uprising, the Alawites of Ish al Warwar had been very provocative, staging "we love you Bashar al-Assad" demonstrations in Birzeh right after Syrian security forces had crushed anti-regime demonstrations. Intense provocation eventually aroused the anger of Birzeh's people, leading to violent clashes.
It was lumpenproletariat from places such as Ish al Warwar and neighboring Sunni slums who were fighting each other over a sectarian fault line. On a mountain across from Ish al Warwar was the small Sunni neighbourhood of Suweda. Abu Baha told me that demonstrations had stopped in Birzeh and Suweda after "the recent security campaign". He claimed that many weapons had been hidden in Suweda's cemetery.
Poor Sunnis and poor Alawites had everything in common and could have had the same grievances, but the regime had succeeded in entrenching these sectarian divisions at the expense of common social problems.
The Alawite slum of Ish al Warwar had seen government investment since the start of the uprising, with the bridge at the entrance to the slum renovated and reinforced. Its mukhtar, or administrator, whose office was festooned with pictures of the Assad family, told me the 70,000 residents had only one elementary school - so overcrowded most children studied in Birzeh instead. Ish al Warwar also shares a clinic with Birzeh. The mukhtar told me that people from Birzeh attacked residents of Ish al Warwar in April, and would close the road during funerals of opposition members, trapping Ish al Warwar's residents. Officials also told me two men from Ish al Warwar had been killed. Malik Abbas, a sergeant in the security forces was shot in Birzeh coming home from work, while Aziz Musa was called an infidel and stabbed. Abu Baha, meanwhile, claimed there had been an Islamic emir in charge of Birzeh.
Ish al Warwar also has some Sunni residents. "After the Iraqi crisis, prices increased, so some Sunnis moved here," he explained. But most residents are Alawites from rural areas who moved to the capital for work.
Khazan, Abu Baha's neighbourhood at the top of Ish al Warwar was 12 years old. People made their own streets, contributing both supplies and labour. Many people commute up and down the mountain by a minivan, whose door was tied ajar, with wooden benches set in its back. They pay five Syrian pounds (10 US cents) to wind down the perilously steep hill.
"If we could live in Malki we would not live here," laughed Abu Baha, referring to an elite neighbourhood also in the hills. "One house in Malki can buy all of Ish al Warwar." People built their homes gradually in Ish al Warwar. Abu Baha built the first room in his house 11 years ago. Like others, he added other rooms when he could afford to.
"Until three years ago we pumped up water ourselves and had diseases from sewage," he said. There had been some improvements in services since "the events", or the uprising. He showed me the sewage pipe locals had built for themselves. It emptied onto the side of the mountain down into a canal at the bottom.
The land in Ish al Warwar is not privately owned. Most of it is state land and most residents were technically illegally squatting. Abu Baha told me there had been an attempt in 2006 to grant ownership of the land to squatters. An official blueprint of the area had been made but no further action was taken.
"Neither the city nor the governorate helps us," he told me, explaining that Ish al Warwar fell through the administrative cracks. "Sunni officials help Sunnis and Alawite officials also help Sunnis," Abu Baha said, expressing a feeling of neglect I heard from many poor Alawites. When I asked why they were so grateful to the regime, he explained it was because of "where we were, and where are we now". "We were besieged in the mountains," he said. Abu Baha's father was in the military, so they moved to Ish al Warwar from Bareen, in the Hama governorate. Every home in Ish al Warwar has somebody working for the army or security agencies, he told me.
Inside Abu Baha's house - and unlike many conservative Sunni homes I visited - women did not wear hijabs, men and women greeted with kisses and the women shook my hands. Everybody sat together to eat in the same room.
Abu Baha's 16-year-old son Baha was the only one in the house fasting for Ramadan, a seeming example of the identity crisis that young Alawites go through in Sunni-dominated Syria. He went to school in Birzeh and I wondered if there would be tension when school resumed and he found many of his classmates had taken part in demonstrations.
The army only shot into the air during demonstrations, the men insisted. Security forces were killed but none of "them" - meaning the opposition - were killed. Abu Baha's father-in-law was an elementary school principal, and complained that government employees' buses were harassed in Homs. Demonstrators burned down health clinics and fire stations, he said. "They did the same thing in Birzeh," Abu Baha said. The school principal insisted that children in Sunni areas were paid 200 pounds ($4) to demonstrate. He claimed that Sunnis in the wealthy Homs area of Inshaat did not demonstrate, as they were rich, and "did not even open their car doors for themselves". Instead it was poor people from Homs' lower class Bab Assiba district who came to Inshaat to demonstrate. I spent a lot of time in both Homs neighbourhoods and I knew this to be false, as did the parents of young men from Inshaat whose funerals I went to.
Alawites such as this family remembered the 1979-1982 civil war between the state and Muslim Brotherhood for the assassinations and bombings committed by the Brotherhood. "Anything with intellect they destroyed in those days," said Abu Baha. "They killed doctors and judges." His father-in-law added: "Now its goal is strife and destroying the economy - everything that is the state." He claimed that Sunni shops that had been attacked in Homs' majority Alawite neighbourhood of Hadara Street had been used as Sunni weapons depots. In fact, the shops had been attacked in revenge after three local Alawite youth were killed. Abu Baha blamed conservative Sunni Salafis. "They are like [former US President George W] Bush," he said. "'If you are not with us you're against us.' There is a Saudi takfiri mobilisation."
They rejected the notion that Alawites benefitted from the regime. "This is a man that Al Jazeera calls shabiha," said Abu Baha's father in law, using the Syrian slang for a paid government thug. "And look how he lives. And this is a better [standard of living] than 70 per cent of the people in Ish al Warwar."
More of Abu Baha's relatives arrived and drank yerba mate. Like most Alawites, the family members strongly backed Bashar al-Assad, the former doctor-turned-president. Abu Baha claimed corrupt members of the government obstructed Bashar's reforms and undermined him.
"Bashar is truthful and sincere," Abu Baha concluded. "We are all with the doctor."