The ‘Alawite Lane’


A 2007 photo shows rush hour traffic in Damascus, Syria. (HASSAN AMMAR/AFP/Getty Images)

Journalist Phil Sands finally left Syria after five years, an exodus he chronicles in the UAE National. His journey out of Damascus hit its biggest snag at a roadblock into the center of town, where he would pick up a cab to Lebanon. Some checkpoint guards accused him and his Syrian friend of being spies, but finally let them through when they realized his friend belonged to the Druze, a Muslim minority sect*:

The army officer, an Alawite - another of Syria's minority groups, from which the regime's ruling clique is drawn - liked the Druze and saw them as allies in a battle against Sunni Muslim rebels, who in his view are terrorists.
That interpretation of wartime alliances in Syria saved us.

Sands explains that the sectarian divisions have gotten so bad that there the ruling minority now has de facto access to special traffic lanes in Damascus:

The sectarian divisions that are ubiquitous in Syria now extend even to the roads. The road into Damascus is partitioned by concrete blast barriers, with the right-hand lane officially designated for civilian traffic and the left-hand lane for military and government traffic.

But Alawites always travel on the left, regardless of their job, and so it has been universally dubbed the "Alawite lane" by locals. It's a sadly tidy metaphor for an evolving conflict that has destroyed so many lives, and that will destroy so many more.

Sectarian distrust and resentment were already significant in Syria before the war. But the social breakdown, the scarcity of basic essentials from food to security, may be reinforcing the perception of the conflict between sects.

The war already has sectarian overtones, but the question is what happens if Bashar al-Assad falls, when the Alawites no longer have their own traffic lane, Druze are no longer accorded special protection by sympathetic checkpoint guards, and the Sunni majority takes the greater power many analysts expect they would have in a post-Assad Syria. It's impossible to say for sure, but there would probably not be an Alawite lane in Damascus.

* – An earlier version of this post called Druze a minority Shia sect. Randa Slim, a political analyst who focuses on the Levant, says this was wrong: "Druze are distant cousins of the Shia sharing Fatimide ancestry. But they are not a minority Shia sect."

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Max Fisher · March 15, 2013