Alawites, in turn, have rallied behind Assad’s leadership, spurred by fears for their future in a Syria they would no longer run and in which Sunni Islamists may play a major role should the rebels win.
But now, from the Alawite heartland of Syria’s northern coastal region, come whispers of intrigue and strains within the Assad clan itself. A shootout between members of the extended Assad family in the president’s ancestral home town of Qardaha late last month and the detention of a prominent Alawite activist by the regime offer hints of unease within the one segment of the population whose unwavering support for Assad has hitherto not been in question.
There is no indication that Alawites are on the verge of switching sides to join the fragmented and leaderless opposition, which has made little effort to welcome them. Indeed, many Alawites who initially welcomed demands for political reform fell silent long ago or lined up behind the Assad regime once the revolutionaries took up arms and Sunni extremists began to play a more prominent role, according to Alawite activists and residents of the Latakia region, where the minority community is concentrated.
As members of an obscure and little-understood offshoot of Shiite Islam, the Alawites endured centuries of persecution under Sunni rule before Assad’s father, Hafez, seized power in 1970 and propelled them into the ranks of the elite. Many fear being relegated again to second-class status or, worse, being killed by Sunnis exacting revenge for the months of bloodshed inflicted by the Alawite-dominated security forces, Alawites say.
The signs of tension within the community suggest at a minimum, however, that the pressures of the 19-month-old revolt are taking a toll on the cohesion of the Alawites.
“The Alawites are critical for Assad’s survival. He wouldn’t survive a day without their complete support, so the fact that we are seeing tensions is significant,” said Hilal Khashan, a professor of political science at the American University of Beirut. “Most Alawites are upset with the regime, and they feel Assad is dragging their sect into a conflict they can’t eventually win.”
Shootout in Qardaha
Exactly what happened in Qardaha over the last weekend of September is unclear, and accounts differ over whether the dispute was rooted in political or personal rivalries. But all agree that there was an exchange of fire between two members of the Assad family in a cafe in the mountainous town where Hafez al-
Assad was born and where his body is buried in a vast marble tomb.