Death of Syrian Minister Leaves A Sect Adrift in Time of Strife

A relative of Interior Minister Ghazi Kanaan mourns during his funeral procession in Kanaan's home town of Bihamra.
A relative of Interior Minister Ghazi Kanaan mourns during his funeral procession in Kanaan's home town of Bihamra. (By Hussein Malla -- Associated Press)
By Anthony Shadid
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, October 31, 2005

BIHAMRA, Syria -- In this scenic village, along terraced hills of pine and palm trees, the body of Interior Minister Ghazi Kanaan rests in a coffin draped in a Syrian flag, a leather-bound Koran at each corner. His death on Oct. 12 was certain. Less so are the shadowy circumstances that removed from the scene one of Syria's most powerful men, an interlocutor between the religious sect known as the Alawites, who have long ruled the country, and a government they controlled but increasingly see as distant and corrupt.

A suicide, officials said, closing the case the day after Kanaan died. A relative, Mazen Kanaan, smiled at the thought.

"He was a man of confrontation," he said. "Suicide is an escape. He wasn't a man to run away from something."

How did he die then? the relative was asked. "That is for you to figure out," he answered.

The timing of Kanaan's death has also raised suspicions. Only recently he had been questioned in a U.N. investigation that implicates senior officials in the assassination of a former Lebanese prime minister.

In the sometimes brutal politics of Syria's elite, in which violence is intertwined with cunning, the 63-year-old Kanaan was a man of many faces: self-made Alawite strongman, ruthless politician and potential contender for power. In his village of Bihamra and the region that spills beyond it, he was something else: a feudal-like lord who tended to members of his Alawite minority, cultivating their support and defending their interests. To them, his death -- murder or suicide -- has become more than the passing of a figure who bordered on the iconic. It is an instance, writ small, of the growing frustration and fear in the religious sect that has served as the backbone of 35 years of Baath Party rule and is still viewed as the linchpin of President Bashar Assad's five years in power.

"No one can replace him. Maybe in a thousand years someone else like him will come," said Mazen Kanaan, sipping a small cup of bitter coffee in the courtyard of Ghazi Kanaan's now-shuttered mansion. "People need help but they have no one to go to."

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.

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