BEIRUT — The Alawite backbone of President Bashar al-Assad’s regime shows signs of wobbling under the strain of Syria’s civil war.
Members of the minority group have become more critical of the regime’s handling of the conflict on social media and during rare protests, according to activists and analysts. They also say Alawites, who form the core of Assad’s security forces, increasingly have avoided compulsory military service in a nearly four-year war where their community has sustained huge casualties relative to Syria’s Sunnis, who lead the rebellion.
Security forces have sharpened the friction by responding with arrests and intimidation. But while few think this immediately threatens the rule of Assad, who also is Alawite, the rising tension signals exhaustion in a community that is crucial for his regime’s ability to confront a revolt that shows little sign of ending.
“The Alawites are growing more and more impatient with the regime because it hasn’t been able to demonstrate much progress in ending the war,” said Louay Hussein, 54, a Damascus-based Alawite activist who is critical of the Assad regime.
On Wednesday, Hussein was detained by Syrian authorities while attempting to cross into Lebanon, his political allies said. He has been arrested before over his opposition to the Assad regime.
Syrian officials were not immediately available for comment.
Andrew Tabler, a Syria expert and senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, partly attributed this sentiment to demographics: Syria’s Sunni majority vastly outnumbers the Alawites, an offshoot of Shiite Islam who formed about 12 percent of the country's prewar population of 24 million.
“People are realizing that the war is not going to go away anytime soon and that you can’t shoot your way out of this problem — not with Syria’s demographics,” he said. “There are too many Sunnis.”
Though Alawites never uniformly supported Assad, their fear of an increasingly radicalized opposition stops them from breaking with the regime in significant numbers, analysts say. Extremist Sunnis consider them apostates, and in turn Alawites view the regime as a bulwark against the fanatical violence espoused by groups like Islamic State.
Still, members of their community have increasingly vented frustration in public.
Dozens rallied in Homs following twin bombings last month that killed nearly 50 children in a largely Alawite area of the city, demanding the removal of the provincial governor over failure to stop the attacks. Though stopping short of calling for Assad’s ouster, they refused to hoist pictures of him during the demonstration.
Small protests also have taken place recently in Alawite areas along Syria’s coastline, according to Alawite activists who are in contact with residents in those areas.
In Tartus, residents have held rallies and distributed fliers urging people to “speak up” over mounting war casualties and accusations that the regime abandoned soldiers who were then captured and executed by Sunni extremists. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, based in Britain, recently put the number of security forces killed at a minimum of 110,000, while many describe rural Alawite villages as virtually gutted of military-age men.
Naser al-Nukkari, an Alawite who coordinates with activists in Syria, said the Tartus rallies also protested arrests of men who refused mandatory military service. That included soldiers apprehending medical staff several weeks ago at Tartus’ al-Basel Hospital, as well as the recent arrest of people at the city’s electricity company offices who had turned up in response to advertised job openings.
“The electricity company played a trick on them, because more people are refusing the military service,” said al-Nukkari, who recently fled to Paris because fear of arrest over his activism.
Analysts, activists and local media speak about intensified efforts in regime-held areas to arrest the increasing numbers of men who avoid service in the military and its supporting units, such as the National Defense Force, a local-volunteer force consisting mainly of Alawites. They say the regime efforts are to compensate for huge losses in manpower and to escalate attacks on rebel areas.
As many as 5,000 men in Tartus alone had reportedly failed to report for military duty by January of this year, while activists and analysts have noticed a trend of Alawites moving abroad.
“I’m getting a sense from a number of sources and anecdotal evidence that people on the regime side are looking for asylum, to get out of Syria and go abroad,” said Yezid Sayigh, a senior associate at the Beirut-based Carnegie Middle East Center.
Louay Hussein, the Alawite activist who lives in Damascus, said more of his Alawite friends, including a family of six, began last year to relocate to Europe and Arab countries.
“Alawites feel they have to choose the regime, no matter how badly they hate it. So with this choice, many want to leave,” he said.
For those who stay, defying the regime can be dangerous. One anti-regime activist said more than a dozen fellow Alawites were arrested by security forces during the past two months for initiating dialogue with leaders of Sunni villages. One of them was taken from a village near the coastal city of Latakia and temporarily held at a state security prison, where jailors beat him so badly that he now needs assistance walking, said the activist, who declined to be identified over fear for his safety.
Rising criticism on social media has also resulted in arrests, including several in Homs following the attacks last month that killed scores of children. One woman who posted criticism of Assad on Facebook after the attack was promptly apprehended by state security.
Joshua Landis, a professor of history at the University of Oklahoma who has regular contact with Alawites in Syria, said such criticism signals a shift in their thinking over how to end the war. That includes abandoning the pan-Arab nationalism espoused by the Assad regime for partitioning Syria to create a separate, Alawite-controlled enclave.
“They’re thinking about radical solutions. They know they can’t conquer these rebel areas, and they don't want their kids dying anymore,” he said.
Suzan Haidamous contributed to this story from Beirut.