Though often thought of as ‘Assad loyalists,’ conversations with the Alawites reveal a reality fraught with anger and resentment. Is the Syrian president at risk of losing the community?
Last Sunday, Syrian President Bashar al Assad met with members of the Makhlouf family in al Qardaha, his ancestral village. This comes a day after the regime formally transferred the license to operate the country’s duty-free shops from the family’s most notorious tycoon, Rami, to his malleable brother, Ihab.
Except, while mollifying potentially apprehensive elites is one of many strategic policies Bashar inherited from his father, Hafez, formulae for regime longevity, once fine-tuned to subdue Syrians, no longer meaningfully apply.
Nine years of gruelling war have fundamentally transformed Syrian society, and publicly appeasing the country’s richest dynasty is bound to agitate its citizens - over 85 percent of whom now live in poverty. Syria’s Alawite community is likely to perceive these moves as yet another betrayal by the Syrian president.
The average monthly salary, 50,000 SYP, or the equivalent of $25, hardly covers the cost of rent and utilities, even in small cities. State-subsidised bakeries, one of the last remaining safety nets, are inundated with crowds of hungry people. Queues at gas stations extend for kilometres. Unemployment, which the UN estimates at 50 percent, is compounded by drug abuse, alcoholism, and psychological trauma.
Heba, a teacher from Latakia, referred to living conditions as a “nightmare”. Meat and vegetables are virtually unaffordable. Five eggs can cost up to 1000 SYP, or 2 percent of the average income. Plain bread, washed down with tea, has replaced most meals. Families operating without remittances, she claims, face a genuine risk of starvation.
Sawsan, a retired teacher whose husband is a former army officer, asserts that their collective pensions do not preclude the likelihood of going hungry. “After all these years,” she said, “I need to ask my daughters abroad to send money simply so we can eat. It’s humiliating.”
Meanwhile, severe power outages and water shortages have become the norm. Although electricity generally oscillates in 3-hour intervals, water cuts can last for days.
In contrast, the Syrian elite, embodied best in the Assad-Makhlouf dynasties, continue to flaunt their lavish lifestyles while demanding that Syrians remain steadfast in the face of an "international conspiracy."
The gap between the rich and the poor, paraded on social media by Assad’s relatives, follows a longstanding pattern of disregard for loyalist grievances.
Last August, Rami’s son, Mohammed, was pictured showcasing his collection of sportscars online, causing outrage among Alawites. Assad responded by invoking deniability regarding the family’s illicit schemes and launching an “anti-corruption” campaign, a stunt that was uniformly mocked by the community. Though his response may have partially sought to defuse tensions, in reality, Assad, emboldened by his military victories, has prioritised appeasing influential families over pacifying his increasingly restive base.
However, neglecting the grievances of the Alawites, his main constituency, could have galvanising implications.
In October 2014, small anti-regime protests erupted in the coastal province of Tartous, home to both a sizeable Alawite demographic and the largest volume of soldier fatalities.
Activists distributed leaflets that angrily addressed the president. “The throne is for you,” they read, “and the coffin for our sons.” Today, this slogan captures a widespread sentiment among the country’s increasingly resentful minority sect.
Years of forced conscription, facilitated by military checkpoints and raids targeting homes, cafes, and universities, have transmuted the Syrian coast into a never-ending cycle of funerals, acrimony, and despair.
Facebook pages are flooded with indictments of the ruling class. References to the “thieves” that run the country – once a critique voiced cautiously at home – represents the new discursive norm.
High-profile Alawites, including individuals running pro-Assad sites, are often arrested for calling out corruption – particularly when their comments go viral.
Syrian soldiers demand discharge while disabled veterans openly decry government abandonment. Alawite frustration, which has long resided under the surface, is finding its voice as tensions reach boiling point.
In the midst of all this, Syria is facing a widely underreported Covid-19 catastrophe. The UN’s deputy emergency relief coordinator recently warned the Security Council that the actual number of cases “far exceeded official figures” reported by Damascus.
The mukhabarat (intelligence), embedded in hospitals since the onset of the pandemic, is spearheading the regime’s cover-up by coercing doctors into lying about the causes of death. Though the affluent are better situated to survive, the Syrian state’s broken health infrastructure means that no one is immune.
Last week, the UN temporarily halted a scheduled meeting of the Constitutional Committee because four delegates tested positive for the virus, three of whom represent Damascus. The capital, along with Deir Ezzor, Sweida, Aleppo, and Latakia are all witnessing outbreaks.
The cover-up is enraging Alawites, whose small community guarantees that when fatalities occur, word spreads quickly. Gibran, an engineer from Jableh, expressed his anger at the ordeal. “Insufficient social distancing is partially to blame,” he said, “but most of all, our people are dying due to gross government indifference.”
While he identifies as a loyalist, his disillusionment with the regime is tinted with subtext: his town, an impoverished Alawite-inhabited enclave, lost a disproportionate number of young men in battle.
In all this, the idea that Assad could finally lose the Alawites is not inconceivable. Having sacrificed everything for the ‘homeland,’ most Alawites now find themselves grappling with levels of precariousness and insecurity unprecedented in their modern history.
A social contract promising the community security, stability, and secularism, has been repeatedly breached by its drafters. Instead, the regime has delivered poverty, unemployment, and death. Its failure to reign in parasitic militias, which operate with impunity, has contributed to a real sense of lawlessness.
Above all, however, they have lost their loved ones on distant battlefields – all while the elites live in a realm of their own, untouched by the conflict.
It is impossible to know for certain if the situation in Syria, however volatile, will ignite mass anti-regime mobilisation by the Alawites. That said, the current status quo, as Sawsan puts it, is “simply unbearable.” Additionally, the looming threat of Covid-19 means that the regime’s failure to stem the virus could result in further casualties for the sect.
Should conditions persist, the Alawites may conclude that the possibility of slaughter by the rebels is as likely as the prospect of starvation and disease at the hands of the regime. This could cause a tectonic shift in their calculus.
The Syrian regime is always one misstep – one forced disappearance, one ill-advised photo-up, one social media post – away from provoking an eruption.
NOTE: The names of the interviewees have been changed for their security.
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