Before the Syrian war, Yaseen Sulayman was the head of the Latakia countryside branch of the mukhabarat, the omnipresent intelligence apparatus.
A 34-year-old Alawite from Jableh, in south Latakia province, Sulayman was well-placed to crack down on early protests that spread across Syria in 2011. But on June 15, 2012, he defected because of what he calls “the violent way peaceful protests were dealt with at the beginning of the revolution and my unwillingness to participate in the regime’s systematic killing of the Syrian people.”
Not only did Sulayman defect, he went and joined the Free Syrian Army in Idlib province. There,he was considered “one of them.” At first.
Then the hardline Sunnis poured into Syria, forming Islamist factions and spreading sectarianism within the opposition. After nine months in the FSA, Sulayman fled to Turkey.
Photo courtesy of Yaseen Sulayman.
The mistake of the opposition, says Sulayman, is the lack of “sense or understanding of the danger of dealing with the Alawites on the basis that they are the regime’s sect that supports it… and consequently, the danger of making the revolution appear as if it were a Sunni revolution.”
“But the reality is different, particularly among the Alawites who have deep-rooted social and political power that is radically contradictory to the approach of the criminal al-Assad family and who paid a high price during the rule of Hafez al-Assad,” Sulayman says from Paris, where he is finishing a political science degree while serving as the vice president of the Movement for a Pluralist Society.
The movement is a moderate, secular opposition organization, founded in 2012, that is part of the 2016 Geneva peace talks with the Moscow group. “We unfortunately have not seen the fruit from our efforts with an arrival to the stage of serious negotiations,” Sulayman tells Syria Direct’s Fatima al-Jundi.
Q: What compelled you to defect?
The violent way peaceful protests were dealt with at the beginning of the revolution and my unwillingness to participate in the regime’s systematic killing of the Syrian people. I also am from a family opposed to the regime that adheres to the philosophy of the deceased Alawite officer Salah Jadid who passed away in Hafez al-Assad’s prisons.
Salah Jadid was a political figure in the Baath party and political strongman in Syria from 1966 until 1970. After several years of inter-Baathist power struggles and purges, Salah Jadid and Hafez al-Assad were left as the leaders of two rival blocs within the Baath party. This rivalry heated up after Syria’s defeat in the Six-Day War in 1967. Jadid held power among the civilian wing of the Baath Party and whose bloc called for a socialist transformation of Syrian society and aligned with the Soviet bloc. Al-Assad’s military-dominated bloc advocated for a strong Arab-nationalist approach that emphasized the need to increase the strength of the Syrian military and cooperate with other Arab countries to take on Israel at the expense of internal socialist agendas. After several years, Hafez al-Assad led a coup against Salah Jadid’s civilian bloc and seized power. He imprisoned Jadid in 1970 in Mezzeh prison until his death in 1993. For several years after Hafez al-Assad came to power, he carried out numerous mass arrests and purges of supporters of Salah Jadid, mainly within Alawite communities in Latakia and Tartus.]
Q: How did the rebels treat you while you were still inside Syria? What eventually led you to leave Syria?
After I defected, I spent about nine months with the rebels in Idlib province. The Free Syrian Army (FSA) accepted my presence with them and gave me protection and considered me one of them among their ranks as a fighter. At that time, religious affiliation didn’t factor into the relationship between them and me. But after the emergence of the Islamist movements in those areas that carried strange ideas to Syrian society, the most prominent being a-takfir [Ed.: the act of accusing other Muslims of apostasy]. That’s when it became difficult for me to stay there and made me leave for Turkey.
Q: How do you see sectarian rhetoric among different circles of the opposition? Has that influenced how satisfied you are with the direction of the revolution?
Up to this point, there aren’t elites within the opposition who actually represent the Syrian revolution. That is why I view the rhetoric of a lot of the opposition as not rising to an acceptable standard of national conduct. And moreover, that sectarian rhetoric creates reactions that are detrimental to the revolution.
But despite that, my satisfaction with the revolution hasn’t changed. My belief is that those people do not represent Syrian society. Their conduct comes from a desire to implement specific agendas and this will fail because our society, with all of its different sides, is not fertile soil in which to grow sectarianism and extremism.
Q: Do you think that Bashar al-Assad represents the Alawite sect?
Bashar does not represent the Alawite sect, and the sect does not represent Bashar. He is a dictator who represents only his own interests. He has abandoned all Syrians, the first being this sect [the Alawites] when he compelled them to wear military fatigues and defend him. There are elites within the sect, many of them, who have been erased from the image of the opposition intentionally to create the general impression that Bashar carries a lot of weight within the sect, but this is just not true.
Q: Who then has benefited during the al-Assad dynasty? Who did the Assads take with them to the top?
There are factions connected to the al-Assad family with many well-known connections, but everyone believes that it is the al-Assad family that truly benefited from [Hafez and Bashar] al-Assad’s rule.
The reality is that al-Assad exploited these connections to consolidate his power, either economically with the businessmen of the largest cities or security-wise, such as with the children of the Syrian coast [referring to the Alawite homeland].
Q: Since the rise of extremism in Syria, do you anticipate any reprisal attacks targeting the Alawite sect in the instance that the regime falls?
I rule that out for two reasons. The first and most important goes back to the consciousness of the Syrian people and the absence of anything pushing them towards revenge actions. They know this is what the regime would want in order to completely burn down the country after it falls.
The second reason goes back to the international community’s profound interest in protecting minorities and civilians. There are even troops from powerful countries inside Syria, including Russians and Americans, that constitute a big guarantor to implement anticipated political solutions without chaos like this happening.
Q: Recently, several political movements have emerged claiming to represent the Alawite sect, such as al-Wathiqa al-Alawiyya, Ghad Suriya and the New Alawites. Why have they appeared now and what is the importance of the timing?
These groups express the opinion of my community. But most of them have been strangled and erased by the regime since the beginning of the struggle in Syria in 2011 in collaboration with the actions of regional states that supported the revolution.
Rebel forces adopted this movement [excluding the Alawite opposition] without any sense or understanding of the danger of dealing with the Alawites on the basis that they are the regime’s sect that supports it… and consequently, the danger of making the revolution appear as if it were a Sunni revolution.
But the reality is different; particularly among the Alawites who have deep-rooted social and political power that is radically contradictory to the approach of the criminal al-Assad family and who paid a high price during the rule of Hafez al-Assad.
Hafez al-Assad crushed these Alawites throughout his rule. And when they tried to remobilize from scratch at the beginning of the Syrian revolution during the era of the son, Bashar al-Assad, the behavior of the regime was calculated that it helped to obstruct these powers [within the Alawite community]. This is especially true given that the Alawites were dealt with on the basis of political affiliation and exploitation without any interest in them or giving them any support, even in the media.
These movements [such as al-Wathiqa al-Alawiyya, Ghad Suriya and the New Alawites] came as a response to the increasing criminality of this regime against the Syrian people, particularly in recent times, and the big losses within the Alawite sect in the continuous fighting in Syria. They call for all sides to bring an end to the war and extremism and head towards a political solution.
I hope that these movements will be an opportunity for all sides to deal with the Alawite reality in a different way and the Syrian reality more generally.
Q: What is the role of the Movement for a Pluralist Society, of which you are a member, in the Syrian equation?
We are a socio-political movement that believes in a political solution as the last and only solution in Syria. However, as you know, we unfortunately have not seen the fruit from our efforts with an arrival to the stage of serious negotiations as of yet.
We are ready at any time to cooperate with any effort that might contribute to ending this conflict and to return Syria and establish a free country where there is dignity and equality between all of its citizens.
Q: What is your position with regard to whether Bashar al-Assad remains in power or is overthrown in the instance a political agreement is reached to end the war in Syria?
Bashar al-Assad remaining in power is impossible. The overthrow of Bashar al-Assad is important to stop the war in Syria and in order to start a political life among Syrians. Consequently, he has no future in Syria.
Q: Do you feel as if you are in exile in France? If the war were to end, would you want to return to Syria?
Yes, I will return to Syria in the instance that there is a political solution. I am not comfortable here in my separation from home. I am not here on vacation, but rather because of the situation in Syria.