July 2, 2013

By Nuha Shabaan and Kristen Gillespie

This is the second of a two-part series examining the possibility that the Assad regime is preparing a “Plan B” to create Alawite rump state should it be forced out of Syria’s capital.

Fears for an Alawite-dominated region escalated following massacres in the Sunni city of Baniyas and surrounding villages, including al-Bayda and Ras al-Nabi, in early May. The Syrian Coalition said in a statement, one that included a series of links to grisly videos, that it had documented 500 people “either shot execution style, slaughtered with knives, stoned to death, burned alive or bombarded with missiles and guns.” 

Baniyas, with an estimated population of 50,000, is an ethnically divided city, with Alawites living in the north, Sunnis in the south and Christians mixed throughout. In the rural areas outside the city, more than 150 Alawite villages both surrounding and beyond the city. “That’s why the regime feels it has the upper hand in the coastal areas,” says Moataz, 28, an activist who is Sunni from Baniyas. He asked that his last name not be used for security reasons.

The killings are consistent with ethnic cleansing because the regime is “collectively trying to displace a specific sect,” the Coalition said.

While many of the highest levels of the Syrian military and security agencies are filled with Alawites, activists note that the regime has repressed political freedoms for all Syrians, including members of their sect.  

“The regime is a military dictatorship based on force, violence and human rights violations” for everyone, says Sameer Abu Hani, 38, a Germany-based activist originally from Sheikh Meskeen in Daraa province, who has several family members, including his son and brother, currently in Syrian prisons.

“The regime didn’t grant freedoms even to its own sect,” al-Hussein says.

Alawites are “part of the national fabric of Syria,” says Mohammed Abu al-Hassan, 28,a citizen journalist from Latakia, echoing a common thread heard throughout interviews for this article. “It is not the right of those who are involved in the regime’s crimes to decide the fate of the entire sect.”

Still, there is no denying that sectarian tensions exist in Syria and are exacerbated by the presence of Shiite and Alawite militias backing regime forces. While Syrians say they are resisting the regime’s bait to shift the war to a sectarian one, the repetition of any idea enough times makes people get used to it, says Sondous Sulaiman, 35, a well-known activist based in Germany who is a member of the Syrian Coalition.

“The regime empowered negative feelings between the sects in an indirect but effective way,” says Sulaiman, who is Alawite. “They did so by not allowing a normal political life and civil society to emerge in Syria.”

In May, Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmed Davutoglu told the daily Hurriyet newspaper that the regime and its shabiha militias were attempting to ethnically cleanse the area between Homs and Lebanon. Baniyas represented an escalation, Davutoglu said, adding that “Al-Assad has now shifted his strategy to ethnically cleanse a certain area of the country since he cannot control everything.”

“Some of the Alawites may think this is the only solution for them after the regime spread the idea of fear in their hearts that they are targeted as much as he [Bashar al-Assad] is,” says Saba al-Khaddor, a Syrian Alawite from Homs now living in Canada. “We will fight it.”

The regime’s struggle to remain is simply about power, says Sondous Sulaiman.

“Like father, like son,” she says of Syria’s two last presidents, Hafez and Bashar al-Assad. “They are both dictators who only care for power, for which they committed the most savage acts without considering any race or ideology.”

 

With additional reporting by Ahmed Kwider.