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July 19, 2012

Alawites Fear Future as Syrian Conflict Intensifies

by Henry Ridgwell

ANTAKYA, Turkey — Syria's President Bashar al-Assad and many within his powerful inner circle are Alawites, who make up about 12 percent of the Syrian population. Alawite militia gangs known as shabiha have often been blamed for carrying out the worst atrocities in anti-government areas. Many Alawites in Syria and neighboring Turkey say they are not party to that violence, however, and are not loyal to Assad.

Inside a Cem house, an Alawite place of worship, in the Turkish city of Gaziantep close to Syria. The rituals, music and dance are alien to most other Muslim worshippers - as is the huge canvas picturing the twelve Holy Imams.

Alawites here feel their religion is little understood, and the conflict in Syria is making it worse.

The leader or 'Dede' of the Cem house, Huseyin Keskin, said the Turkish government has taken sides against the Alawites.

"It is obvious who the Turkish government supports in Syria. They are 'itching the scratch,' they are making the problem worse in Syria," he said.

Keskin complains that as a minority, Alawites suffer in Turkey.

"The government sees us as different from themselves. They never take care of any of our problems," he said.

Such sentiments echo the fears of Alawites in Syria. If Assad falls - himself an Alawite - many minorities, including Christians and Druze, have voiced fears of Sunni dominance.

Opposition members say the Syrian government has depicted the uprising as a radical Sunni insurgency that Alawites must confront.

The Turkish city of Antakya near the border has a similar ethnic mosaic. In the bazaar, the Syrian crisis dominates conversation.

Spice seller Servet Duzgun said Turkey has made the situation worse in Syria.

"I myself am an Alawite," he said, "but I don't think the most important thing should be whether you are Sunni or Alawite, it should be about human values."

There is one thing that unites many of the shopkeepers in this ancient bazaar; the dramatic falloff in business since the conflict began.

Antakya used to be a shopping destination for Syrians, but now few make the trip.

Thaer Abboud did make that journey. An Alawite, Abboud nevertheless had been a pro-democracy activist for many years before the uprising.

"Especially when you are Alawi [Alawite], you are so dangerous for them. You have to be punished twice," he said.

Abboud said he was jailed and tortured for several months last year before escaping to Turkey and leaving many family members behind.

"The whole body of the revolution is a civil one. There is Christians, there is Alawite, there is Druze, there is Sunni," he said. "You can kill a person in body, you can kill thousands, but you cannot kill an ideology. They are trying in vain to kill this ideology of revolution."

Abboud said the Syrian revolution is not about religion or race. He said it is about overthrowing a dictator - and he believes he will soon return to a free Syria.