[Alawite] members are increasingly breaking rank, as defections swell along with mounting uneasiness about the government’s crackdown against what started as a peaceful protest movement.
Captain Umar in Syria is a rebel fighter and an Alawite, and he considers Assad a “butcher.” The officer no longer believes the regime’s propaganda and says he abandoned his unit after the government began shelling civilian neighborhoods in his hometown. But Umar says it is Assad who is injecting the conflict with a sectarian hue. “Bashar is telling us the Sunnis will slaughter us,” he says via Skype from Syria. “He is scaring Alawis and pushing them to the edge. This is why the army is killing the people in the street. They are scared the Sunnis will massacre us.”
Umar says that it was the military’s daily shelling of civilian areas that pushed him to defect. “I just couldn’t see Syrians dying anymore.” He refuses to reveal how many Alawite officers have defected, but he does say the “number is significant.”
Others with ties to the security forces have also turned their back on the Alawite leadership. Luban Mrai’s father is a senior leader in the paramilitary organization known as the shabiha that targets civilians. She recently left the country after experiencing “serious moral and ethical dilemmas” stemming from the targeting of civilians. Today she resides in Istanbul, trying to mobilize support for the rebels. “The regime is using our religion for political ends,” she explains in a phone conversation. “Alawis are killing Syrians for no reason. This is wrong.”
Leading Alawite intellectuals have abandoned the regime as well. Rasha Omran is one of Syria’s better-known poets and has been invited to read her poetry at literature festivals throughout Europe. Since the beginning of the uprising, she has lent her voice and pen to the cause. Omran announced her support of the revolution within days of its eruption on her Facebook page. She marched in protests and spoke out against Assad. “This is a dictatorial regime,” she said in a phone call from Egypt. “How can I support a government that kills its citizens?”
Omran wanted to support the revolution by remaining in Syria. But her vocal protests embarrassed a regime trying to project sectarian unity. Because she belongs to a respected Alawite family, the government risked an Alawite backlash if it arrested her. Instead, she says, intelligence agents pressured her to leave the country in a series of visits to her house. She finally left Syria at the beginning of the year.
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