That Iraq Feeling Comes to Syria

The Rawda cafe in the center of Damascus is reputed to be an opposition hangout, and not many patrons are given to defending the Syrian government. The increasing international pressure from the UN investigation into the killing of former Lebanese prime minister Rafiq Hariri has brought widespread dismay among the tea-sipping and backgammon playing crowd. "It will hurt Syria," was the consensus.

Except for two people in the back of the cafe from the ruling Alawite minority. "Syria is strong and we can withstand all international pressure," said one. "Our president is steadfast and we will not bow," said the other.

Nobody in the cafe, pro-government or not, would give their names; the fear of the security services is stronger than it has been for a while. Nobody knows what the cornered leadership may do. Recently a mild, liberal opposition leader, Kamal Labwani, was arrested when he returned from the United States, and a human rights lawyer was beaten up.

Tensions are running high now that Damascus and the UN have reached a seeming stalemate on the interrogation of six Syrian officials in connection with the Hariri murder. The German head of the UN team, Detlev Mahlis has asked to see them at his headquarters in Lebanon, but the Syrians have not agreed yet.

The UN, including Secretary-General Kofi Annan, has said that Mehlis has total discretion. He derives his authority now from last month’s resolution 1636 that summons Syria to cooperate.

Add to this mix a defiant speech by the country’s young president Bashar Assad in which he called the UN investigation a "plot" against his country, and it is no wonder that many Syrians see their country on a course of confrontation with the international community, similar to Iraq’s until the U.S.-led invasion of 2003.

And as in Iraq, Syrians are increasingly getting the impression that the president is willing to sacrifice his country for his own rule, and that of the ruling minority to which they belong, the Alawites.

"The regime in Iraq was a minority, it’s the same case in Syria," 31-year old Alawite presenter for Syrian television Intissar Yunis, told IPS. "At the end of the regime in Iraq, it seemed that the Iraqi people deeply refused the regime. That may happen in Syria." Here, the Sunnis are the majority.

The Alawites are thought to make up just over 10 percent of the population, and follow a strain of Islam considered heretical by orthodox Sunnis. Yet, through the Ba’ath party that in name was pan-Arab, socialist and secular, they control the levers of power, particularly the army and the security services.

For decades the minority presented a mostly united front, apart form some spats within the Assad family. With the heat on, and the regime of the young Bashar Assad seen as making mistakes, that facade is cracking.

"Now that the time has come for the regime to be held accountable, it is the Alawites who they are holding accountable," said Mrs. Yunis.

Many Alawites feel they are being picked on unjustly. Until the 1960’s they were underprivileged and isolated in their mountains inland from the Mediterranean coast, and many still live there in poverty. "People are upset. They say they have not profited," said Yunis.

Syria expert Joshua Landis, an American professor whose lives in Damascus and whose wife is an Alawite, says any Syrian community’s ability to benefit from the government depends on how many of its people hold high office. "Because the president is an Alawite, they have more top dogs."

But he agreed that the wealth had been unevenly spread, and that many Alawites were worried "that they are going to pay the price for the privilege of the few."

These privileged few include some of the people who have been mentioned in the interim UN report on the Hariri killing, particularly two members of Assad’s family: his brother-in-law Asef Shawkat, who heads military intelligence, and brother Maher, who commands the presidential guard.

The privileged and the powerful included former minister for the interior Ghazi Kanaan, who was said to have committed suicide last month. His death, seen by some in Damascus as a forced suicide, shook the Alawite community to its foundations. Kanaan had run Lebanon for decades as Syria’s security czar.

His death came amidst speculation over what he knew about the Hariri assassination, and was linked by many people to pressures within the ruling elite. Kanaan was considered one of the most powerful Alawites, second only to the ruling Assad family, and was famed for working the patronage system to perfection, and procuring jobs and business for his people.

If Kanaan belonged to the old generation of Alawite rulers that grew up with Hafez Assad, the founder of the ruling republican dynasty, Shawkat clearly belongs to the new guard. Initially he had to fight to be accepted by the Assad family, but in recent years he has reportedly formed a strong bond with the young president.

Many Alawites are grumbling that the new generation, that mostly grew up in the cities, looks less well after the rest of the community. Landis says this is exacerbated by Assad’s modernization drive that shifts attention and resources away from the old Alawite pillars of power, mainly the army, and towards education, high technology and commerce.

Over the years the urbanization of the Alawites has accelerated, and many now live in the coastal cities Latakia and Tartous. A Sunni writer in Latakia, Munther al-Masri, says most of his friends are Alawites, because they are the ones who are the intellectuals and the artists, while "the Sunnis have retreated back to religion."

But Al-Masri says the Alawites are hostages to the system that made it possible for them to leave their mountains. "I believe that Hafez Assad put them in that corner. They are linked to the system because they are its servants."