Damascus Alawites stand firm behind Assad
- 1 September 2012
- From the section Middle East
As the conflict in his country rages on, a Syrian journalist visits Alawite neighbourhoods in Damascus, where beleaguered President Bashar al-Assad has many supporters - and perceptions of a foreign plot are rife.
In spite of its reputation as a safe and well-guarded area, it was difficult to get a taxi to take me from Umayyad Square in central Damascus to the neighbourhood of al-Mazzeh 86 in the west. Most of the drivers were scared.
"These are Alawite areas and we would either be kidnapped or killed," one of the drivers said.
The area is inhabited by families of the military and members of the security forces, who are mainly Alawites, the Shia heterodox sect to which President Bashar al-Assad belongs.
The only taxi driver who agreed to take me had sent his family to his home village in the Golan Heights, as Syria has been in turmoil since March 2011.
"It is not important now. People are dying all the time," he said when I tried to put the seatbelt on.
The Alawite community, especially those who are part of the military and security institutions, believe that Syria is facing a foreign conspiracy. They also believe that what Syria is going through will not topple President Assad.
'Crux of the regime'
The sectarian polarisation between the ruling minority Alawites and the majority Sunnis has raised fears of revenge attacks, but life inside Alawite neighbourhoods of Damascus carries on as normal, as if there was no fighting.
Advertisement hoardings, banners and pictures of President Assad are everywhere, while in the centre of al-Mazzeh 86 there are slogans such as "Assad or the Day of Judgement" spray painted on the walls.
"This area represents the crux of the regime," Saed, a lawyer and son of a senior officer in the Syrian army leadership said. "I do not see any signs of splits in either the army or the ruling authorities. They are one fist now. It is difficult to infiltrate them."
In the middle-class neighbourhood, children play in the clean narrow alleyways, teenagers stroll around, and residents go shopping until late at night.
The Alawites in Syria, specifically in Damascus, form the backbone of the regime as the Assad family, who have ruled the country since 1970, belongs to it.
According to Saed, there are about 500,000 Alawites in Damascus, out of a population of about two million people (though estimates vary). Most Damascenes are Sunni Muslims.
"There is an increasing fear among people and they do not feel safe outside here," Saed said. "If I myself go outside the area, I try to avoid side-streets and not stay out late."
The area overlooks Damascus and is located in the foothills of the People's Palace, one of the presidential palaces in Syria where the president officially receives his guests.
The palace is surrounded with other military and security Alawite residences, including those of the elite Republican Guard.
Abu Basil, an army general in his 50s, lives in a modest four-room house in al-Mazzeh 86.
In the living room there is a portrait of Bashar al-Assad's father, Hafez, typical of all the houses round here.
The leader of a military unit involved in operations taking place in the Damascus countryside, Abu Basil believes that a foreign-backed sectarian war involving jihadists and terrorists is being waged against Syria.
That war, according to him, is led by the US and other countries, including Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Turkey.
He says the Syrian army "will not allow them to topple the regime" or "to Islamise the country" and "let it be [controlled by] Takfiries [a Muslim who accuses another Muslim of apostasy]".
"As a military institution, we cannot accept this," Abu Basil said. "Our duty [as a national army] is to maintain civil peace besides defending the country from external danger."
Abu Basil and his colleagues were surprised when the protests erupted. He repeats the government's narrative of "terrorist armed groups sneaking into urban and rural areas".
He says that as a "military institution", the army never kills "unarmed civilians" and that it "helps them move out of dangerous areas", which are then "cleansed of terrorists".
"At first we were defending Mr President and we rallied around him," Abu Basil said. "But the situation is different now. I am not fighting for Bashar, but for the future of my children and to combat the sectarian attack."
Fear of being kidnapped or killed by opposition fighters has led many Alawite families to move back to the coastal region, the haven of the Alawites in Syria. However, the military and security forces stayed with their units.
Abu Ali, a 43-year-old army general, sent his family to the coast after members of Bashar al-Assad's inner circle were killed in a blast in Damascus in June.
He said this gives him freedom to fight for the "political leadership" against "those terrorists".
The commander of a brigade which participated in sweeping al-Midan neighbourhood in south-west Damascus last July, Abu Ali said he and his colleagues are fighting "to maintain national unity and prevent division".
"We are defending ourselves from a ruthless attack from the Gulf counties who are supporting the jihadists," Abu Ali said with a husky voice.
"They send jihadists from all around the world and they want us to stay silent; this is impossible. We will never retreat until we clean the country."