Among the Alawites: Nir Rosen reports from Syria

Nir Rosen in the London Review of Books:

Nir-Rosen-2Syria’s Alawite heartland is defined by its funerals. In Qirdaha in the mountainous Latakia province, hometown of the Assad dynasty, I watched as two police motorcycles drove up the hill, pictures of Bashar mounted on their windshields. An ambulance followed, carrying the body of a dead lieutenant colonel from state security. As the convoy passed, the men around me let off bursts of automatic fire. My local guides were embarrassed that I had seen this display, and claimed it was the first time it had happened. ‘He is a martyr, so it is considered a wedding.’ Schoolchildren and teachers lining the route threw rice and flower petals. ‘There is no god but God and the martyr is the beloved of God!’ they chanted. Hundreds of mourners in black walked up through the village streets to the local shrine. ‘Welcome, oh martyr,’ they shouted. ‘We want no one but Assad!’

It was April, my sixth month travelling through Syria. After I left I heard of another funeral not far away, in the village of Ras al-Ayn, near the coast. A village of seven thousand people now had seven martyrs from the security forces, six missing or captured and many wounded. ‘Every day we have martyrs,’ an officer said. ‘It’s all a sacrifice for the nation.’ Another talked about ‘their’ crimes, and said ‘they’ had killed the soldier because he was an Alawite. One of my guides berated him for speaking of the conflict in sectarian terms in front of me. ‘The opposition have left us no choice,’ another soldier said. ‘They accept nothing but killing.’

Alawites – the heterodox Shia sect to which the Assads belong and which remains most loyal to the president and his government – make up about 10 per cent of the population.

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