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Bashar al-Assad, protector of confessional minorities in Syria?

Syria has just rejoined the Arab League after twelve years of exclusion. During the war, faced with the threat of jihadism, Damascus consolidated its image as the protector of confessional minorities. The Assad clan is itself descended from one of them. France 24 went to meet Alawites and Christians opposed to the regime. For them, the latter has exploited the issue of minorities to strengthen its hold on society.

On the shores of the Red Sea, in the Saudi city of Jeddah, on the 19 May 2023 has undoubtedly gone down in history. After twelve years of exclusion, decided in the face of the bloody repression carried out against the opposition in 2011, the Syrian president has returned to the Arab League. In front of his peers, Bashar al-Assad delivered his vision for the Arab world. There would reign “peace, development and prosperity instead of war and destruction”.

The almost ingenuous tone of the raïs contrasts with the violence of the crimes – of war and against humanity – of which the UN accuses him : deliberate bombardments against civilian populations, use of chemical weapons, deaths under torture, hanging of tens of thousands of political opponents. At the end of the race, several hundred thousand victims in Syria.

But in this unstable region, Bashar al-Assad, nicknamed the “butcher of Damascus”, managed to maintain a all another picture: that of protector of minorities. And they are numerous in Syria, an ancient crossroads of civilisations.

In 2011, his country displayed a denominational rainbow: Druze, Ismailis, Alawites and Christians together represented 35 % Population.

This year, some of them are nevertheless overcome by concern : in Homs, stronghold of the uprising against the Syrian president, demonstrators chant the slogan “the Alawites in the coffin, and the Christians in Beirut”.

The opposition then incriminated false pro-Assad demonstrators who would have tried to tarnish the image of the Syrian spring.

Yet in areas beyond government control, extremist groups do persecute minorities, witnesses say. In the middle of the war, in April 2014, a nun reported on Vatican Radio the crucifixion of Christians, by jihadists, in front of their loved ones.

The Alawites were not left out. Among the deadliest attacks, those claimed in May 2016 by the organization Eislamic state : 148 dead in Tartous and Jableh, two Alawite towns.

An “Alawite State” ?

The Assad clan itself comes from this minority, which has two million souls. Appeared in the XIe century, this Shiite dissent was marginalized by centuries of Sunni rule. In 1970, the community saw one of its own seize power by force : Hafez al-Assad, Bashar’s father.

Many Alawites then joined the administration, the army and the intelligence services (moukhabarats). Once generally poor and rural, they then experienced a relative social and political rise.

Faced with the protest that broke out in 2011, part of Western opinion perceived Damascus as “an Alawite regime facing a Sunni revolt”, regrets Issa Ibrahim, a Syrian lawyer based in Norway. An optical illusion : the Syrian power is not an “Alawite regime”, the lawyer decides, but “a regime monopolized by a handful of Alawites – and other courtiers – who despoil all of its people”.

About 80 % of the civil service would be in the hands of this minority, which constitutes only 10 % Population. “But if they are overrepresented in certain positions, it is not because they are Alawites, but because Assad assumes them to be more loyal to him,” continues Issa Ibrahim, himself born within this community.

“What worries the regime,” he continues, “is none other than loyalty to it, not confession.” This is also what explains the presence of a Sunni and Christian bourgeoisie in the most influential circles in Syria, notes the lawyer.

Christians, Bashar, and fanaticism

Facing the cameras, Bashar al-Assad displays a warm closeness to Christians. In April 2014, the Syrian army recaptured the Christian town of Maaloula from the rebels. If his public appearances were extremely rare in these times of warthe Syrian president had chosen Easter day to show up in the city a few days later, escorted by prelates.

From the churches desecrated by the jihadist fighters of the al-Nusra Front, Bashar al-Assad, celebrating the resurrection of Christ, wished peace to his country.

Bashar al-Assad in a monastery in the ancient Christian city of Maaloula, taken over a few days earlier from rebel groups by the Syrian army. The photo was taken on April 20, 2014 by the official Syrian Arab News Agency (SANA) © AFP

Official discourse never ceases to praise Christians. AT Saidnaya, near Lebanon, in July 2019, Bashar al-Assad the qualifies as “builders of humanity”. Arabism “protects you from fanatics who would like to present you as foreigners to the Arab world”, continued the president.

In Syria, however, “no one believes Assad’s lies about the protection of minorities anymore” assures Samira Mobaied, vice-President of Syrian Christians for the peace. This NGO denounces both the regime and the use of arms by its opponents.

Based in France, throughout the last decade Samira has struggled to fight Assad’s “manipulation” of minorities. This scientist is one of the Christians who rose up against the regime from the start of the revolution. Like the surgeon Haissam Saad, arrested and tortured for treating a protester in 2012. He narrowly survived the abuse inflicted. His co-religionist, political activist Bassam Gayth, succumbed to it.

Opponents from the Christian minority break the silence on the Syrian regime

Divide and rule

This regime “weeps over the fate of Christians but imprisons and kills them when they oppose it”, summarizes the former diplomat Ignace Leverrier in the blog of the newspaper Le Monde dedicated to Syria.

This hardly surprises Mazen Darwish, a Syrian lawyer. Chairman of the Syrian Center for Media and Freedom of Expression, he has was imprisoned from February 2012 to August 2015 and declared a prisoner of conscience by Amnesty International.

“The logic according to which ‘you are with me or you don’t exist’ hardly spares Christians any more than the Alawite minority”, he explains, being himself from the latter.

Many Alawites have also chosen the rebellion, boycotting the recruitment of young people into the army, or organizing a meeting of Alawite opponents, in Cairo in 2013, calling on the community to revolt. Alawite general Zubaida al-Meeki was even the first female officer to defect.

The presence of Alawites in the ranks of the opposition is anything but trivial. Their community is so associated with the intelligence services that it is enough to imitate the accent of the Alawite regions to terrorize someone on the telephone, note several Syrians.

The Assad clan divides to conquer better, they sum up. This analysis joins that proposed by Ziad Majed, political scientist and professor at the American University of Paris : the regime has knowingly fueled enmities between communities.

In the Sunni majority of the countryside, “the Assad system has instilled a hatred against the Alawites”, associated with the regime in the collective unconscious, regrets the Alawite lawyer, Issa Ibrahim.

Conversely, “the regime has led all minorities into unjustified fear vis-à-vis the rest of their Syrian brothers” (Sunnis), sighs Syrian and Alawite actress Waha Al-Raheb.

Assad by default

The concerns of these minorities are not unfounded, objects however Tigrane Yegavian, member of the editorial board of the journal Conflits.

In a post-Assad Syria, the Alawites would have absolutely no guarantee of being closely or remotely associated with power. Worse, no safeguard would protect them from the vengeance of the rest of society, continues the author of “Minorités d’Orient : The Forgotten of History”.

“For most Alawites and Christians, adherence to the regime is not so much a matter of conviction, as of lucidity” continues the journalist : in the face of the Islamists, Assad seems to be a choice by default.

The Christian districts of Aleppo would undoubtedly have been erased, if the city had not been taken over by the Syrian army at the end of 2016, adds the Franco-Syrian.

The baptized already represented only 8 % of the population in 2011. Less than half of them still live in Syria today.

The Christians and Alawites who have agreed to confide in France 24 have all left their country for good. Hostages of a dictatorship claiming to act on their behalf, only two alternatives presented themselves to them : silence or exile.

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