- A Russian airbase was attacked by a horde of armed drones
- An anti-Assad Alawite group hinted it carried out the attacks
- Alawites are largely thought of as uniformally loyal to the Assad regime
- But more Alawites are coming out and openly calling for regime change
By Ty Joplin
On Jan. 6, a small horde of custom-made armed drones hovered over a Russian airbase in Syria, and began to drop bombs.
Before being brought down, the drones damaged some of Russia’s warplanes, which have been used to conduct airstrikes all over the country with the hopes to neutralize any and all opposition to Bashar al-Assad’s grip on power in the country.
The attack mirrored another that occured on Dec. 31, where drones carrying bombs killed two Russian servicemen.
Immediately, questions arose as to who could have designed armed drones then fly them over Russia’s massive Hmeimim airbase, which is situated in Syria’s Latakia Governorate—an area firmly under the control of the Syrian regime.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights based in the U.K. blamed Islamists operating around Latakia.
Russian officials blamed rebels backed by Turkey before hinting that Ukraine could be involved in addition to the U.S. For their part, both Ukraine and the U.S. denied any involvement.
Nobody outwardly declared responsibility for the attack—a brazen one that could showcase a group’s ability to successfully launch operations against powerful militaries.
Amidst the whirling rumors and unfounded accusations, a secretive group posted a threat to Russia on Facebook, detailing the damage caused to the airbase and telling Putin that he had six months to totally withdraw from Syria, and that the group will continue to target the Russian military in Syria.
The group is not an Islamist faction or an offshoot of ISIS, nor is it likely in cahoots with the Ukraine. Besides this attack, for which the group may responsible and the following statement, nothing is known for certain about its nature.
The Facebook post came from the Free Alawite Movement. Although rumored to be nonexistent in reality, the Free Alawite Movement reflects a very real and widely underreported sentiment in Syria: that of the Alawites who wants Assad out of power.
As the Syrian Civil War slowly destroys the country, Alawites are growing more resentful of Assad’s grip on power, and Alawite movements against him are getting bolder.
The Assad family, which has been in power since 1970, have relied on Alawites to maintain its stranglehold on Syria.
But as Bashar al-Assad slowly emerges as the victor in the war, his position as the leader of postwar Syria may be threatened by his own base: Alawites, who have grown disillusioned by Assad’s brutal tactics that have torn Syria apart and use of some Alawite families as cannon fodder in the army to shield other, more elite families.
Inside Assad’s Alawite sect, a tale of class struggle and decades-long resentment could coalesce into a challenge on Assad’s reign.
Alawites Speak Out Against Assad
The Alawites have historically been the group most loyal to the Assad family, and have reaped the benefits of aligning with the government.
Bashar’s father, Hafez al-Assad, initially brought the Alawites into the military, allowing them an avenue to achieve economic prosperity, while the largely Sunni middle class was able to avoid military conscription by paying fees or bribes. Ever since, much of the Syrian Arab Army (SAA) and the security apparatus surrounding the Assad regime has been disproportionately made up of Alawites, who represented about 12 percent of Syria’s pre-war population.
“Assad succeeded in pulling the vast majority of the Alawites to his side,” Noura Hourani said in an interview. Hourani was raised in Latakia, Syria, a mostly Alawite region where the Russian airbase is located, before moving to Amman where she is now the managing editor of Syria Direct.
Hourani says that many Alawites have lost family members and friends in the war, but have also helped commit the myriad atrocities that have scarred the Syrian population. Because of this, many are stuck on Assad’s side.
Those in the Alawite sect who haven’t picked Bashar al-Assad as the rightful leader of Syria, have spoken out consistently against the war.
Alawites launched a little-known anti-Assad campaign to voice resistance against the regime’s brutality. Along Syria’s coastline to the west, Alawites distributed flyers depicting Assad’s seat of power as a coffin for Alawites.
Anti-Assad Flyer distributed in Syria (Syria Direct)
In Arabic, the caption reads: “a chair for you [Bashar al-Assad], and the coffins for our children,” referencing the high number of Alawite deaths from the war.
The #Speak Up campaign also demanded the resignation of Fahd Jassem al-Freij, Syria’s defense minister, after 120 SAA soldiers were executed by ISIS. Alawites calling for Freji’s removal deemed him “the minister of death.”
Alawite resistance movements have sprung up and disappeared throughout the Syrian conflict. From the Syrian Alawite Congress who called for regime change, to Upcoming Syria who worked out of Istanbul to foment a push for regime change, to the Free Alawite Movement, who may have designed and manned the drones which bombed the Hmeimim airbase in Latakia.
The narrative peddled by the Assad regime that it protects religious minorities in Syria is a false one, says Upcoming Syria’s founder, Fouad Hamira.
Omar Kouch, a leader for the opposition Syrian National Council, states, “The regime is using [Alawites] as fuel, they started thinking why my son is being killed but not those close to Assad’s family? No one is killed in Assad’s family.”
Pulled into Power, Pushed into Poverty
The fact that Assad’s family has been largely shielded from the war points to a larger schism within the Alawite sect in Syria. Some Alawite families have profited greatly off the Assad regime and faced little hardship, while many others have suffered and saw virtually none of the benefits of being part of a minority Assad has sworn loyalty towards.
Oula Abdulhamid Alrifai, a former researcher at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, writes in stark terms of the disparate living conditions of the Alawites under the Assads:
“The division in the Alawite community isn't new: it reflects the backlash against Assad's favoritism toward the so-called al-Kallasieh clan, to which his family belongs. This clan has been protected in its coastal enclave from the burdens of war while other Alawite communities, such as the Haidariya, are forced to go out to the front lines and fight the Syrian opposition.”
Beyond facing death on the frontlines, members of Assad’s inner-circle of Alawites seem totally oblivious to the privileges they recieve while others in their sect struggle:
“Members of the Assad clan and their friends and allies were known to flaunt their fancy villas, motorcycles, and cars, which often lacked license plates, indicating that they were smuggled into the country. Driving past the barefoot children who live in small mud homes with shoddy electricity and water, these privileged few behaved like royalty, even if perhaps they were.”
Here, a brutal image of the Assad regime becomes clear. Using a strategy akin to divide-and-conquer, the Assads used their power to raise those closest to them to the highest echelons of Syrian society, pitting families against each other and selectively co-opting the interests of some to cement a base of loyalists.
As the regime profits, so too do the families associated with it. Those not fortunate enough to have been born in the right family though, face immense struggle and even death in the army.
As the war continues and claims more Alawite lives, many are saying that this political system must come to an end.
A Leader Without a People
Opposition fighters stand on depictions of Bashar al-Assad and his late father, former President Hafez al-Assad (AFP/FILE)
According to Hourani, there are members within the Alawite community in Syria, some who belong to the elite, who are “waiting for the opportune moment to overthrow Assad” in a coup-style takeover.
But there are reasons to doubt the feasibility of an Alawite-led overthrow of the Assad regime.
The vast majority of the organized Alawites against Assad reside outside of Syria in exile, and are artists, writers and creatives rather than political leaders or people with a direct say in the future of the Syrian government.
And though some Alawites desperately wish for the removal of the Assad regime, others may simply want outside actors like Russia and Iran to withdraw their forces from the country. The attack on the Hmeimim airbase was, after all, seemingly aimed against Russia and not Assad.
In 2015, Alawites attacked Iranian and Syrian soldiers after an Iranian field commander reportedly ordered mass arrests in Alawite towns.
However, this resistance may ultimately be pointed against Assad, who invited Russia and Iran to intervene in Syria to turn the tide of the civil war in his favor.
The Hmeimim airbase attack, for all its mysteries and speculations, could stand as a landmark action—the first of many signs that as Assad cements his power over Syria, his base is faltering under the pressure of a war that has irreparably destroyed entire families and cemented an Alawite under-class.
In understanding how Assad’s own base could turn against him, a former intelligence agent for Assad and Alawite, Yaseen Sulayman, crystallizes the situation: “Bashar does not represent the Alawite sect, and the sect does not represent Bashar. He is a dictator who represents only his own interests. He has abandoned all Syrians, the first being this sect [the Alawites] when he compelled them to wear military fatigues and defend him… he has no future in Syria.”
As the war drags on and his Alawite base hollows out, Bashar al-Assad may be left with a unified territory without a pedestal from which to rule: Assad may become a ruler without a people.
Even if Assad does have a future in Syria, it may be a hollow one.
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