Economic crisis begins to shatter the foundation of Alawite support for Assad

In the coastal towns of Syria, memorials to fallen soldiers mark the sacrifice made by the Alawite minority in defense of President Bashar al-Assad, also Alawite. But, more than a decade since the start of the Civil War, his regime has struggled to keep even the lights on in its heart.

The war has destroyed much of Syria and, with the authoritarian assad controlling two-thirds of the country, an unprecedented economic crisis threatens to destroy what remains – including for the Alawis, whose regime relies on men for to equip his all-powerful secret police and fight in his army.

Like all Syrians, the Alawis struggle with impoverishment, power outages, shortages, falling currency and unemployment. The economic collapse, sparked by war and sanctions, has been exacerbated by Covid and a financial crisis in neighboring Lebanon, its banking lifeline.

“I don’t know how to explain the terrible situation now,” said a 22-year-old student from the Alawite-majority coastal town of Latakia, who earns around $ 10 a week on tutoring and lives on remittances. a brother in Germany. “May God help those who have no one to send them money from abroad,” she added. She did not want her name published for fear of reprisal.

The Alawis, a historically marginalized sect that makes up only 15% of Syria’s 17 million people, have long been seen as a staple of regime loyalists in the predominantly Sunni country.

Pro-government forces pose in the coastal town of Salma after it was taken over from rebel fighters in 2016 © Youseef Karwashan / AFP via Getty Images

Since Bashar’s father, Hafez, took power in a 1963 coup backed by other officers of the Alawite army, the Assads have disproportionately staffed the security and intelligence services with ‘Alawites. Along with the country’s largely Sunni and Christian merchant bourgeoisie, the state has become the main source of lucrative employment for the Alawis.

When Assad opened up the Syrian economy, after decades of his father Hafez’s isolationist economic policy, “there was some sort of overall improvement in living standards, for state employees in particular and the Alawis” , said Elizabeth Tsurkov, a member of the Newlines Institute.

It is therefore not surprising that the Alawite-majority coastal areas of Latakia and Tartus did not rise up against Assad in 2011 and, therefore, were spared the worst violence of the war. As a religious minority, they had much to fear from a revolution that began with democratic protests but was overtaken by Islamist forces, who view the unorthodox Muslim Alawis as heretics.

“We have been disappointed as revolutionaries under the shadow of this black flag,” said a 70-year-old writer from an Alawite family, referring to the symbol of Isis and other Islamist extremists.

The economy, rather than sectarian loyalty, was behind the Alawite community’s alignment with the Assads, said Alex Simon, Syrian director of Beirut-based research firm Synaps. The state. . . has become the main vehicle, if not for economic mobility, then livability, ”for the Alawites, he said.

But these ties are now strained. Posts on neighborhood Facebook pages for Alawite-majority towns provide a window into local grievances – from electricity that runs for only a few hours a day and severe fuel shortages, to the failure of irresponsible administration to resolve service issues.

With inflation soaring, as the Syrian currency rose from around SYP 50 to one dollar before 2011, now hovering around SYP 3,500 after a recent steep devaluation, the salaries of soldiers and government employees are only worth ‘a fraction of what they once were. “Now it’s really back[ . . . ]conversations about the fact that life is a constant humiliation, ”as was the case under Hafez’s Baath Socialist Party, Tsurkov said.

While hardly anyone dares to publicly chastise the president, many feel abandoned by Assad.

“The regime is barely facing the [economic problems]Said a translator and volunteer with cultural initiatives, 38, from Latakia.

“The state has become a collecting machine, especially in the past two years taxes and fines have become hysterical because the government is bankrupt.” While some “support the regime. . . out of ignorance and fear ”, the volunteer felt that the economic situation had weakened their faith:“ people have lost their religion ”.

The still state repression made the Alawites agree to the regime. “From time to time, the corpses of tortured detainees are sent to their families,” the writer said. “The generation that remained in Syria saw fear and oppression, they could not stand up. The safety handle is too tight. “

The Syrians “were reduced to [their] the vast majority in misery and suffering, ”said Geir Pederson, the UN’s top diplomat on Syria. More than 60% of the population does not have access to enough food, according to the United Nations food agency, and 13 million people survive on the aid.

Whatever the suffering of the Alawis and other Syrians, Tsurkov said that a return to large-scale protests was unlikely: “the regime has been able to demonstrate to the Syrians that they will surrender, that they will surrender. will conform. . . everyone knows it’s intolerable, yet nobody does anything ”.

While violence may have slowed in Syria, the daily horror has not. “I saw a child [lying] next to the trash can. I thought he was dead and tried to move him, but it turned out he was alive, ”said the writer, who lives near Damascus.

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