Syria's Alawites fear sectarian reprisals
The revolution and subsequent civil war in Syria has sectarian overtones. Bashar al-Assad and his father Hafez, who ruled the country before him, are members of the minority Alawite sect, while the majority of Syrians are Sunni-Muslims. Other minorities include Shia-Muslims and Christians.
During its 40-year rule, the Assad regime has worked to transform the Alawite sect from a traditionally rural population based in the Latakia mountains to a cosmopolitan ruling elite.
As the conflict continues, Alawites have increasingly begun to fear reprisals and many have fled Syria. Some are even to be found in the refugee camp in Kilis, on the Turkish border, although whether they can be open about their origins says much about the future of Syria itself.
Official figures estimate that there are roughly 12,500 refugees in the Kilis camp, the vast majority of them Sunni Muslims from Syria’s north. The camp’s director, Ihsan Aray, is guarded on the issue of whether Alawites may also be finding shelter there:
“At the entrance when they are arriving at the camp and when we are registering them, we are not questioning them about which religion or which sect or which belief they have,” he insists.
Speaking to the refugees, it is clear that there are Alawites in the camp but that most choose to hide their identities, fearing that they will be held responsible for the crimes of the Assad regime.
Many refugees mentioned an Alawite woman who had married a Sunni man inside the Kilis camp. Although fearing for her and her family's safety, she refused to speak publicly.
But the man who helped set up the wedding, Ibrahim Noami, agreed to speak.
“I helped them wed by finding a Sheikh - a religious man - to marry them, and two witnesses," he said. "Then after the wedding she stayed with us for four days before the couple went to their own house. We still visit one another. It’s not an Alawi-Sunni thing. It’s just normal. We are people. We are Syrian."
Noami claimed that the Alawites who are in the camp have stated that they are against the regime, meaning that they are able to coexist with the others in the camp peacefully.
But with the situation as it is, the politics of identity still haunts even the most open-minded:
“If anyone tries to hide his identity as an Alawite … we just know that they are Alawite, and there are spies, even women. In the Yalada camp, we could know, they were sent by the regime, so they kicked them out.”
The problem of whether the refugees can coexist peacefully in the guarded environment of the camps raises many questions about Syria’s future as a pluralistic state.
Noami is positive about the ability of Syria’s groups to live in peace after the civil war:
“in my opinion, we will all live together. We will accept anyone, providing that they did not commit any crimes against the human race.”
But the question about coexistence in the camps and beyond is not one that is easy to answer.
Isa Abdil, a resident of the Kilis camp, was outspoken.
“Alawites would only come here if they were Shabiha militia. It would be like stabbing us in the back. That’s something they’re famous for, the Alawites.”
While talking to Isa, the debate about whether peace between the different groups in Syria will be possible in the future spurred an argument between him and his nephew:
"He’s saying no, never, we can never live together. But his nephew here, he is saying we can live together, because our problem is with the regime not the regime, the Assad family.”
In the midst of a brutal civil war where the majority of Alawites still support the Assad regime, it is difficult to tell what the outcome for Syria will be. With the sectarian nature of the conflict deepening, it’s difficult to see how Alawites could prove their good faith in the new Syria or if they will be believed when they try.