by Avi Melamed
According to accumulating information, the major Alawite families in Syria are beginning to openly oppose Assad’s rule.
The backbone of the Assad regime is the Alawite sect, a minority in this largely Sunni country. There are approximately 2.5 million Alawites in Syria – about 12% of the population. Most of them live along the Mediterranean shore and the mountain range in the northwestern part of the country. The main Alawite cities are Tartus (500,000 people and predominately Sunni), and the district of Latakiya which include the cities of Latakiya, Jableh, Al Haffa, and Al Qardahah the Assad family’s hometown.
The predominant Alawite families in the Al Qardaha district are Abud, Al Assad, Al Heir, Othman and Shalish. Members of these families, as well smaller Alawite families hold senior positions in the Syrian security establishment, and in the intelligence and finance sectors.
However, the relationships between the various families are complex. Competition, power struggles, conflicting economic interests and personal rivalries characterize the relations between these families.
So far, the Alawites have presented a united front and have supported the Assad regime. Yet, beneath the surface, criticism of the way Assad has conducted himself as the crisis in Syria has evolved is deepening the tension between the families.
The first indication to me that the tensions were escalating was in August 2012. An anonymous body called “The Shore’s Young People” presenting themselves as an Alawite opposition to Assad’s rule published a leaflet describing Assad as a brutal dictator. They also called upon the members of Al Shabiha, a paramilitary militia loyal to Assad, to leave the region.
The growing tensions exploded at the end of September 2012. A dispute between members of different Alawite families in a coffee shop in the city of Al Qardahah, Assad’s hometown, turned into a violent clash resulting the killing of 11 people and the injury of dozens. Reportedly, one of the Assad family’s most senior leaders was killed or seriously injured.
The violence quickly spread towards the nearby city of Jableh. In attempt to block the snowball from gaining momentum, the Syrian government is sending in military reinforcements and tanks and has blocked the main roads leading to the area. In addition, the cellular network in the region has apparently been shut down.
The growing fire within the Alawite families has been fueled by the increasing number of Alawite soldiers – including senior officers in Assad’s army – that have been killed in the war in Syria.
Reliable information indicates that more than 260 soldiers and officers from the district of Latakiya were killed. On Friday an Alawite senior officer from the city of Tartus was killed, Colonel Ali Hazan, from the Syrian army’s Elite Unit 105.
It seems the pressure is causing deepening fissures within the Assad family as well. A reliable source reports that two members of the Assad family, Fawaz Al Assad, the Head of Al Shabiha Militia, and Hilal Al Assad, the Commander of the 4th Division Military Police, have recently fled to Cyprus.
In addition, according to an uncorroborated report, seven very senior Alawite officers (Generals, Colonels, etc.) have defected to Jordan over the past twenty-four hours.
This widening conflict within the Alawite sect is a very significant development and could substantially impact the course and pace of events in Syria.