Middle East
4:03 pm
Mon July 16, 2012

A Syrian Defector Confronts A Sectarian Divide

Originally published on Mon July 16, 2012 7:16 pm

The violence in Syria is increasingly being called a civil war, and it can also be called a sectarian war, because much of the fighting pits the majority Sunni Muslims against the minority Alawites who make up much of the country's leadership.

Yet not everyone fits neatly into a category. There are some Alawites who have joined the uprising.

One 30-year-old Alawite man, who doesn't want his name revealed, is nervous as he lights another cigarette and tells the story of how he came to side with the opposition and turned his back on the Alawite rulers.

"Those people have stopped using their minds. They are just acting by their feelings," the man says of other Alawites who remain loyal to Syrian President Bashar Assad and his regime.

The young man wants the regime to fall and he has fled his homeland for Turkey. He is currently in Antakya, just across the border from northwest Syria. Yet he's afraid for his family still in Syria.

Threats To His Family

His Facebook page, Alawite Youth, was critical of the regime and put him at risk. And in the past week, his family, which lives in an Alawite neighborhood in the Syrian port city of Latakia, has been harassed. Men came to the family house, they punched his brother and are now calling the defector on his phone.

"They just threatened me and my family, saying, 'We are going to kill your brothers and rape your sisters, so what can you do,' " the defector says.

His family once supported his activism. But they begged him to erase the Facebook page that he launched in April 2011. He had joined the uprising in the earliest days and was proud to show that the revolution was for freedom and not a fight between religious sects. But he erased the page last week for the sake of his family.

His journey was the same as those of Sunni Muslim activists now in Turkey. He took part in demonstrations. He was jailed for months and tortured. He fled to Turkey five months ago. All the while, he kept up his Facebook page — with the help of a Sunni Muslim activist.

"We became friends. He told me that he was astonished that some Alawite people support the revolution," the defector says.

But his Sunni friend was killed recently in the Syrian village of Houla, one of the events that has cemented the sectarian divide. It began with the Syrian army shelling the Sunni Muslim farming district and ended with Alawite militiamen — known as shabiha — killing house to house late into the night. More than 100 people died, including the Sunni Muslim activist who was willing to work with an Alawite for the sake of the revolution.

"He was a good friend, he was an honest man, open-minded. It's a disaster, actually," said the defector.

Feeling Isolated

The divide in Syrian society means the Alawite defector is increasingly isolated among the Syrian exiles in southern Turkey.

"You are not so welcome in the revolution," he says. "You have to prove every day — every single hour — that you are supporting the revolution."

It seems he has to prove himself again when we sit down in a cafe popular with young rebel fighters who come to southern Turkey for a break from the fighting. They are all Sunnis.

The Alawite gets looks -– unfriendly looks.

"Actually, it makes me so sad — so desperate — there are so many people like this guy who is looking at me suspiciously. And I understand his looks. This is only a disease in the Syrian people," he says.

The revolt and the regime's response have separated Syria's communities. The defector says it was different in his college days when his friends were Christian and Sunni Muslims.

"We have been laughing about our religion for 10 years," the defector says. "I told one of them, 'You are a stupid Sunni,' and he told me, 'No, you are stupid Alawite,' we are laughing about that. There is a feeling of brotherhood in that. That we are just Syrian; we are just human."

As we leave the cafe, he says he is a lonely man now who feels distant from all sides.

"I have suffered from the regime — I have suffered from my little community, which is the Alawi minority — and up here [in Turkey] I am actually really suffering from the opposition," he says.

He remains committed to the uprising, committed to his choices because, he says, he believes Syria must change.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Audie Cornish.

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

And I'm Robert Siegel.

The violence in Syria has been called a civil war, although the more accurate description is sectarian war. The conflict is reduced in most accounts to a fight between the majority Sunni Muslim population and the minority Alawites. But some Alawites have joined the uprising.

NPR's Deborah Amos met one of them in neighboring Turkey.

(SOUNDBITE OF FLICKING)

DEBORAH AMOS, BYLINE: He is nervous and lights another cigarette before he continues his story. He's an Alawite, a faith shared with the Syrian president and the elite of the regime. His minority community mostly supports the government. He wants the regime to fall.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Those people have stopped using their minds since a long time. They are just acting by their feelings.

AMOS: He doesn't want his name revealed. He's afraid for his family in Syria. But his Facebook page, Alawite Youth, critical of the regime, has already put him at risk. And in the past weeks, his family has been threatened. They live in an Alawite neighborhood in the Syrian city of Latakia.

So, they come to your house, they punch your brother and they keep calling you?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Yeah.

AMOS: And saying what?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: They just threaten me and my family. They just kept saying that we are going to kill your brothers, we're going to rape your sisters. So what can you do?

AMOS: His family, who once supported his activism, begged him to erase the Facebook page he launched in April, 2011. He joined the uprising in the earliest days and was proud to show that the revolt was for freedom and not a fight between religious sects. But he erased the page a few days ago for the sake of his family. Now the only traces are on random sites on the Web.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: This is my name here. The name of my page, the Alawi Youth page

AMOS: And that's all that's left?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Yeah.

AMOS: His journey was the same as the Sunni Muslim activists here. He took part in demonstrations. He was jailed for months and tortured. He escaped to Turkey five months ago. All the while, he kept up his Facebook page, a Sunni Muslim activist helped him.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: So we became friends. So he told me that he was astonished that there's some Alawite people who support the revolution. But unfortunately, after the Al Houla massacre, I just lost him.

AMOS: The Houla massacre was another event that cemented the sectarian divide. It began with the army shelling a Sunni Muslim farming district and ended with Alawite militia-men known as Shabiha, killing house to house late into the night. More than 100 people died, including a Sunni Muslim activist willing to work with an Alawite for the sake of the revolution.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: He was a good friend. He was an honest man, open minded. It's a disaster, actually.

AMOS: The divide in Syrian society means he's increasingly isolated among the Syrian exiles here.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: You are not so welcome in the revolution. You have to prove every day, every single hour, you have to prove that you are supporting the revolution.

AMOS: And it seems he has to prove himself again when we sit down in a cafe popular with young rebels who come to southern Turkey for a break from the fighting. They are all Sunnis. This Alawite gets looks, unfriendly looks.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Yeah, actually it make me so sad, so desperate. There are so many people like this guy who is looking at me suspiciously. And I understand his looks. This is only a disease in the Syrian people.

AMOS: Now, the revolt and the regime's response have separated Syria's communities. It was different in his college days when his friends were Christians and Sunni Muslims.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: We have been laughing on our religion for 10 years. So, I told one of them you are a stupid Sunni. And he told me, no, you are stupid Alawite. We are laughing about that. There's a feeling of brotherhood in that, that we are just Syrian. We are just human, just Syrian.

AMOS: He is a lonely man, now, he says when we leave the cafe.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: I have suffered from the regime. I have suffered from my little community, which is the Alawi minority. And up here, I am actually really suffering from the opposition.

AMOS: He remains committed to the revolution, committed to his choices because, he says, Syria must change.

Deborah Amos, NPR News, Antakya, Turkey. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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