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A Defection Hints At Cracks Among Syria's Alawites

In a new YouTube video, a Syrian colonel defects from the army, denounces President Bashar Assad and publicly joins the rebels of the Free Syrian Army.

Videos are a staple of Syria's 19-month revolt, and defections by officers have been increasing. But this one is highly unusual because the colonel, Zubayda Almiqi, says she is a member of Assad's Alawite sect.

Alawites are an offshoot of Shiite Islam, and they make up around 12 percent of the Syrian population. But with the Assad family in charge for more than four decades, Syria's ruling class has been dominated by Alawites, from the government to the sprawling security bureaucracy, from the military to the media.

But Almiqi's public defection, combined with other emerging signs, raises fundamental questions about the most important pillar of the Assad regime.

Assad's staying power, in part, rests on the solid backing of the 1.3 million Alawites in the face of an uprising dominated by Sunni Muslims, Syria's majority population.

Alawite unity had appeared to be growing even stronger out of fear that if Assad falls, Alawites will suffer terrible reprisals. But in recent weeks, cracks are beginning to show.

"We are proud to have this dignified woman decide to defect," said Habib Saleh, an Alawite dissident and veteran activist who spent more than a decade in prison.

In her YouTube statement, Almiqi announced that she will join the rebels.

"They have accepted her," said Saleh, referring to a Facebook statement by rebel commanders. "She will offer her experience."

Signs Of Growing Splits

Saleh, a member of the Syrian National Council, a political opposition group, says there are historic splits within the Alawite community that have grown more acute as the rebels have taken the fight closer to the Alawite heartland, which is in and around Latakia, on Syria's Mediterranean coast.

"So many causalities took place," he says, that anxiety and fear mount with each new coffin returned for burial.

"I have daily phone calls with people in the villages, and I know the families," he says. Now, he adds, public criticism of the Assad regime often appears on Facebook pages, scrawled as graffiti or on handwritten signs.

"Why are we killing for the family of Assad?" is the urgent question, says Saleh, because so many Alawites are paying for the "slaughter by Assad" with the lives of their husbands, sons and brothers. Saleh estimates that more than 6,000 Alawites have been killed in the fighting.

The defection of one Alawite colonel, a woman with a desk job in the military bureaucracy, may not seem like a trend all by itself. But it's noteworthy because it follows intriguing signs of another rift in the community.

President's Cousin Reportedly Shot

Mohammed Assad, a cousin of the president, was reportedly shot and critically wounded last week in Qardaha, the ancestral mountain village of the Assad clan.

A hometown challenge to the most powerful family in the country is unprecedented, even more so because the alleged assailant, according to Saleh and other sources, is also an Alawite, a member of another elite family in Qardaha.

Mohammed Assad is known as the "Sheik of the Mountain" and leads a "shabiha unit," the paramilitary groups accused by the United Nations and human rights groups of carrying out some of the most brutal attacks in the fighting, especially against civilians.

Mohammed Assad's shabiha forces are suspected of murder and looting the homes of victims. Even before the conflict, he had a reputation as one of Syria's most brutal and successful smugglers.

The details surrounding Mohammed Assad's shooting are hard to confirm. Journalist visas are rare and, even when granted, come with severe restrictions. And reports from opposition sources differ on specifics. The most credible reports describe a brawl in a local restaurant that left a number of people dead or wounded.

"Is this posturing among tough guys," asks Josh Landis, a U.S.-based academic who writes a widely read blog on Syria, "or is this feuding? That's the big question."

The answer to the question is crucial to the longevity of the Assad regime, says Landis. "It's about these family relationships that are the strength of Syria. It's built on those traditional loyalties," he says.

Alawite solidarity has kept the core of the Assad regime intact and army generals in line. But "when the families in Qardaha start to shoot each other, there is danger in Dodge," says Landis.

How Deep Is The Split?

These cracks in Assad's core support have set off a frenzy of speculation on Syrian social media sites, and fueled hopes among anti-regime activists that more politically significant Alawite defections are coming.

But dissident Alawites are still viewed with skepticism within the Sunni-led opposition, including the Syrian National Council and the Free Syrian Army. Simply put, Alawites are not trusted.

A recent report by the International Crisis Group sites this as a reason the conflict is likely to be protracted.

"If the opposition aims to destroy the regime and has no plan that ensures the Alawites a political future as real partners, then wider conflict is almost certain," the International Crisis Group says.

Habib Saleh is convinced the recent developments show "the Alawites have started an uprising, too."

However, other Alawite dissidents with close ties to the community are not so sure.

"Many Alawites believe that the regime is the only power that can protect them," said one Alawite dissident who did not want his name published out of fear for his safety. "They feel threatened and believe Islamist radicals will come to kill them."

He said the once reverent support for Assad had weakened considerably on Facebook sites frequented by Alawites. Still, he says, "most of them support the regime even if they don't like it."

But that could be changing. The shootout last week in Qardaha began over public criticism of the Assad regime following the arrests of a prominent Alawite dissident, Dr. Abdul Aziz Al-Kheeyyer.

Al-Kheeyyer and two other activists were seized by security police as they were leaving Damascus airport upon their return from an official visit to China.

Al-Kheeyyer had urged Chinese leaders to vote against the Assad regime at the United Nations, according to sources familiar with the meeting in Beijing.

After Al-Kheeyyer's arrest, members of his clan publicly challenged the head of the Assad clan in a Qardaha restaurant, according to sources who report that the shootout was followed by street protests.

"It's not over, and it won't be over," says Habib Saleh, the 65-year-old dissident with deep roots in the Alawite mountain villages.

"The Alawites have a national role to play," he says, "but not through Assad and his regime, which destroyed Syria."

The fallout in a remote village in the mountains of coastal Syria plays a key role in deciding the fate of the country.

Rasha Elass contributed to this report.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Deborah Amos covers the Middle East for NPR News. Her reports can be heard on NPR's award-winning Morning Edition, All Things Considered, and Weekend Edition.