AMMAN (Reuters) - A dissident from President Bashar al-Assad’s minority Alawite sect is urging his co-religionists not to fear for their fate if the Syrian leader falls, arguing the “end of totalitarianism” is the best guarantee for the survival of their community.
The armed uprising led by Syria’s Sunni Muslim majority has rallied around Islamist slogans that identify all Alawites with irregular “shabbiha” forces unleashed against protesters, leading some to fear they have no future without Assad.
A wave of sectarian killings in the protest hub of Homs reinforced those fears earlier this year.
Alawites say they were targeted on the basis of presumed communal loyalty to Assad. Some Sunni preachers subsequently began to denounce Alawites as heretics.
Severing their fate from Assad’s is crucial for Alawites, said Maen Akel, a writer who has been travelling around Syria and documenting the 14-month-old uprising in film as well as with notes and interviews.
He acknowledged the fear Alawites have regarding their future, but argued that democracy would best defuse anger over the identification of Alawites as a whole with Assad’s rule.
“The Alawites are afraid of the future, but so are many Syrians. There is no way out except for totalitarianism to end. It has brought society to the point of explosion. If the regime falls and we have democracy, the sectarian issue will be the easiest to solve,” Akel said.
Akel, 46, fled Syria last month and was smuggled into Jordan with a group of Sunni families from Homs, who did not mind an Alawite among them, despite suffering in Assad’s crackdown.
“Syrians, as a society remain non-sectarian. During all my travels in Syria the only time I was asked if I was Alawite was at army roadblocks,” he said.
Alawites, an offshoot of Shi’ite Islam who compromise 10 percent of Syria’s population, rose to political dominance five decades ago by controlling the army and security apparatus in the majority Sunni Muslim country.
A ruling elite from the Assad family, their relatives and Alawite security chiefs, strengthened its grip on the country during the 30-year rule of Hafez al- Assad, who also forged alliances the Sunni merchant class and many tribes.
Under Bashar, who succeeded his father in 2000, corruption and the concentration of wealth grew, with relatives such as his cousin, billionaire Rami Makhlouf, controlling key sectors during a period of limited liberalization in which Assad cronies benefited most.
Akel said that concentration of wealth strengthened the perception among Sunnis that Alawites as a group were privileged under Assad’s rule, while most were in fact no better off than the rest of the population.
Akel, jailed for nine years under the elder Assad, was again detained for three months after writing a series of reports about corruption. He was freed three weeks before the uprising erupted in March.
Akel implored Assad to tackle corruption and ease repression, or face the fate of other toppled Arab leaders.
He doubted, however, such measures could happen, and saw the best chance for transition with minimal bloodshed in a move by members of the ruling elite against Assad, though he also acknowledged the inner circle has shown no signs of cracking.
“Assad cannot allow the rotation of power, give people universal rights or hold even the most junior soldier or security police accountable for killing because the whole system will collapse,” Akel said.
He said Assad was reprising his father’s strategy from the 1980s, when Hafez al-Assad crushed an armed Muslim Brotherhood insurrection, and arming Alawite communities in the hope of creating a sectarian front against Sunni hotspots of the revolt.
“It won’t work this time. They’re against a popular revolution. The Alawites need to stay on the sidelines,” Akel said in an interview at a popular cafe in Amman.
The leftist, chain-smoking writer said secular Syrians and Alawites have to come to terms with the rise of Islamists in the uprising.
“The people are facing a war of annihilation and the international community has done little. The people have nothing but religion for solace, but this does not mean they want political Islam,” Akel said.
“Even if democracy brings the Islamists to power where is the problem? Let them come and face reality as long as they honor the democratic principle and rotation of power.”
Editing by Jon Hemming