Alawiti in Siria, il prezzo della lealtà

(di Robert F. Worth*, The New York Times). The Damascus neighborhood known as Mezze 86 is a dense, dilapidated warren of narrow hillside streets adorned with posters bearing the face of Syria’s president, Bashar al-Assad. The presidential palace is nearby, and the area is crawling with well-armed guards and soldiers. It is next to impossible to enter unless you are accompanied by government officials or well-known locals, almost all of them members of Assad’s Alawite sect.

I drove there on a quiet Friday morning in May, and we were stopped several times at checkpoints by young soldiers who examined our documents carefully before waving us on. When we arrived at our destination, in a small parking lot hemmed in by cinder-block towers, I emerged from the car to the suspicious glares of several middle-aged men in fatigues. “They are not expecting foreigners here,” one of the men who accompanied me said. “The rebels are trying constantly to hit this place, because they know who lives here.” He pointed to a damaged roof not far away. “A mortar struck very close the other day. A lady was killed just above us, and another just below.”

To many Syrians, Mezze 86 is a terrifying place, a stronghold for regime officers and the ruthless paramilitary gunmen known as shabiha, or “ghosts.” These are the men accused of carrying out much of the torture and killing that has left more than 90,000 people dead since the Syrian uprising began two years ago. Some of the older men living in the neighborhood are veterans of the notorious defense brigades, which helped carry out the 1982 massacre of Hama, where between 10,000 and 30,000 people were killed in less than a month. Yet Mezze 86 now emanates a sense of aggrieved martyrdom. The streets are lined with colorful portraits of dead soldiers; every household proclaims the fallen and the wounded and the vanished.

I went there to meet a woman named Ibtisam Ali Aboud, who had fled her home after her husband — a retired Alawite officer named Muhsin — was killed in February by rebels. Ibtisam is a woman of 50, but she looked 20 years older, her face a pale canvas of anxious lines over her long, black mourning cloak. Her son was with her, a timid-looking 17-year-old named Jafar. We spoke in a dingy, sparsely furnished room, with a picture of a bearded Alawite saint on the wall. “We never used to feel any distinction between people of different sects,” Ibtisam told me. “Now they are ready to slaughter us.”

Her husband’s killer was a car mechanic named Ayham, she said, who had eaten at their table and casually borrowed money from her husband only 10 days earlier, promising to pay it back soon. Someone had been slipping notes under their door — “Die, Alawite scum,” “Get out, regime thugs” — and sectarian killings and kidnappings were growing more common; even Muhsin had narrowly escaped being taken captive by armed men. But he refused to listen to his wife’s warnings when she told him that Ayham was working with Sunni rebel gunmen. “Ayham is my friend,” he had told her. “This is Syria, not Iraq.” One night he went out to run an errand and never came home. They found his body in the family car the next day, a bullet hole in his head. The family’s small auto-repair shop was burned to the ground days later. Jafar said that he was on his way home from there when five men surrounded him. “We will cut you all to pieces if you don’t get out,” the men said. “You will follow your father to the grave.”

The family fled their home on the capital’s outskirts to Mezze 86, where they would be surrounded by other Alawites. “We are the ones who are being targeted,” Ibtisam told me. “My husband did nothing. He was a retired officer volunteering at a hospital.” Now, she said, she could barely afford to rent two cramped rooms with her four children. A dull artillery boom shook the coffee cups on the table where we sat. The men who took me to her, also Alawite, began to reel off their own stories of murdered friends and relatives, and of neighbors abducted by rebels. “You will find stories like this in every house, people killed, people kidnapped, and all because of their sect,” one of them said. “They think all Alawites are rich, because we are the same sect as Bashar al-Assad. They think we can talk to the president whenever we like. But look how we are living!”

No one in the room would say it, but there was an unspoken sense that they, too, were victims of the regime. After two years of bloody insurrection, Syria’s small Alawite community remains the war’s opaque protagonist, a core of loyalists whose fate is now irrevocably tied to Assad’s. Alawite officers commanded the regime’s shock troops when the first protests broke out in March 2011 — jailing, torturing and killing demonstrators and setting Syria on a different path from all the other Arab uprisings. Assad’s intelligence apparatus did everything it could to stoke sectarian fears and blunt the protesters’ message of peaceful change.

Yet the past two years have made clear that those fears were not completely unfounded, and it did not take much to provoke them. Syria’s Sunnis and Alawites were at odds for hundreds of years, and the current war has revived the worst of that history. Radical jihadis among the rebels now openly call for the extermination or exile of Syria’s religious minorities. Most outsiders agree that Assad cynically manipulated the fears of his kinsmen for political survival, but few have asked — or had the opportunity to ask — how the Alawites themselves feel about Assad, and what kind of future they imagine now that the Sunni Arab world has effectively declared war on them.

“What is horrible is that everyone is now protecting his existence,” Sayyid Abdullah Nizam, a prominent cleric in Damascus, told me. “For all of the minorities, it is as if we have entered a long corridor with no light.”

On the day I arrived in Syria, in late April, I was startled by the seeming normality of the capital. There was fresh fruit in the market stalls and crowds of shoppers in the Old City; sweet apple-flavored tobacco smoke drifted from the cafes. But checkpoints were everywhere, and I could not walk 10 yards without a plainclothes member of the new National Defense Forces demanding my ID. Behind the comforting bustle of street sounds, the dull thump of artillery could be heard, day and night, like intermittent thunder. No one ever remarked on it, and in the spring sunlight it was hard to imagine that people were fighting and dying only a few miles away.

Only after taking the highway north out of Damascus did I see the war — houses reduced to rubble or burned beyond recognition, posters bearing the faces of Assad and his clan shot to pieces. As we drove past the suburb of Harasta, where some of the worst fighting has raged in recent months, a huge column of black smoke rose from a cluster of houses a few hundred yards away. My driver, a disheveled young man named Ahmad, glanced anxiously back and forth. The speedometer needle pushed past 90 miles per hour, and I wondered how our worn-out Hyundai would hold up. “This is a very dangerous area,” Ahmad said. “We must go fast.”

Beyond the suburbs, the highway skirts the embattled city of Homs and then turns west, toward the mountainous Alawite heartland along the Mediterranean. This is the route Bashar and his loyalists would take if, in the fantasy embraced by their enemies, they ever abandon the capital and try to forge a rump state in the land of their ancestors. The landscape along the highway grows greener the farther north you go, and the signs of war slowly fade. Magnificent snow-capped mountains rise to the west, and later the glittering blue plane of the sea comes into view. The hills are dotted with olive and fruit trees, and the smell of eucalyptus mingles with the sea breeze. Latakia, the capital city of Syria’s Alawite region, is a sleepy seaside town with a tattered charm.

The hills around it have long provided refuge for Syria’s minorities, and once briefly formed part of an Alawite state under French protection, just after the First World War. This gives its people a different view of the country and its history, one that Western journalists have not often been permitted to see. It was in Latakia that I met a devoted regime supporter named Aliaa Ali, the 27-year-old daughter of a retired Alawite military officer and a French teacher. Aliaa has a broad, pretty face and knitted brows that convey a mix of petulance and determination. She is intelligent and fully aware, thanks in part to a year spent studying in England, of how the West views the conflict. Unlike many loyalists, she was willing to acknowledge the brutalities of her own side, and at times seemed embarrassed by the Syrian police state. “I was pro-revolution at first,” she said. “There is a lot that needs to change here, I know that. But the fact is that it turned sectarian and violent much sooner than people think.”

In early April 2011, Aliaa told me, she was in traffic on a coastal road when she heard loud explosions and gunfire that lasted for several minutes. Only after returning home to Jableh, where she lives, did she learn that nine Syrian soldiers had been ambushed and killed nearby. Early reports described them as would-be defectors killed by their superiors, but no evidence for that claim has ever emerged, and amateur video taken at the scene suggests the killers were rebel gunmen. For Aliaa and her friends, it fit a pattern: the Western media were refusing to acknowledge the violence of the uprising and ignoring the losses on the government side.

That spring, despite the protesters’ insistence on an inclusive movement, sectarian rhetoric began creeping in. One popular slogan was “We don’t want Iran, we don’t want Hezbollah, we want someone who fears God.” This may sound harmless to outsiders, but in Syria it was a clear call to Sunnis to rally against their enemies. During the summer of 2011, a bizarre rumor spread that if rebels banged on metal after midnight and uttered the right prayer during the holy month of Ramadan, Alawites would disappear. When I visited Aliaa’s home, she led me out to the balcony and showed me a terrace on the neighboring building. “You see that terrace?” she said. “They were banging on metal in the middle of the night. My father got out of bed and shouted: ‘Shut up! We’re not going to disappear!’ ” Later, as we were walking down the stairwell, she pointed out a circle with an X in it drawn on the wall. “That was a symbol the opposition used to mark their targets,” she said. “The guy who lives there is the brother of a high official.”

Aliaa’s younger brother Abdulhameed described for me his own sectarian shock. He is a 23-year-old amateur boxer who was studying in Egypt last November, living with five Syrian friends in a house in Alexandria. One night a young man with an Iraqi accent knocked on their door and asked if he was Syrian. Abdulhameed said yes, and the Iraqi walked off. Late that night, a group of men tried to break down the door, while shouting sectarian abuse. Abdulhameed and his friends fought the attackers off and drove them away. “But the worst part came after,” he said. “A few days later there was a posting on Facebook, with our exact address, saying, ‘These guys are Syrians, funded by Iran and Hezbollah to spread Shiism in Egypt, and you must kill them.’ ” Three of the Syrians gave up their studies and went home.

Aliaa and her friends did not even pretend to be impartial witnesses to the uprising. They shut their eyes to most of what happened in their country after the demonstrations began: the mass arrests and jailings, the torture, the unprovoked killings of hundreds and then thousands of peaceful protesters. In their talks with me, they scoffed at the word shabiha, saying it was a myth, and they seemed unwilling to believe the regime was responsible for the sectarian rumors that accompanied the first protests. Still, there was an emotional truth at the core of their case. They had sensed a pent-up anger directed at them as Alawites, and the unleashing of that anger felt like a revelation, a sign that they had been living a lie.

Aliaa’s own best friend — or the girl who used to be her best friend — was a Sunni named Noura. They lived just a block apart and went to school together and helped raise each other’s younger siblings. The difference of sect meant nothing, Aliaa said; most of her friends are Sunni. “Noura once told me she would name her first daughter Aliaa, and that she’d bring jasmine to my house after she was born.” In a photograph she showed me, Noura has a plump, babyish face and wears a loose head scarf; Aliaa is standing next to her with an arm wrapped around her shoulder. In 2010, Noura was engaged to a very religious man who told her she must stop going to movies and wearing short dresses, and said he would not tolerate her having any non-Sunni friends, Aliaa told me. Noura went straight to Aliaa’s house to tell her, and the two of them lay on Aliaa’s bed talking about what she could do. She soon broke off the engagement. “She told me: ‘I can’t live with a man who thinks Alawites are forbidden,’ ” Aliaa said.

Soon after the first protests broke out, Aliaa told Noura about some of the sectarian protest chants she had heard. Noura refused to believe it. The next month, when the army cracked down in Jableh, Noura was desperate, saying innocent protesters had been killed. Aliaa told Noura it was “not logical” for a government to kill its own people. Noura backed down. “Maybe we just heard different stories,” she said. As she and her family moved deeper into the opposition camp, however, the friendship began to fray. Once, after they had gone for a drive along the seafront, Noura suddenly said: “If Sunnis ever attacked you, I’d protect you. And vice versa.” Both of them laughed. “At the time, it seemed like a joke,” Aliaa told me. “We couldn’t really imagine that happening.” Aliaa traveled to England at the end of the summer, and shortly after, when Noura’s mother was arrested, the two friends stopped speaking. In October, Aliaa told me, she was half-asleep one night when she heard a buzzing on her laptop: Noura was calling to video chat. It was 4 a.m., but they spent an hour talking and laughing as if nothing had changed. “When we hung up, I burst into tears,” Aliaa told me. “I felt so happy that we were still friends, that none of the differences mattered.”

Soon afterward, Noura and her family fled to Turkey. In December, Noura unfriended Aliaa on Facebook, but Aliaa continued to check Noura’s Facebook page every day. The postings were passionately anti-Assad, and included sectarian slurs against Alawites. Noura married a Sunni man from Jableh, whose Facebook photo showed the black banner used by Al Qaeda. In mid-May, Noura posted a long passage praising Saddam Hussein, followed by this sentence: “How many ‘likes’ for the conqueror of the Shia and other heathens?” Aliaa showed me the Facebook page of Noura’s teenage brother Kamal, with an image of him clutching a Kalashnikov. “I used to carry him on my shoulders and feed him crackers,” she said.

Noura now lives in Turkey. I reached her by phone at the Syrian school that her aunt runs near the border. She acknowledged her friendship with Aliaa, but her religious zeal soon became apparent. She said her husband did not permit her to talk by phone to foreign journalists. I then spoke to her aunt Maha, the director of the school, who confirmed the outlines of Aliaa’s account of the friendship and the uprising in Jableh. Her voice rose almost to a shout as she told me only the regime was sectarian. “Before the uprising, we lived together with no problems,” she said. “They felt reassured about us, because ever since the events of Hama, they felt we would not rise up against them. But as soon as we chose the path of revolution, they felt it was directed against them, not against Assad. We told them: We only want freedom. But they shut the door in our faces; they would not talk to us.” Maha struck me as a reasonable woman who regretted the rupture, much as Aliaa did.

But when I asked her about the Alawite religion, I was startled by her response. “Aliaa is a nice girl,” she said. “But the Alawites don’t have a religion. They are a traitor sect. They collaborated with the crusaders; during the French occupation they sided with the French.”

For the Alawites, these familiar accusations have the sting of a racist epithet. The Alawite faith, developed a millennium ago, is a strange, mystic blend of Neoplatonism, Christianity, Islam and Zoroastrianism. It included a belief in reincarnation and a deification of Ali, the cousin and son-in-law of the Prophet Muhammad. These unorthodox tenets may have led the crusaders and other outsiders to favor them, seeing them as potential allies against Muslims. The theologian Ibn Taymiyya — the ancestor of today’s hard-line Islamists — proclaimed in the early 1300s that the Alawites were “more infidel than Jews and Christians, even more infidel than many polytheists,” and urged good Muslims to slaughter and rob them. The Alawites sought shelter in the mountains, and rarely dared to come even to Latakia. Many of them were slaughtered by Ottoman armies, and parts of the community stood close to extinction at some points in their history. According to the historian Joshua Landis, as late as the 1870s, supposed Alawite bandits were impaled on spikes and left on crossroads as a warning. They lived in desperate poverty on the margins of Syria’s feudal economy, often sending their daughters into indentured servitude as maids to wealthy Sunni families.

In 1936, when the French were poised to merge the newly formed Alawite coastal state into a larger Syrian republic, six Alawite notables sent a petition begging them to reconsider. “The spirit of hatred and fanaticism embedded in the hearts of the Arab Muslims against everything that is non-Muslim has been perpetually nurtured by the Islamic religion,” they wrote. “There is no hope that the situation will ever change. Therefore, the abolition of the mandate will expose the minorities in Syria to the dangers of death and annihilation, irrespective of the fact that such abolition will annihilate the freedom of thought and belief.” One of the petition’s signers was Sulayman al-Assad, the grandfather of Syria’s current president. Later, after the French abandoned them, the Alawites rushed to embrace the cause of Syrian nationalism, and went to great lengths to make the rest of the country forget their separatist ambitions.

I thought of that petition when I entered Aliaa’s family home in Jableh, where a black-and-white portrait of her grandfather in a stiff collar and tie hangs on the living-room wall. “He studied in France in the 1930s,” Aliaa said brightly. Then she quickly added, “And later he took part in the struggle for independence — I think.”

I asked Aliaa what she thought of Alawites who joined the opposition, like the novelist Samar Yazbek, who is also from Jableh. She grew wary at the mention of Yazbek’s name. “I met her once,” Aliaa said. “She told me I had a bright future in front of me. But I don’t want a future like hers. I think Alawites who join the opposition don’t realize that they are being used as tools. Or they think they can turn this jihadi war into a democratic revolution. But they will never succeed.”

Yazbek was also in Syria during the early months of the revolution. In her diaries of the revolt’s first four months — later published in English under the title “A Woman in the Crossfire” — she describes the furious campaign conducted against her after she publicly backed the insurrection. Her family was forced to disavow her, and leaflets were passed out in Jableh denouncing her. At one point, she describes a terrifying encounter with the regime apparatus. After being driven from her house in Damascus to an interrogation center, she finds herself with a scowling officer who knocks her to the floor, spits on her and threatens to kill her. Guards then lead her blindfolded downstairs to one of the regime’s basement torture rooms, where she is forced to look at bloodied, half-dead protesters hanging from the ceiling. The officer tells her at one point that she is being duped by “Salafi Islamists” and that she must come back to the fold or die. “We’re honorable people,” he tells her. “We don’t harm our own blood. We’re not like you, traitors. You’re a black mark upon all Alawites.”

When I spoke to Yazbek, who is now living in Paris, she told me she believed that the Alawite community had been the Assad clan’s first victim, that they had been used as “human shields” to keep the regime in power. “They believe the regime’s rhetoric, that they would be massacred if Assad falls,” she said. “But this is not true. They are very afraid, and very confused.” Some Alawites inside Syria quietly make the same point, though it is far more dangerous for them to do so. But the ones I spoke to also argued that it does not matter whether the Alawites were duped or not, because their sectarian fears have been realized. In Latakia, I met an Alawite cartoonist named Issam Hassan, who told me that many Alawites who sympathized with the opposition have shifted to the other side. “The government knew it couldn’t fight peaceful protesters, so it pushed them to violence,” he said. “But now, the violence we have seen on the rebel side has frightened everyone. And look at the media: Al Jazeera and Syrian state television take different sides, but both are pushing toward the same end. They are promoting hatred.”

On a warm Thursday night in Damascus, I met on old friend at a club called Bar 808, one of the last holdouts for the city’s hipster youth and a popular spot among those who quietly sympathize with the opposition. I pushed through the crowds and entered a throbbing den of young Syrians dancing and drinking and making out. At the bar, my friend Khaled gave me a sweaty bear hug and bought me a beer. He is a novelist and a bohemian, with a massive head of steel-gray curls and a raucous laugh. But the past two years have aged him. We talked about mutual friends, most of them now scattered in Beirut or in Europe. “I can’t give up on the revolution,” Khaled said. “I won’t leave Damascus.” He put his arm around a young woman and introduced her as Rita. “Khaled is the only optimist left in Syria,” Rita said. When I asked her about the opposition, she said: “I am ashamed to say it, but the opposition has lost its meaning. Now it is only killing, nothing but killing. The jihadis are speaking of a caliphate, and the Christians are really frightened.” There was a pause, filled by the churn of Arab pop music. “I waited all my life for this revolution,” Rita said. “But now I think maybe it shouldn’t have happened. At least not this way.”

If the opposition has lost its meaning, so has the regime. The Assad clan has always defined its Syria as the “beating heart of Arabism,” the bulwark of the Palestinian cause. The Baath Party was meant to embody this spirit, and Syria’s minorities were eager to prove their loyalty as Arabs in a Muslim-majority society. This was the glue that would hold together the country’s fractious communities. But now Syria has been formally excommunicated by the Arab League, the reigning pan-Arab institution, and the old unifying ideologies — paid lip service until the crisis began — are openly mocked.

On a quiet side street in one of Damascus’s richest neighborhoods, a prominent lawyer invited me to join him and his friends in an opulent, booklined study. There were soft leather couches and European chocolates on the coffee table. A 16-frame video screen showed every approach to the house. One of the guests was the Rev. Gabriel Daoud, a Syriac Orthodox priest who sprawled on an armchair in his black robe. The subject of Syria’s minorities came up, and Father Daoud’s face registered his irritation. “Minorities — it’s a false name,” he said. “It should be the quality of the people, not the quantity. It gives you the idea that minorities are small and weak. But we are the original people of this country.” As for the protesters and their demands for freedom, Father Daoud smirked: “They don’t want hurriya, they want houriaat.” Hurriya is the Arabic word for “freedom,” and houriaat is the plural of houri, the dark-eyed virgins that suicide bombers are promised in the afterlife.

Daoud spoke bitterly about the kidnapping of two Christian bishops, whose fate was unknown. “They may have Syrian nationality, but not the mentality,” Daoud said of the rebels. “We are proud of our secularism. We cannot live with these barbarians.” When I raised the subject of Arab nationalism, one of the guests in the room winced. “We are Mesopotamian, not Arabic,” he said. “We don’t want to be Arabic.”

I heard this kind of talk everywhere in Syria. In Latakia, a young Alawite woman who had spent time in the United States spoke about the uprising in blatantly racist terms. “The protests started well, but after a while, the people participating were not educated,” she said. “It’s like your riots in Detroit in 1967. They are like losers — not good people. Like blacks in the U.S.A.” The “barbarians” these people were talking about — the rural poor, who are overwhelmingly Sunni and the backbone of the opposition — probably constitute half of Syria’s population.

Syria’s national myths may be fracturing, but it is hard to see how the map could be reconfigured in any stable way. There is some speculation that Assad may retreat to the coastal mountains if the war turns against him, which it has not done lately. That region is calm and quiet compared with Damascus, and relatively self-sufficient. But the population is said to have doubled there since the war started, thanks to a flood of refugees from other parts of Syria. Some are Alawites returning to their home villages. But tens of thousands of Sunnis have also resettled there, seeking refuge on the coast from Aleppo and other war-torn areas. The city’s hotels are packed with middle-class people toting heavy suitcases, and poorer exiles are camped out at a vast sports center, where they live in crowded tents amid a reek of urine. The local Information Ministry official warned me gruffly: “Be careful, many of them are with the Free Syrian Army. They do not say this, but we know.” The state of Alawistan, if it were to ever be formed, would be riddled with potential insurgents.

Bashar al-Assad’s father, Hafez, grew up in a two-room stone house in the mountains and helped out with the farmwork. As president, he loved to remind people of his origins. In the 1980s, when Syria’s socialist economy was at its nadir, he said in one speech: “Fellow peasants, no hand will after this day be above your hand. . . . You are the producers. Yours is the power.” Hafez’s children grew up in the palace and never understood or cared much about Syria’s poor. Bashar’s economic reforms in the early 2000s brought new restaurants and nightclubs to Damascus, but the countryside sank deeper into poverty. In late 2010, I drove through Syria’s agricultural belt and was amazed by the damage wrought by five years of drought and government neglect. Many peasants had abandoned their desiccated farms and moved to slums on the outskirts of the cities, where they became perfect tinder for the revolt.

But there is another reason for the unpolished face of the Syrian rebellion, a crueler one. One night in Damascus, I met a 33-year-old computer programmer named Amir who had been part of the nonviolent protest movement from the beginning. “We started the protests with three principles: nonviolence, no foreign interference and no sectarianism,” Amir said in English as we strolled in the cool night air. “The regime targeted the protesters until they were forced to abandon all three of them.”

I asked if he was still active in the rebellion. “They put me in prison for two days,” he said. “I was not tortured, no one even said a bad word to me. But for me it was — ” He stumbled for words, then turned toward me. “You know how Dante went to hell and was allowed to return? This cell was 10 meters square, with 152 people in it. It was two stories underground. There is no air, you feel constantly that you will choke. They had an undeclared system: for the first week, you stand, all day and all night. Then you get to lean against the wall for a few days. Then you get to sit. When you are standing, you are terrified to fall asleep, because you may never get up. Some people were there for only a few hours, some for days or weeks, and some had been tortured in ways I never imagined. For food, you get a bit of bread and some water, but that does not matter. You get about 30 seconds, once a day, in the bathroom, but trust me, you are not even worried about that. Because there are people in there who are literally asking for death.” He stopped talking, and after a pause, I asked him why he had been arrested.

“I lit a candle at a funeral vigil,” he said.

Did it have to happen this way? Just over a decade ago, many of the Syrians now fighting their government saw Bashar al-Assad as a kind of savior, a gentle figure who would lead them away from brutality. He was never meant for the presidency; his older brother, Basil, was the heir apparent. Only after Basil died in a car crash in 1994 was Bashar — long-necked, awkward, quiet — withdrawn from ophthalmology school in London and anointed. He has been an enigma since the day he became president in 2000, a man who seems to want to steer Syria on a different course but has never actually done so.

In April, I met Manaf Tlass, one of Bashar’s oldest friends, and asked him to narrate the conflict from Bashar’s perspective. Tlass, whose father served as Syria’s defense minister for three decades, was a general in Syria’s Republican Guard until he defected last July. He knew Bashar in childhood and was a member of his inner circle for years. We met at a cafe in Paris on a warm afternoon, and Tlass, who is sometimes mocked as a dandy, wore a blue silk shirt, unbuttoned to the middle of his chest, and aviator sunglasses.

On the day the crisis broke out, Tlass said, “Bashar called me and said, ‘What would you do?’ ” It was mid-March 2011, and the southern city of Dara’a was in uproar after the local security director — a cousin of Assad’s — ordered the imprisonment and torture of a group of boys who had scrawled antiregime graffiti on a wall. Tlass told me he urged Assad to visit Dara’a himself, and to order the arrest of the local security director. Others, including the leaders of Turkey and Qatar, have said they gave him similar advice.

Tlass said he continued to urge Assad to manage the crisis through negotiation rather than force, and with Assad’s permission, he began meeting with civic groups in towns where unrest had broken out, sometimes with as many as 300 people. He would hear their grievances and write down lists of possible fixes to local police corruption, lack of water or electricity and other problems. He would identify local leaders who could be trusted, then forward the list of issues and names to Bashar’s people. Each time, the leaders were promptly arrested.

Finally, Tlass told me, he confronted members of the Makhlouf family, Assad’s first cousins, who are now said to be his closest advisers. “There was a big disagreement,” Tlass said. “They wanted to handle the problem with security, the old way.” He decided to speak to Assad directly, but his old friend put him off for two weeks. When they finally met, Assad made clear that he was no longer interested in Tlass’s advice. “Bashar knew from the start that this was a big crisis,” Tlass said. “He decided to play on the instincts of the people.”

One morning in early May, I drove with Aliaa Ali and her brother to their ancestral town, Duraykish, in the Alawite mountain hinterland. The road climbs up from the coast along hairpin turns into a magnificent landscape of lush, terraced hills and orchards. We stopped briefly to look at a new monument to the town’s war dead, an imposing 25-foot marble plaque engraved with hundreds of names. We parked the car at the bottom of a narrow hillside street named for Aliaa’s grandfather and walked up to the family house, a 100-year-old stone building with ceramic tiles that had begun to wear away. Aliaa’s uncle, Amer Ali, stood waiting for us, a sturdy-looking man of about 50 with closely cropped, graying hair. He led us upstairs to a large, high-ceilinged room where sunlight splashed in through two open walls. Dozens of people waited inside.

Amer Ali had gathered them to tell their stories of relatives or spouses lost to the war. I listened to them, one by one. They were working-class people: soldiers, construction workers, police officers. All were Alawites, as far as I could tell. Some were probably shabiha, though none of them would have used that word. One of them, a middle-aged construction worker named Adib Sulayman, pulled out his cellphone and showed me the message he received after his son Yamin was kidnapped by rebels: “We have executed God’s will and killed your son. If you are still fighting with Bashar, we will come to your houses and cut you into pieces. Never fight against us.”

A 20-year-old man who had been shot twice in the head and had lost some of his memory and half his hearing told me he would go back to the front as soon as his wounds healed. His father stared at me and said: “I would be proud to have my son become a martyr. I am in my 50s, but I am ready to sacrifice my life, too. They thought we would be weak in this crisis, but we are strong.”

After lunch, Aliaa’s uncle showed me around the house. On the wall was a Sword of Ali, an important symbol for Alawites, with verses engraved on the blade. There were old farming tools, a stick for catching snakes, hunting knives and a century-old carbine — a kind of visual history of the Alawite people. There were ancient Phoenician amphorae and a framed photograph of Hassan Nasrallah, the leader of Hezbollah.

Later, Amer Ali led me to the roof, where we gazed out at the town where his family has lived for hundreds of years. The hills were lovely in the golden afternoon sunlight. You could see an ancient spring with a stone arch over it, and a mosque that was built by one of his ancestors 240 years ago. Aliaa stood next to me on the terrace, looking out at the town with an expression of rapturous pride. I asked her how it made her feel to know that Western human rights groups had documented repeated atrocities by the Syrian regime — some, perhaps, by people like the ones we had just talked to. Aliaa glanced downward. “Yes, there have been atrocities,” she said. “You can never deny that there have been atrocities. But you have to ask yourself: What will happen if Bashar falls? That’s why I believe victory is the only option. If Bashar falls, Syria falls. And then we, here, will all be in the niqab” — the full veil worn in conservative Muslim societies — “or we will be dead.”

Before we climbed back down, Aliaa’s uncle showed me a rusted white tripod, set in the center of the roof, under a gazebo. “It is for telescopes, for looking at the stars,” he said. He looked up at the cloudless evening sky, then down the mountain toward where the hills give way to the vast Syrian plain. “But we can use it to set up a sniper rifle and defend ourselves here.” (The New York Times)


* Robert F Worth is a staff writer for the magazine.