Despite the intense violence in various Syrian provinces, any event or development related — from near or far — to the Syrian coast quickly draws attention and steals the limelight from the rest of the wounded country.
This was the case with the bloody events that transpired in Banias and surrounding areas, and this is the current case with the intense fighting in Qusair, which is gaining importance, primarily for its position as a link between the Syrian coast and Damascus.
The prevailing culture in the Arab Levant imposes the abandonment of sectarian dilemmas and enforces a political rhetoric promoting the ideology of one united people, where independent ethnic or sectarian entities are unwelcome.
This is the legacy conferred to us by our cultural heritage and transmitted by the philosophy of power in the eras of caliphates and sultanates. Yet, ignoring the reality does not help, rather it contributes to the aggravation and explosion of sub-national specificities. Any action towards building a modern and democratic Syria must first acknowledge the real situation, deal with it, and build on it.
The reason behind the sensitivity of the Syrian coast is that, as it is well known, this region is the original homeland of the Alawites and the authorities’ main popular base since 1966.
Dr. Amr Moussa, the former secretary-general of the Arab League, used to say that the Lebanese crisis consists of three levels — local, regional and international. The same applies to the Syrian problem.
The first level in the Syrian crisis is the Alawites’ concerns and worries, and it is on this level that the regional and international levels were built. It is also based on the level that the regime was able to survive and resist, relying on a decision to fight until the end, taken by a group which believes to be threatened, not only in terms of its gains but in terms of its security and existence as a well.
When Syria was under French Mandate, the Alawite sect went through several centuries of persecution, accusations of apostasy and isolation in the mountains overlooking the Syrian coast. The situation remained unchanged with independence, and thus these mountains remained the home of the most miserable and isolated groups in Syria — and perhaps in the region. Yet, the ability to enroll in large numbers in the army opened up a new door for the Alawite sect, which soon represented great potential.
The situation of the Alawite sect has radically changed since the revolution of 1963, which brought the Baath party to power, and it continued its improvement with the 1963 coup d'état and the Corrective Movement of 1970.
The Alawites broke out of their isolation, the roads that linked isolated villages to coastal cities were opened, public and private transport networks were developed, schools were established, and henceforth these people of the mountains were able to obtain jobs in the army, public education sector and public administrations, in such a way that they now dominate government departments while other sects dominate the private sector.
Yet, the most important transformation in Syrian coastal society and its economy was the agrarian reform, which distributed lands to farmers, and thus liberated the people of the mountain from the slave-master relationship that existed between them and large landowners in the coastal cities.
Alawite farmers consequently became landowners, especially in the fertile areas adjacent to Latakia, Jebla, Tartous and other cities along the coastal strip. This transformation was further strengthened thanks to aid institutions such as the Real Estate Bank, the Agricultural Bank and agricultural cooperatives. Moreover, significant investments were made for the establishment of public-sector factories, which provided thousands of new jobs. However, these factories were actually unproductive and struggling, just like all factories established by the state, lacking competitiveness and incentives. A French researcher described the Syrian state factories as being as useful as “churches in the desert.”
The people of the mountain moved to the coastal cities and its suburbs, to Damascus and other provinces, to manage the lands they acquired, or to work in the army and the state administration and its faltering industries, which changed the Alawite sect’s geographical scope.
One can deduce that the public sector — thanks to the employment opportunities it provided, the projects it implemented, and the institutions it established — constituted the leverage that freed Alawites from persecution and isolation and improved their standard of living. On the other hand, this sector contributed to the enrichment of only a small number of lucky Alawites, failing to save the vast majority of them from poverty.
The financial and economic crisis hitting Syria since the mid-1980s led first to the depletion of the public sector’s financial resources and then forced the regime to adopt “a selective openness approach,” which contributed to the reduction of the public sector and its role. The Alawites ended up paying the price.
While a lucky minority enjoys exorbitant wealth, the overwhelming majority of Alawites are facing financial hardships. Yet, the sect is adamant about protecting the regime and is ready to defend it to the end, since Alawites fear retaliation and dread getting back to the age of darkness and seclusion, which is deeply-rooted in the Alawites’ collective memory.
The revolution — waving the slogan of a democratic Syria — must address providing reassurances to the sect, which goes beyond rhetoric and courtesies. These reassurances must include the recognition of the rights of this minority as well as of other minorities, inventing formulas and proposals ensuring the immunity of Alawites and securing their political rights and economic benefits.
On the other end, some content themselves with rhetoric and courtesies while others wave the flag of violence, and the future is unknown.
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