BEIRUT—Since Syrian regime forces were accused of conducting a chemical-weapons attack on Saturday on Douma, the largest rebel town near Damascus to surrender, the world has waited anxiously for the U.S. response. In the aftermath of the suspected attack, President Donald Trump spoke of imminent retaliation and had tough words for Bashar al-Assad, the president of Syria, and his patron Russia; he has since hedged to say an attack could come “very soon or not so soon at all!” Still, the last time such a large-scale chemical attack was suspected in Syria, Trump followed through on his threats, albeit with a limited response.
Given the potentially greater consequences Assad and his allies could face, it’s unclear why he would risk using chemical weapons, especially when his regime had already declared victory in its Russia-backed assault on Eastern Ghouta, the last major rebel-held area near Damascus, which also encompasses Douma. Numerous theories have been offered, including Assad’s need to further terrorize his population into submission, as well as a desire to dare and humiliate an impotent West.
One crucial and largely overlooked explanation is the pressure he has faced from the Alawites, members of the minority Shiite-linked sect to which the Assads belong. Many Alawites believe Douma’s main insurgent group Jaysh al-Islam, or the Army of Islam, has been holding up to 7,500 Alawite prisoners in and around the city—including army generals, soldiers, and civilians—kidnapped or taken captive by rebels over the years to try to extract concessions from the regime. Though the Alawites represent a small proportion of the country overall, they hold key regime positions, dominate the police, and supply the main fighting forces who have been defending the regime since 2011. Many of their families are missing loved ones whom Assad can’t seem to get free, even as he tells them he wants still more of their sons to fight.
Assad’s ability to get them back is vital to preserving his legitimacy in the eyes of this important constituency, a fact that Iran and Russia, his patrons, also recognize. “We won’t give up on any missing or kidnapped person and we are going to do whatever it takes to free him if he’s still alive,” Assad said during a meeting with Alawite families on Tuesday. For Assad, demonstrating solidarity with his own community may be a bigger concern than any fallout from his use of chemical weapons. Given the West’s uneven track record in responding to previous such attacks, his allies’ determination to protect him, and his own willingness to justify any atrocity or lie about it with impunity, there’s a brutal logic to his thinking—his regime seems built to last, especially as confusion grows about what if anything the American response will be. Yet, in the lead-up to the suspected Douma chemical-weapons attack, it became clear that Assad needed to demonstrate to his own war-weary community how far he was willing to go to free their prisoners. This is a dictator who instinctively understands how quickly things could collapse if the Alawites turn on him.
Over the course of Syria’s seven-year war, I’ve spoken with many Alawites who feel they have sacrificed everything to preserve nearly five decades of Assad family rule. Virtually every house in Alawite strongholds in western Syria has been affected by the war, which many members of the community believe is as much about saving Assad as it is about preserving their very existence. The regime’s narrative claims that the Sunni Muslim majority, from which the rebellion draws, wants to eradicate their community. And as the rank-and-file of the army crumbled because of defections, Alawites rushed to join newly created sectarian militias. But Assad always seemed to care more about Iran’s Shiite militiamen, including Hezbollah fighters, who also flooded the battleground to save him.
The recent offensive in Eastern Ghouta, which has involved nearly two months of a Russian-backed scorched-earth campaign against the rebels, seemed destined to change that, particularly as Iran and its militias appeared to be taking a backseat. Alawites and many inside the regime called for Assad to inflict maximum pain on the opposition to secure the release of prisoners.
Throughout March, tens of thousands of rebel fighters and civilians emerged from Eastern Ghouta and received safe passage to Idlib, an opposition-dominated province in the north. Their release had been arranged in negotiations between the Russians and armed groups. As the Alawites watched them leave, they grew anxious and angry: They had yet to receive much information on their brethren still held by the Army of Islam. But then the Russian-led negotiations with the group collapsed, with the fate of the Alawite prisoners still unresolved. And Assad apparently decided it was time for extreme action. On Friday, the Syrian regime resumed its massive bombardment of Douma, and issued an ultimatum to the rebels: Death and mayhem on an unprecedented scale unless all Alawite prisoners were accounted for or released. Then came Saturday’s suspected chemical weapons attack on Douma, involving a possible mix of nerve agents and chlorine. The Army of Islam soon returned to the negotiating table to discuss Douma’s surrender, with the fate of the Alawite prisoners and missing persons the first item on the agenda—a development that provided momentary satisfaction to the families.
Soon after, anguished Alawite mothers, wives, and parents rushed to Damascus from their towns and villages in western Syria expecting to be reunited with their loved ones. But hope quickly gave way to anger and frustration when, by Monday evening, only about 200 Alawite prisoners emerged from Douma. Emotions boiled over when the regime’s official media announced that 200 was the final number of prisoners coming out alive from Douma. That 7,500 figure was “fake news,” they said, disseminated in an attempt to extort money from the despairing families.
In a rare and incredible scene, hundreds of furious Alawites staged an impromptu protest in central Damascus on Monday, marching from an auditorium next to the Russian Embassy that had been turned into a waiting area for the families to one of the capital’s busiest traffic intersections. Nervous regime security forces immediately cordoned off the entire area and sent in state media representatives to console people and allow them to vent. All other media was kept out, one independent Damascus-based reporter who witnessed the scene told me.
“I brought my son these pants so he could wear them when he was freed,” a bespectacled woman in black shouted as she waved a pair of jeans before the cameras. Her son, a soldier who had been missing for six years, had not showed up. “I used to trust you [state media] but no more!” Jaafar Younis, a state television correspondent and a fellow Alawite, tried to comfort her. “Please calm down auntie, we are dealing with a terrorist armed group”—a reference to the Army of Islam— “that cannot be trusted to keep its word. And all of you saw the pressure the Syrian army put on them when they tried to renege on the deal,” he said. Another correspondent, also an Alawite, conceded there were still possibly thousands of kidnapped and missing Alawites all over Syria but said they were no longer in Ghouta. “We want lists with the names of the kidnapped, dead or alive. … We want our voice to reach his excellency President Bashar al-Assad, only him,” one man insisted.
By nightfall on Monday, the Alawite families were persuaded to leave the streets after bringing traffic to a standstill. They returned to the auditorium, but their rage did not subside. “The [regime] officers are bastards. The media are bastards too and they never tell the truth. We want to know the fate of our children! How much did you sell them for? How much did you get for the martyrs’ blood? How much?” one tearful mother screamed.
I heard such sentiments from Alawites numerous times during a two-week trip through the Hama countryside and the coastal western provinces of Latakia and Tartous in the summer of 2014. Tearful mothers and wives told me they knew their loved ones were being held by rebels in Douma, and wanted Assad to do more to get them out. For them, Assad seemed too laid back and preoccupied with his image as a president for all Syrians and not as the leader of the Alawites. Mohammad Jaber, one militia leader close to Assad’s shadowy and ruthless brother Maher, told me in early 2013 that Assad was not as decisive as his late father, who ruled Syria for three decades and faced a similar insurrection in the 1980s. Bashar, Jaber said, should “exterminate” rebels and their families—especially those around Damascus, in places like Eastern Ghouta. This was months before the first major chemical-weapons attack on Ghouta in the summer of 2013 that killed almost 1,400, and which the United States and its allies blamed on the regime.
Even though Assad has reclaimed much of the territory that regime forces lost to the rebels, the war is hardly over. Over time, it has empowered many Alawite militia leaders and warlords who demand more toughness from Assad. At least for now, he needs these people, and knows that any major rift within his Alawite community could cost him power in the parts of the country he does control, even with the full support of Iran and Russia.
Still, Assad is obsessed with projecting himself as a nonsectarian leader for all Syrians who sees the big picture and broader implications of the war. “The battle is bigger than Syria, you are now fighting the war of the world, the global struggle, with each bullet you are firing at a terrorist you are changing the world’s balance of power and every tank driver advancing for a meter is changing the world’s geopolitical map,” a clean-shaven Assad dressed in well-pressed slacks and a blazer told soldiers and militiamen during a visit to the Eastern Ghouta front lines last month to flaunt victory.
But what do balance of power and geopolitical maps mean for Alawite families who gave their children to keep Assad in power? It is ironic that after a seven-year war that killed more than half a million people, displaced millions and saw the rise and fall of ISIS and involvement of foreign and regional powers, the greatest threat to Assad’s hold on power could still come from his own Alawite community.
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