Twenty of the dead were civilians. The seizure, carried out by extremist fighters, is the latest attack on Alawites, the ethnic minority of President Bashar al-Assad.
It occurred as the Syrian Red Crescent was trying to negotiate a three-day extension of a cease-fire in the besieged city of Homs (later granted) so that it could deliver humanitarian aid to the area.
The government used the attack to reinforce its narrative about rebel fighters, with state media calling it a “massacre” committed by terrorists.
We asked Joshua Landis, the editor of Syria Comment and director of the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma, to weigh in on how the attack will factor into Assad’s rhetoric and what it will signal for Syria’s minorities.
Syria Deeply: What is the regime’s confidence level now?
Joshua Landis: Obviously the regime was very shocked and taken aback at Geneva two weeks ago because [U.S. Secretary of State] John Kerry gave them a a full broadside for their behavior in this war, so they are now trying to find something which allows them to open up, with a cry of indignation, that their people are getting killed too. They’re trying to remind the world that these rebels are not democrats, that they’re Islamists, and that the world should not be supporting them. The government’s strategy in Geneva is to say, “We’re fighting the same enemy as you are — you don’t want jihadists.”
SD: What is the mood among Alawites and other minorities who aren’t explicitly aligned with the opposition?
JL: Most of the minorities in Syria feel convinced that they are going to be pushed out if they put down their guns and they don’t fight. That may have been manufactured by Assad and may be a false understanding, but by this time, it may have turned quite true. So Assad is now going to be reminding the world and his people that if they support the opposition, they are going to be supporting what he feels is an unsavory lot.
Both sides are accusing the other of being non-Syrians, being traitors. The rebels are saying that civilians who support the regime are nonbelievers, and even Iranians. It’s quite common now to hear opposition people calling them Iranians when what they mean is just Alawites, or Shiites.
SD: Will the attack on Maan further scare Alawites and cause them to take up arms in support of the government?
JL: Every time the regime loses [a battle] or whenever the opposition goes into an Alawite village, civilians empty out. If you look at photos of Maan now, it’s an empty village. They’re gone because no Alawite in their right mind believes that they’re going to be well-treated by opposition fighters.
Will they be considered a guilty minority and driven out if the government loses the war? We don’t know, but if you’re an Alawite in a village you’re going to look for safer ground, and that is what they did in Maan.
SD: Is tension between Alawites and the rebels growing worse?
JL: We have an ethnic war going on. The levels of distrust and hatred and “othering” have reached a very high degree, which is evident in the language and the conquering behavior of troops on both sides. Both feel they need to go all the way in taking each other out. We’ve seen [violent behavior towards citizens from the other side] in so many videos that even if it’s not true of the troops who conquered Maan, you’d have to be a fool to have stayed in the village.
The emphasis on the part of the entire European community on getting regime change first and foremost is misguided, because no minority in Syria is going to want Assad to step down and the Syrian army to disband.
Assad’s logic in barrel bombing areas of Aleppo or sieging other opposition areas is a logic driven by extreme disgust and even hatred between these different communities. Christians and Kurds and other [minorities] say they’re treated horribly when they’re taken by [Islamic Front brigade] Ahrar al-Sham and other groups. The behavior is enough that any right-minded minority person is fearful now, and that has destroyed trust between the different groups in Syria.