When 24-year-old Hussain fled his village in Syria for Mersin, Turkey, six weeks ago, it didn’t feel like a choice. Knowing that he would eventually be called for mandatory military service in the Syrian army, he packed his bags and made the dangerous journey across the border. “I did not want to join the army – this is not my battle,” he told Syria Deeply.
From the Jableh area of the country and a member of President Bashar al-Assad’s Alawite sect – a minority in Syria – Hussain is one of a growing number of Alawites who support the Syrian government but refuse to die for it. Since the uprising began in March 2011, they have paid a high price for their loyalty to Assad, prompting more to flee the country in search of security, work and education – all of which have been interrupted by the ongoing bloodshed.
Many Alawites feel that they are being sent to the front lines to fight rebel groups for a government that can longer guarantee them safety in their homeland, according to Hussain. With Assad forces suffering a string of territorial losses to Islamic State and other armed groups earlier this summer, he says that sentiment is growing.
The Syrian revolution has lasted for years now, and during this time, many people have fled the country seeking safety, work and education. While most who have left openly opposed the government, and while many of those who supported the government stayed in Syria to live under its protection, things have recently started to change.
According to some evaluations, ISIS controls more than half of all Syrian territory. More than 80,000 soldiers from the Syrian army and pro-government militias have been killed since the uprising grew into an armed conflict, the U.K.-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights estimates.
With defections on the steady rise, Assad announced an amnesty for defectors in late July, supposedly allowing them to turn themselves in without punishment. That order did not specify whether it also applied to draft-dodgers, who number upwards of 70,000, according to the Observatory.
It remains unclear how many of the 4 million Syrian refugees outside of the country are Alawites, however. Hussain says that many Alawites feel like they are being required to fight a losing battle. “I support President Assad, but I don’t want to die,” he said. “My cousins were killed by the opposition. Every time there was an attack on the regime’s forces, high-ranking officers would flee and leave the soldiers to face death alone.”
Explaining that his B.A. in natural science hasn’t helped him find a job in Syria’s devastated economy, he says that he chose Mersin, Turkey, as a temporary destination. “My hope is eventually to get to Europe and get asylum,” he said.
Comprising only around 10 percent of Syria’s total population, Alawite communities are mostly concentrated in areas stretching along the Mediterranean coastline and in the midwestern part of the country, as well as in Homs and Damascus. In recent weeks, rebel groups – including Jabhat al-Nusra, the Syrian affiliate of al-Qaida – have been making advances near the port city of Latakia, a bastion of support for Assad and home to many Alawites.
“It will then be an existential battle for the Alawites. There are calls for Alawite youth to take up arms and to defend the areas surrounding Jureen,” said Rami Abdulrahman, director of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, referring to a village near Latakia.
Rama, a 33-year-old mother, moved with her children to Turkey from their native village of al-Suqaylabiyah in the Hama governorate. Last year, as Syrian government forces were gripped in a fierce battle with ISIS near Raqqa airport, her husband was shot and killed. “We came to Mersin on a ship from Tartus,” she recalled, explaining that she paid a smuggler to get her to Germany.
She left Syria so that her children “can have a better future,” she told Syria Deeply. “ISIS killed their father and I don’t want them to be killed, too. They want to kill us just because we’re Alawites.”
Rama says she would have sent her sons to fight for the Syrian government if they were older, but they are both too young for military service. “No matter where we go, we’ll always support our president,” she said, adding: “President Assad should [use] all possible weapons to get rid of [Sunni Muslims]. Everything that happened in Syria is because of them. As long as they exist, we’re not safe.”
Not all Alawites share Rama’s harsh rhetoric and unwavering support for Assad. Alawites in Latakia held mass protests over the weekend after President Assad’s cousin, Suleiman, killed Hassan al-Sheikh, an influential colonel in the Syria army, during a road-rage incident.
In October 2014, Alawites held their first protest against the Assad government after the fatal bombing of two elementary schools in Homs. “Liar, liar, the regime is a liar,” protesters chanted as they marched through the city.
In Latakia and elsewhere, more and more Alawite families are resisting sending their young men to war, as the Telegraph reported earlier this year.
For the millions of Syrians made into refugees or displaced within the country’s borders, the ongoing violence has made it impossible to go home. Back in Mersin, Hussain fears that Alawites – regardless of their position toward Assad – may not have a homeland to return to. “There is no place for us [Alawites] in Syria anymore,” he concluded, dejectedly. “If the regime falls we will be slaughtered by the extremists. And even if it stays, no one likes us and we aren’t welcome anywhere.”
Top photo photo courtesy of Ghaith Abdel Aziz. Second photo courtesy of anonymous activist in Latakia