President Bashar Assad's shrinking support in his clan’s political heartland city of Latakia in western Syria is being further worn down by the Grad rockets the Al-Qaeda-linked rebel Nusra Front and the Islamist Ahrar al-Shams have rained down on the port town in the past few weeks.
The minority Alawi religious sect, which has its center in Latakia, is Assad’s last remaining bulwark, excepting only for a small Christian minority and some of the Druze who stay out of the war.
The blitz began on July 1, when rebel forces shelled the Ingeneer Union building in central Latakia and shot Grad rockets at government forces into Shalfaiya, one of the ancestral Alawi villages. Then, on July 17, the center of Latakia came under Grad fire and, on July 27, six missiles were aimed at the Qardaha woodland at the northern edge of the town.
Two days later, on July 27, the village of Salma was shelled by missiles and mortars and, on Aug. 8, rebel forces had another go with Grads against Shalfatiya.
The shelling of Latakia’s city center peaked Thursday, Aug. 13.
The last straw for loyal Alawis after awesome casualties
The two million inhabitants of this port-town have suffered awesome casualties, like the the Alawi population at large. Out of a quarter of a million Alawi men of fighting age, more than one-third are dead – a hugely disproportionate figure in relation to the community’s 10 percent of the Syrian population of 23 million.
Many Alawi hill villages are left without a single young man. The women are entirely clothed in mourning black. They report that, day by day, at least 30 of their young men return home from the front lines in coffins.
But Aug. 6 was a watershed day in the downward trend of the Assad clan’s standing – even in loyal Latakia.
At 8 p.m. that night, two vehicles approached the city’s Al Azhary roundabout. They were driven by Col. Hassan Al-Sheikh, a Syrian Air Force engineer and scion of a prominent Alawi family, and Suleiman Al-Assad, son of Bashar Assad’s infamous cousin, Helal Al-Assad, who had died in March 2014 in a fight with the opposition, at the head of the Assad clan’s paramilitary gangs known as Shabiha, notorious for their atrocities against civilians
Suleiman tried to cross into the roundabout, but Al Sheikh cut ahead of him. The furious Suleiman drove up to block the other car, stepped out holding an AK-47 machine gun and pumped seven bullets into the other driver’s chest. The colonel, whose wife and children were in the car, died instantly.
Even the Alawis have despaired of Assad winning
From the 2003 US invasion of Iraq until 2010, members of the Assad clan made their fortune – first by granting asylum to the top officers and tycoons of the Saddam regime on the run from the Americans; then by smuggling al Qaeda terrorists into Iraq against payment per head. Other parts of the clan engaged in gunrunning and dope smuggling across the Middle East. Hela Al-Assad and his Shabiha gangs were at the core of this traffic.
However, the denizens of the Bsanada village, the Al Shaikh family home in the Latakia province, had no intention of letting his brutal death at the hands of an Assad thug go unpunished. And so the entire family gathered in the city center for a protest rally, which began on a low note but soon gathered momentum and became a two-day protest against the president himself.
The incident sparked a furious outpouring of Alawi bitterness and despair over the cruel price they were paying for a war without end.
A community divided between ruling thugs and the military
The protesters not only called for the murderer to be executed for his crime, but the brother of his victim wrote on his Facebook page: “How much longer will this family (Al Assad) continue to feed on our blood and flesh? Until when will our homeland be torn by these wild dogs?”
Clearly the loyalty of this community is exhausted.
Alawi desertions from the army keep on rising, many young men fleeing the country rather than dying for what they see as a losing battle.
In attempt to put the lid on the snowballing protests, Assad Monday, Aug. 11, had his cousin arrested for the murder.
But that was not the end of the episode.
Whereas Suleiman Assad is one of the bosses of the Shabiha gangs, Col. Al Sheikh was a high-ranking military officer. The killer and victim hailed from two opposing camps of Assad loyalists within the community. The Shabiha tell the Alawis they ought to be grateful to the Assads for empowering their community as rulers of Syria; criticizing the president is condemned as treason. The army tells the population that they are its shield.
Before this incident too, Alawi unrest was catching on in other communities: in the town of Homs, for instance, the sizeable Alawi population complains it lives under the jackboots of the Shabiha, which took over its protection against the town’s dominant Sunnis.
In Tartus, further up the coast from Latakia, flyers urge people to speak their minds about the mounting war casualties. Activists there have protested the arrests of men who refuse to serve in the army and the abandonment of soldiers taken prisoner and executed by Sunni extremists groups.