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Alawi-Ismaili Confrontation in Qadmous—What Does it Mean? (2005)

Landis Joshua
Document type:

    Alawi-Ismaili Confrontation in Qadmous—What Does it Mean? (2005)


    Among the nations affected by the uprisings and revolutions known as the Arab Spring, Syria is unique because of its diverse population, whose members have coexisted under a nominally secular dictatorship for over four decades. Syria’s constitution and governmental system reflects this diversity, providing for a distribution of power between the Sunni majority, other Muslim groups, and Christians. This distribution was in part inspired by the many incidents of sectarian conflict dating back to Ottoman rule. When the uprisings of 2011 degenerated into a civil war, the regime of Bashar al-Assad continued to insist that only his government could prevent the country from fracturing into warring camps. But in the ensuing chaos that followed, numerous religious minorities accused the government of playing the sectarian groups against one another, encouraging, for example, the various Islamist groups to turn on each other, or to persecute the Christian minorities who joined the rebellion. With a total media blackout enforced by the Assad regime, it remains difficult to confirm many of the accusations.

    The scholar Joshua Landis provides some background to the internal conflict in an eyewitness account below. Landis spent time in the town of Qadmous, where simmering tensions between the Alawis and the Ismailis erupted in an outbreak of violence in 2005. Though the participants blamed the other side for the source of the conflict, many agreed that they relied on the regime to quell the violence. In other words, while the regime may have maintained an uneasy peace, it also stifled the creation of a functioning civil society that could go a long way toward improving the situation. “The absence of alternative sources of authority,” Landis notes in his conclusion, “means that the authoritarian state is needed more than ever.”

    27 stores and several homes were burnt or destroyed last week in Qadmous. All of them belonged to Ismailis. “I blame the government and the state 100% for failing to stop this violence,” said Samir, an Alawi villager, whose home is only a few kilometers from Qadmous. “Where was the Baath Party? Where were the police,” he asked? “There were a hundred signs that something was going to happen, but no one did anything,” he lamented. “Now what will happen to our town? It will never return to what it was.”

    When I got off the bus in the center of Qadmous yesterday, I didn’t notice anything wrong. Not at first. On the contrary, Qadmous is a handsome town and prosperous compared to the forlorn and dusty villages that hug the main road along the hot dessert plain leading from Homs up to feet of the mountain region shared by Syria’s minority sects. The greenery and cool mountain air of Qadmous is so refreshing and welcome to the traveler who arrives from the plains that he breaths deeply and rejoices.

    But everything was not alright in Qadmous. The bus deposited me in front of the police station in the center of town – a stately building of neatly cut stone set three meters in from the street. Its imposing size and calm authority, meant to symbolize the steady hand of the state, belied the fact that on the night of the riots, the six police stationed there did not venture out and did nothing to stop the marauding crowds. Perhaps they didn't know what to do in the face of such multitudes and disorder, except to call for help? The Alawite district president, originally from Latakia, is now fired, accused of being interested only in illicit gain. He failed completely, either to stop the violence when it began, or, more importantly, to take measures that might have prevented it before it started.

    No sooner had I deposited my bags on the sidewalk and begun to take my bearings, than my brother-in-law, Firas, appeared. He jumped out of his car and threw his arms around me in greeting. We kissed on both cheeks and then bowed to kiss the other’s shoulder in the customary salutation of the mountain area. Once settled into his passenger seat, I began to take a better look around. Firas, in a hushed voice, began to point out the long black tongues of soot that reached up above many of the shop doorways like angry cobras ready to strike. Every third or fourth store along the main street had been burned. Each had a gaping hole torn into the corrugated metal sheeting, which the shop owners roll down over their entrances. Some doors had been ripped completely off the stores, leaving the black interiors exposed and allowing the charred contents to come tumbling out on the sidewalk. Had the attackers used pickaxes, I wondered? How had they ripped through the metal? Firas murmured something about gasoline.

    It was Friday, the weekend, and down-town Qadmous was deserted, the unaffected stores shut tight and mute, their tin faces expressionless in their guilty survival. They were all Alawite stores. Only police and security men stood about lazily at the street corners. The quite exacerbated the sense of violence that must have overtaken Qadmous on the July evening. It lent the town an eerie sense of mourning. Evidently, the rampage had begun around nine in the evening and not abated until three in the morning.

    As one Alawi observed, “the more modern we become, the more savage.” He was referring to the use of cell phones, which have become ubiquitous over the last two years. “The bad people who started the violence began to call their brothers and cousins on their phones and everyone from the villages surrounding Qadmous hurried to the town center to take part in the revenge against the Ismailis. It happened so quickly. No one expected such a thing.” At 3:00 o’clock in the morning, two battalions [Katiybatayn] of solders finally arrived from nearby military bases to shut off the surrounding roads and staunch the inflow of villagers looking for trouble or merely coming to gawk. Five hundred people have been detained by security and are being questioned.

    “We now call our town Falouja,” Firas joked, when we reached the outskirts of the town. He wanted to break the somber mood. “Do you think the Americans ordered this?” He laughed thinly. It is the only time I have heard this question when I knew it wasn’t serious. I laughed more heartily than did Firas.

    “So how did it start?” I asked my father-in-law, when I was alone with him that evening and my wife was putting our child to bed? He had been troubled all day long, knowing this question was coming and being unsure how to answer so an American could understand.

    Abu Firas is proud of his town and region. I knew whatever explanation he gave could not satisfy him. His pride in Qadmous and in Syria had been dealt a serious blow by the sectarian violence. He is forever telling me how he organized and oversaw the building of the first secondary school in his village. It now serves the 10 surrounding villages. He had the first paved road built to his town—Bayt al-Murj or Bayt Qashqa’ur, in which every house is filled with a family member. Before the road was paved, only a donkey track connected the village to the main road, which had been paved only years earlier. Today the village is only a short 10 kilometer drive to Qadmous. When my father-in-law was a child it took hours to get there. The first time he set eyes on Qadmous was at the age of eight.

    His grandfather, Ali Ahmed, the great family patriarch, had bought the entire valley from the Ismailis in 1920 for a hundred gold lira and built the town single-handedly, clearing the trees and underbrush, terracing the stony hillside, building five water-driven grain mills, the only ones for miles around. He prospered and built the first one-room school house in 1948 to provide primary education to his kids and those of the nearby villages. It was only the third school built in the entire region including Qadmous all the way down the mountains to the edge of Baniyas. He raising twelve children, ten of whom survived to built their own houses in town.

    Abu Firas measures himself by his grandfather’s accomplishments; last week he found himself wanting. He was powerless to stop the violence and unable to keep the region on the road to progress established by his forefathers.

    “There are no longer any wujha’ [literally “faces” or community elders] of consequence in the region that could step into the void to assume authority and restrain the baser instincts of hot heads and the mob,” he explained. “The younger generation listens to no one. There is no chamber of commerce in Qadmous, no community organizations or leaders of the town able to stop this sort of confessional nonsense and repair relations between the communities before they ignite,” Abu Firas lamented. “Why is this so? Because the government doesn’t permit it. It must control everything and appoint its people. There is only the Party. That is why no one does anything. We sit on our verandas drinking tea and visiting their relatives. It is a waste.” Not knowing whether to blame himself or his government, Abu Firas blamed his government, but he was not happy doing so. He once loved the Baath Party.

    My father-in-law was the most successful of his generation of Qasha`urs, rising to be general and second-in-command in the Navy, but his ambitions and steady rise in the military was cut short at the age of 58. Having served 10 years at the rank of “liwa’,” or general, it was up or out according to Syrian law. He was forced to retire. His boss and commander stayed on as head of the Navy well into his 70s because he was related to someone. Even as he grew deaf and unable to carry out his full duties, the commander hung on, forcing able and rising stars like Abu Firas to retire early just as they were reaching their prime.

    The living-room to Abu Firas’ village house has a large photo prominently displayed of him shaking hands with Gamal Abdul Nasser on graduation day from the Naval Academy in Alexandria, Egypt in 1960. He was part of the Syrian generation that believed in Arabism and which felt certain the military and Baath Party would lead the way to overcoming sectarianism and building a united and strong society. His faith has not survived well.

    He was the first to say that the government and Baath Party had failed to head off the violence which overtook Qadmous. By preventing the emergence of civil society in the region and undermining potential wujha’ (local figures of authority), such as himself, the government has created a social wasteland, in which normal mechanisms for healing old sectarian wounds cannot emerge, and in which people like Abu Firas are spectators, unable to contribute. The young learn to be selfish, looking after their own families and leaving local affairs in the hands of the government administrators who are sent to the district from somewhere else. They have few role models.

    Abu Firas explained how there were long and short-term reasons for the violence. For the long-term reasons, he recounted the long history of sectarian competition in the region – how Ismaili Emirs had ruled the mountains when the Alawites began to spread into the area hundreds of years ago, especially after the Ottomans expelled the Shi’a from Aleppo and its surrounding regions in the 16th century. Alawites were the peasants, treated like serfs and indentured servants. The Ismailis, according to local Alawi lore, grew fat and forgot how to work, slowly selling off their land, but they never forgot their arrogance – at least that is what the many Alawis claimed whom I spoke with. Wars broke out and the Alawite peasantry grew stronger and won battle after battle. They bought up more land and prospered because they are an "ambitious, hardworking, and open-minded people." That is how Alawis explain their success.

    The Ismailis for the last 200 years have been moving off the mountain. Salamiyya, the Ismaili town on the outskirts of Hama, is a product of this recent migration and loss of Ismaili power in the mountains. In short, the long history of communal animosity lives on. As one Alawi in his 20s insisted to me, “Ismaili merchants and bosses still treat us with disrespect. They are “haqiriin” or of base character. They are jealous because we have been successful and now have the state behind us. They have not learned.” Unfortunately, I did not speak with Ismailis, who, I am sure, would tell a very different story.

    The short-term reasons for the violence began with a confrontation between Alawi and Ismaili youth over girls. A group of young Alawi men had come to a family entertainment spot and flirted with Ismaili girls. A scuffle broke out. Later the Ismailis led a noisy delegation to the local police station to protest the behavior of the Alawi youth and demand an apology be made and steps be taken to punish the offenders. The police director did nothing. Perhaps he thought the dispute would blow over soon enough and required no action? Perhaps he didn't want to offend the local Alawis, or perhaps, being an Alawi himself, he was not sympathetic to the plight of the Ismailis? Maybe, as some people claimed, he was only interested in collecting small bribes for issuing local liscences and did not care about anyone in the region?

    In revenge, the Alawi community enforced a boycott of Ismaili merchants in town. There has always been a reluctance to buy at the store of an Ismaili, but it had been half-hazard. Most importantly, Ismailis, who make up perhaps 50% of Qadmous proper, monopolize certain businesses, most importantly the sweetshops and furniture stores. In order to take advantage of the boycott, several enterprising Alawis began to import sweets from a local market and sell them in Qadmous to satisfy local demand and make a profit.

    This enraged the local Ismaili merchants whose businesses were suffering terribly. The surrounding villages and customer base of Qadmous is almost uniquely Alawi. Seeing their livelihoods being destroyed, the Ismailis stoned the store fronts of their competitors. Then all hell broke lose. That evening Ismaili stores were attacked and burnt, causing an estimated 10 million Syrian Pounds of damage.

    The outbreak of sectarian violence in Qadmous comes only a few months after similar clashes tore apart Misyaf, a mountain town some 20 minutes by car from Qadmous. Though less violent, those clashes, which began with a dispute among taxi drivers, inflamed communal tensions between the two Shiite communities who have shared the mountains for 100s of years. Today Qadmous has a new district president, a Christian, who is known for his even-handedness and discipline. He has replaced the Alawi who came from Latakia.

    Syria’s Baath regime has suffered a terrible blow in the high peeks of the Coastal Mountains. Since 1970, the main legitimizing slogan and proudest accomplishment of the state is that it has brought stability and security to Syrians. That legitimacy was badly frayed on the July night that sectarian violence burned through Qadmous. Few people express open devotion to the Baath Party. Most no longer believe that it is helping them to modernize as it once did. On the contrary, they complain that the regime’s efforts to dismantle and wipe away all traditional forms of authority have deprived them of any shield against the darker passions of sectarian and ethnic hatred that still simmer below the surface of village life.

    As one local resident said to me, “What happened in Qadmous, could happen anywhere in Syria. If the state were lifted off this society, who knows what would happen to our country? Maybe we would become Iraq?” Ironically, the absence of civil society has created an ever greater need for state authority. Even as people criticize the corruption of local officials, they insist on ever more vigilant state intervention. The absence of alternative sources of authority and leadership in Syria, means that the authoritarian state is needed more than ever. What would be the alternative? Qadmous? Iraq?

    Courtesy Joshua Landis. See original here: http://faculty-staff.ou.edu/L/Joshua.M.Landis-1/syriablog/2005/07/alawi-ismaili-confrontation-in-qadmous.htm.

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