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Death of Syrian minister leaves a sect adrift

The death of Syrian interior minister Ghazi Kanaan leaves his Alawite sect adrift in their time of strife.
/ Source: a href="" linktype="External" resizable="true" status="true" scrollbars="true">The Washington Post</a

In this scenic village, along terraced hills of pine and palm trees, the body of Interior Minister Ghazi Kanaan rests in a coffin draped in a Syrian flag, a leather-bound Koran at each corner. His death on Oct. 12 was certain. Less so are the shadowy circumstances that removed from the scene one of Syria's most powerful men, an interlocutor between the religious sect known as the Alawites, who have long ruled the country, and a government they controlled but increasingly see as distant and corrupt.

A suicide, officials said, closing the case the day after Kanaan died. A relative, Mazen Kanaan, smiled at the thought.

"He was a man of confrontation," he said. "Suicide is an escape. He wasn't a man to run away from something."

How did he die then? the relative was asked. "That is for you to figure out," he answered.

Timing raises suspicions
The timing of Kanaan's death has also raised suspicions. Only recently he had been questioned in a U.N. investigation that implicates senior officials in the assassination of a former Lebanese prime minister.

In the sometimes brutal politics of Syria's elite, in which violence is intertwined with cunning, the 63-year-old Kanaan was a man of many faces: self-made Alawite strongman, ruthless politician and potential contender for power. In his village of Bihamra and the region that spills beyond it, he was something else: a feudal-like lord who tended to members of his Alawite minority, cultivating their support and defending their interests. To them, his death -- murder or suicide -- has become more than the passing of a figure who bordered on the iconic. It is an instance, writ small, of the growing frustration and fear in the religious sect that has served as the backbone of 35 years of Baath Party rule and is still viewed as the linchpin of President Bashar Assad's five years in power.

"No one can replace him. Maybe in a thousand years someone else like him will come," said Mazen Kanaan, sipping a small cup of bitter coffee in the courtyard of Ghazi Kanaan's now-shuttered mansion. "People need help but they have no one to go to."

These are difficult days for Syria's Alawites, and in their sentiments may be hints of the vulnerability of Assad's government as it faces a crisis over the U.N. investigation. In villages like Bihamra, across forbidding mountains that spring from the Mediterranean coast, there is deep anxiety that in a time of strife, Alawites will bear the brunt of vendettas dating to the decades when they provided the leadership of the government, military and feared security services.

That apprehension comes as frustration surges that the very state they are tied to has abandoned them. The military that ended their historic marginalization is neglected and disrespected, some of their villages remain without running water and, many say, the government, despite its Alawite cast, no longer defends them.

"It's like people don't know we live in the country," said Kharfan Khazin Ahmed, a 61-year-old retired government employee from the Alawite village of Qarir. "Every person sitting in the chair of power cares about money, not about the people."

Rise to the top

Alawites are a small but pivotal community in Syria's tapestry of sect and ethnicity. Syria is predominantly Arab, with a Kurdish minority in the northeast. But among the Arabs are many Muslim sects: Sunni Muslims are the majority, along with minorities of Alawis, Druze and Ismailis, all of whom trace their origins back to Shiite Islam. The Alawites are the largest of those religious minorities, representing probably about 12 percent of Syria's 18 million people. They are centered in the region around Bihamra.

For centuries, Alawites faced withering discrimination, in part over the suspicions generated by their secretive, loosely Shiite religious traditions. Their secluded mountain villages are a relic of that ostracism, and they were some of the poorest, least educated and most rural of Syria's inhabitants. As with other religious minorities in the Middle East, many Alawites turned to the Baath Party, drawn to its pan-Arab, leftist and secular ideology, hoping it might dilute Syria's Sunni dominance and provide a more inclusive notion of identity. To escape grinding poverty, they joined the military, soon filling the ranks of its senior officer corps. In modern Syria, those two institutions -- party and military -- have ruled for 35 years.

Assad is an Alawite, and during the presidency of his father and predecessor, Hafez Assad, the sect emerged from behind the scenes to command the government's most sensitive positions in the military and security services. While the elder Assad was careful to give a Sunni face to portfolios such as the defense and foreign ministries and to forge alliances with other groups, his inner circle was drawn from his own community, often his own Qalbiyya tribe and family. In that sense, he was not only Syria's strongman, but also the leader of his sect, responsible for its fortunes.

"You will remain eternal in our hearts forever," reads a billboard with the elder Assad's portrait at the entrance to Qurdaha, his home town, about a mile along a winding road of ancient, rounded hills from Kanaan's village of Bihamra.

Under the younger Assad, to a remarkable degree, the circle of Alawite dominance has narrowed to his family. Gone are some of the sect's most powerful men -- former intelligence chiefs such as Ali Duba and Mohammed Khouli, for instance. Kanaan, Syria's point man in Lebanon for two decades and later the interior minister, was one of the last and most prominent. A product of the feared Mukhabarat, or Syrian intelligence, his reputation in much of the country was of a fearsome, hard man; in Bihamra, it was of a charitable one.

"He helped everyone in the village," said a doctor who spoke on condition of anonymity. "He was like a father for this entire place. Any help you needed as a citizen, you could go to him. His door was open to both the poor and princes."

The doctor, Kanaan's relative and others sat in the courtyard of his stucco, red-roofed villa on a cool morning. They snacked on bananas and apples, drank coffee and smoked cigarettes, ignoring the dawn-to-dusk fast of the holy month of Ramadan. The Alawite region is one of Syria's most secular, reflecting the imprint of a Baath Party that saw tribe and religion as barriers to modernization. The veil is hardly seen; missing are the most conservative Arab traditions that discourage interaction between men and women.

Bihamra itself shows the legacy of Kanaan's power and influence: He provided money to build the Jaafar Tayar mosque, opened a library with seven computers and built a community center named for his father, Mohammed Ali. While in Lebanon, he visited every month or two. On his return to Damascus in 2002, he visited at least once every two weeks, more often for funerals. As a young man, the story goes, in one of the myths that can overshadow life's excesses, he gave part of his first lieutenant's salary to villagers.

"The difference is that he would help someone and expect nothing in return," his relative said.

"They're going to feel the emptiness," he added.

An ally is lost

Two weeks after his body was found, Kanaan's death remains the talk of Damascus. Most often heard is speculation that he faced disgrace on corruption charges and chose suicide instead. But many speculate that he represented one of the few potential rivals to Bashar Assad, giving rise to a slew of conspiracy theories: that he was forced to kill himself or that he was murdered, possibly poisoned. One well-informed Syrian said that the day after Kanaan died, all the coffee cups from his Interior Ministry office were seized to conceal evidence of foul play.

"They committed his suicide," said a Syrian dissident, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

The talk in Bihamra, though, is more visceral and perhaps more telling. In the repercussions of Kanaan's death lies a truth about Syria and its government today: The younger Assad is viewed as less ta'ifi , or sectarian. His outlook is ostensibly more modern, possibly reformist; bucking tradition, he took for his wife a Sunni, not an Alawite. But as he struggles to put a more contemporary veneer on his rule, he faces a society still suffering deep cleavages that reflect unresolved questions of identity. The Baath Party offered one answer: The country is Arab. But other identities still compete -- Alawi, Sunni, Christian and so on -- in a zero-sum game of communal survival.

And in that question of survival, villagers say, Alawites lost one of their last, most prominent defenders in Kanaan. In his place, some Alawites say, is a government that cares about the military only to ensure it doesn't rebel; a ruling family most worried about its survival; and a state that promotes not the sect's interest, but networks bound by patronage and power that are growing richer. Even some Alawite intelligence officials are said to be disenchanted over the higher profile of Assad's family at their expense.

"Sadma," Kanaan's relative called his death, a shock or a blow. "Not just for the village, but for the entire region."

"He served the people. He transferred their words," said Shaalan Asad, a 51-year-old former teacher who runs a grocery store in Jobat Berghal, about a half-hour away. "He was a connection between the people and the government and their officials."

Asad, sitting on the porch of his shop, reflected on his village's story. In the 1970s, after the elder Assad took power, electricity finally arrived. The main road was paved, bringing cars where donkeys long trod over dirt paths along rocky ridges that spilled into verdant valleys of apples, cottonwoods and olives. Schools were opened in the 1980s, and the town had a sports club and a community center. Today, they are closed, unstaffed and in disrepair. He said villagers are still waiting for running water.

"We really need more," he said. "It's slow. They can't do two or three projects at the same time."

In Damascus and other Syrian cities, there is the perception that the Alawite roots of the Assad family have meant hamlets like Jobat Berghal have received favorable treatment. That view often inspires anger among the Alawite villagers here.

"The opposite! The opposite!" shouted Ahmed, the retired government employee, his face leathery from the sun.

"We're all Alawites here and when you come here, you can't find anything," he said.

As Ahmed spoke, years of grievances poured out. He ignored the coded language often employed in Syria's repressive climate. The courts? They are suffused with bribes and corruption, he said. The law? It protects the powerful and wealthy. He still pumps water into his home from a steel vat. He and other villagers have filed thousands of loan applications and still await an answer.

"President Hafez Assad said it was the right of any citizen to raise his voice if he sees injustice. You should speak out against it," Ahmed said. "Now they say it's not your right to talk. They say it's not your business, even if there's something wrong."

A question of identity
It is sometimes a joke among Alawites that, in the event of turmoil, they would flee to their villages near here, the same mountain redoubts that offered protection over centuries of ill will.

They laugh, but a hint of anxiety shadows the remarks. So does a sense of injustice: While some Alawites have profited under the Assads' rule, at times profligately, many have seen little benefit.

"They worry about the regime and about the accusations against the regime," said Tareq Abad, a 30-year-old sailor in the village of Shadaita, who belongs to another religious sect known as the Murshidis. (Numbering possibly 200,000, they are followers of a Syrian holy man and populist from the region who was executed in 1946.) "What would they do if the regime collapsed?"

He sat with two friends, who looked at the ground as he spoke, perhaps fearing his forthrightness. He sensed their unease.

"Let's face it," he said, shaking his head, "the government is Alawite."

Many Syrians take pride in the coexistence of the country's sects. Asking someone their identity is often seen as rude. But sectarian fault lines lurk beneath the surface. Some Syrians argue that the divisions were deepened by the battle between the government and the Muslim Brotherhood, a Sunni Muslim movement, in the late 1970s and early 1980s.

Over more than a decade, the Sunni community itself has grown increasingly religious, with greater manifestations of piety such as the veil. This summer, a clash in the village of Qadmous, in the coastal province of Tartus, took a sectarian bent, pitting two minorities, Alawites and Ismailis, against each other.

In the village of Mzaraa, a 33-year-old grocer, Firas Deeb, dismissed the talk of sect. He was Syrian, he insisted. Still, he said he expected his relatives to return if there was conflict in the country. There was no other choice.

"That's certain," he said, nodding.

"The people in Damascus will return to the village, and they'll find protection with their people. You can hide here," Deeb said. "They're going to hide behind the rocks and the stones. In the city, there are no rocks and stones."