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memri
August 25, 2016 No.
6587

The Free Alawite Movement - First Signs Of Armed Alawite Resistance To The Assad Regime

On June 4, 2016, Alawite officer 'Alaa Makhlouf, a bodyguard of President Bashar Al-Assad's wife Asma, was assassinated after a bomb was placed in his car. A group called the Free Alawite Movement claimed responsibility for the act, thus becoming the first Alawite group to openly undertake military action against regime forces.

An examination of its social media pages indicates that the Free Alawite Movement, led by Sheikh Mohsen Al-Haidari, was founded in February 2016 to combat the Assad regime and defend the Alawite sect from it. The movement operates on three levels - political, informational, and military; its military activity is carried out by its armed wing, the Free Alawite Brigade. The movement openly advertises its activity in and out of Syria and expresses its desire to cooperate with other Syrian rebel groups and opposition factions. Statements issued by the movement indicated that its founders' opposition to the Assad regime is also the result of years-long rivalries between various factions within the Alawite sect,[1] specifically between the Kalaziya faction - the majority faction that includes the Al-Assad, Makhlouf, Shalish, and Kheirbek families - and the Haidariya and Makhousiya factions, and possibly others as well.[2] The movement stresses that the regime is not as tied to the Alawite sect as it claims but rather harms the sect, and that many Alawites do not support it.


Free Alawite Movement slogan: "Syria and Nothing Else" (Facebook.com/1192248117460289)

It should be mentioned that the anger directed at President Assad and his regime from within the Alawite sect is not new, and was manifested by widespread anti-regime protests in August 2015 in the regime strongholds of  Latakia and Tartus, and the founding, on October 22, 2015, of an Alawite political opposition group operating outside of Syria called the Upcoming Syria movement.[3] However, this is the first time since the onset of the Syrian crisis in 2011 that an Alawite movement claims responsibility for military action against the regime.

It should be mentioned that this report is based on the Free Alawite Movement's Facebook and Twitter pages, and that no other sources of information about the movement exist. As a result, the movement's size, the scope of its activity, and the level of its support remain unclear.

This report will review the platform and activity of the Free Alawite Movement:

The Movement's Platform: Assad Regime Will Be Held Accountable For Its Crimes; Syria Is The Homeland Of All Its People, Regardless Of Sect

On April 24, 2016, the Free Alawite Movement issued its founding statement. The statement called to view Syria as a homeland for all its residents, regardless of ethnicity or sect, and to distinguish Alawites who were not party to the crimes of the Syrian regime from those whose hands are covered in the blood of their Syrian brethren, and who should be held accountable for their actions. According to the statement, the movement's goals are to assist all Alawites who wish to rebel against the rule of the Kalaziya faction and its loyalist families, and to establish political and military wings that work against these families and assist the Free Syrian Army. The movement expressed support for Alawite organizations and figures who oppose the regime, such as Monzer Makhous, spokesman for the Syrian High Negotiations Committee, and the Upcoming Syria movement. To highlight its rivalry with the Assad regime and its patrons, the movement stated that it saw Iran, Russia, Hizbullah, and the Shi'ite militias in Syria as enemies, and that the Alawite sect has no true religious ties with Iran; on the contrary, the movement stressed that there was historic hostility between them.

The founding statement reads: "The movement was founded on February 20, 2016. It includes a group of leaders from the Haidariya and Makhousiya [factions of the] Alawite sect, as well as some officers in the regime army, retired officers, and some current and former politicians.

"The movement's founding principles:

"- Syria is the homeland of all its sons, regardless of sect... religious school, or ethnicity.

"- Anyone of us who spilled the blood of his Syrian brethren is a criminal who will be held accountable by tribunals.

"- The movement will absolutely not serve as a cover for criminals and will work to extradite any criminal whose crimes are proven.

"- We charge our brethren in the homeland to refrain from holding all of us [Alawites] responsible for the events in Syria. A large number of us oppose these crimes and some were thrust [into the war] following sectarian brainwashing by regime loyalists.

"The movement's goals:

"1. Freeing the Haidaris and Makhousis from the control of the Kalaziya [faction] and the Al-Wahsh,[4] Makhlouf, Shalish, and Kheirbek families.

"2. Defending our remaining youths from inevitable death in the service of these families.

"3. Stressing to our youths that they are dying for families and not for the homeland, while Kalaziya members and the Al-Wahsh [Al-Assad], Makhlouf, and Shalish families sit in their palaces and offices and gamble.

"4. Establishing a political force of free sect members to defend the sect from Kalaziya [loyalists].

"5. Ensuring safety for defectors, escapees, and those who refuse to be led to battle.

"6. Establishing charity foundations to ensure aid to families that the regime refuses to help due to their opposition to its crimes.

"7. Establishing a military force including officers, enlisted men, and youths who defected [from the regime army].

"8. Striving to eliminate the Shabiha[5] activists of the Al-Wahsh, Makhlouf, and Shalish families in all areas.

"9. Supporting Monzer Makhous and the leader of Upcoming Syria, brother Fouad Hamira.[6]

"10. Contacting the Free Syrian Army... to provide information and support and to defend it in all [our] areas.

"11. To distribute and put up flyers to expose criminals.

"12. To treat Iran, Russia, Hizbullah, and the militias sent by Iran to Syria as our common enemy.

"13. [To stress] that nothing ties the Free Alawite Movement to Iran religiously, and that there is a historic hostility between us [Alawites] and them...

"14. [To reiterate] that Iran is implementing its ancient plan... to transform part of the Alawite sect into its servant in the region."[7]

Military Activity: Free Alawite Brigade Targets The Regime

As stated above, unlike other Alawite opposition movements, the Free Alawite Movement is the first to reportedly carry out armed resistance to the regime, although apparently on a limited scale, so far. The movement's military wing is the Free Alawite Brigade, and is likely comprised of Syrian army defectors. There is no information regarding the brigade's commander, but it is known that his lieutenant is Colonel Muhammad Barakat, who defected from the regime army on May 2, 2016, to join the brigade.[8]

The brigade claimed responsibility for a number of operations, the most prominent of which was the assassination of 'Alaa Makhlouf, the bodyguard of President Assad's wife Asma, on June 4, 2016 by placing a bomb in his car.[9] On June 12, the Free Alawite Movement tweeted that the one of its fighters "managed to blow up the headquarters of a brigade in the [Syrian army's] 4th Division and escape safely."[10]

 
Bombing a brigade headquarters in the Syrian army's 4th Division (Image: Twitter.com/jojohm7, June 12, 2016)

Additionally, on May 19, 2016, the movement claimed responsibility for bombing an ammo depot belonging to the regime's National Defense militia in the city of Al-Suqaylabiya.[11]

Informational Activity

It appears that the movement's activity focuses on the informational level, mainly via its Facebook and Twitter pages, criticizing the Al-Assad, Makhlouf, and Shalish families and the Assad regime in general. The movement's main argument is that these families, and the Assad regime, do not represent the Alawite sect and even exploit it in the service of Iran. Thus, for example, on April 13, 2016, the movement posted a Facebook status arguing that nothing tied Alawites to Shi'ites, and that those who spread Shi'a Islam among Alawites was the family of Suleiman Al-Assad, which was not originally part of the Alawite sect and came to Syria from parts unknown.[12] Another post argued that the Al-Assad family lives at the expense of impoverished Alawites, who make up some 50% of the sect, and works with Iran to control Alawite opponents of the regime, thus enabling Iran to take over Syria.[13]

A post on May 10 stated that the Assad regime uses loyalists of Alawite factions that are not among regime supporters as cannon fodder, citing as evidence the number of Alawites belonging to the Kalaziya faction killed during the war, which is far lower than the death toll among loyalists of the other factions.[14] It further claimed that the Assad regime was responsible for the massive terror attacks in Jableh and Tartus on May 23, 2016, which claimed 317 lives, all of them members of the Haidariya and Makhousiya factions.[15] Even though ISIS claimed responsibility for these attacks, the movement claimed that the Assad regime had carried them out to prevent the outbreak of an "Alawite intifada" on the Syrian coast.[16]

On April 30, 2016, following the start of a massive Assad regime campaign in Aleppo, the movement condemned the regime's crimes, claiming that the movement itself could not be held accountable for the regime's actions.[17]


Free Alawite Movement symbol (Facebook.com/1192248117460289, May 2, 2016)

Political Activity

The movement claims to be conducting political activity beyond Syria's borders. For example, on May 19 it posted a Facebook status claiming that "the supreme authority of the Free Alawite Movement has launched day 3 of its meetings in France. The movement rejected a request by Rifa'at Al-Assad [President Bashar Al-Assad's uncle] to join the movement due to his poor record. The movement will issue a statement after its meetings. These are the final days of Bashar Al-Wahsh, and the whole world agrees on this."[18]

According to the movement, it has held ties with the Syrian High Negotiations Committee through its spokesman Monzer Makhous, who is a member of the Alawite Makhousiya faction. Following the May 2016 terror attacks in Jableh and Tartus, the movement's leader, Sheikh Mohsen Al-Haidari sent a letter to Makhous asking him to inform international elements that Kalaziya loyalists were on their way to massacre displaced Sunnis on the Syrian coast.[19] Beyond that, there is no information on ties between the movement and other large Syrian opposition bodies such as the National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces.

The movement's Facebook page also reported on ties with former Syrian defense minister and chief of staff 'Ali Habib, who is an Alawite and was ousted as defense minister by President Assad in August 2011. On May 10, 2016, the movement posted an "announcement from Paris" stating that "Major General 'Ali Habib, the former Syrian defense minister, spoke with some opposition factions and world officials [in Paris] in order to find a solution for the Syria war that would lead to the expulsion of the Al-Wahsh, Makhlouf, and Shalish families from Syria, and the punishing of anyone with Syrian blood on their hands." The post further mentioned an upcoming meeting "attended by Major General 'Ali Habib, Brigadier General Manaf Tlass [a former general in the Syrian regime army and Assad associate who defected in 2012], and a number of [other] senior officers who defected from the Al-Wahsh [Al-Assad] family army, in order to establish a transitional military council that would lead Syria towards becoming a free democratic country with no room for the Al-Wahsh, Shalish, and Makhlouf families, and that will hold all criminals accountable. Our Sheikh [Mohsen Al-Haidari] will join the meeting as head of the Free Alawite Movement and the Free Alawite Brigade."[20]

On July 12, 2016, the movement posted a Facebook status stating that Al-Haidari had arrived in Ankara together with 'Ali Habib, and that they had begun a series of meetings with military and political leaders, including Khaled Al-Mahamid, who is in charge of coordinating with defecting officers in Syrian opposition factions in South Syria. It was said that the meetings would last two days, after which the two would depart for Moscow.[21]

It should be mentioned in this context that 'Ali Habib's meetings in Ankara were reported by other outlets, but none of them mentioned the Free Alawite Movement or Al-Haidari. Thus, the Syrian oppositionist website Orient-news.net reported on July 12 that 'Ali Habib had arrived in Ankara from Paris two days prior to meet with the Turkish military high command to discuss the establishment of a wide military government in Syria that would be headed by and include many defecting officers from the regime, and also to discuss the establishment of a core for a new national army. The report stated further that, after the deliberations in Ankara, Habib would continue his meetings in Moscow. However, as stated, the website did not mention the Free Alawite Movement.[22] Additionally, some reports denied that Habib had left Syria at all.[23]

 

Endnotes:

 

[1] The Alawite sect is divided into several different factions reflecting religious schools that differ on solar and lunar rituals.

[2] Aljazeera.net, January 17, 2016.

[3] See MEMRI Inquiry & Analysis Series Report No. 1225, 'Alawi Sect Showing Signs Of Opposition To Assad Regime, February 4, 2016.

[4] Al-Wahsh was the original last name of Bashar Al-Assad's grandfather. He changed the name to Al-Assad in 1927 after acquiring status.

[5] The popular name given to the Syrian regime's plainclothes militia.

[6] See MEMRI Inquiry & Analysis Series Report No. 1225, 'Alawi Sect Showing Signs Of Opposition To Assad Regime, February 4, 2016.

[7] The statement is dated April 24, 2016, but was posted on the movement's Facebook and Twitter pages on May 25. Twitter.com/jojohm7, Facebook.com/1192248117460289, May 25, 2016.

[8] Twitter.com/jojohm7,  May 2, 2016.

[9] Twitter.com/jojohm7, June 4, 2016.

[10] Twitter.com/jojohm7, June 12, 2016.

[11] Facebook.com/1192248117460289, May 19, 2016.

[12] Facebook.com/1192248117460289, April 13, 2016.

[13] Facebook.com/1192248117460289, April 13, 2016.

[14] Facebook.com/1192248117460289, May 10, 2016.

[15] Twitter.com/jojohm7, May 23, 2016.

[16] Twitter.com/jojohm7, May 23, 2016.

[17] Twitter.com/jojohm7, April 30, 2016.

[18] Facebook.com/1192248117460289, May 19, 2016.

[19] Twitter.com/jojohm7, May 23, 2016.

[20] Facebook.com/1192248117460289, May 10, 2016.

[21] Facebook.com/1192248117460289, July 12, 2016.

[22] Orient-news.net, July 12, 2016.

[23] Orient-news.net, July 13, 2016; Al-Quds Al-Arabi (London), July 14, 2016.