AMMAN (Reuters) - A warm autumn day in the Syrian village of Qardaha and a man walks in to a cafe where two customers are arguing. He pulls a gun; shots are fired. The newcomer is wounded and one of the other men killed.
But this is no obscure local feud; it reveals frictions among President Bashar al-Assad’s core supporters. For Qardaha is the ancestral home of the ruling dynasty. And the man who strode in with a pistol was the beleaguered president’s cousin.
Accounts vary of what happened next. But the cafe gunfight and subsequent bloodshed in the village involved only Alawites, the religious minority on which Assad has depended in his civil war against mainly Sunni rebels. The violence shows that fear and anger over his policies may be eroding that support.
Some locals say Mohammed al-Assad, known as the “Mountain Sheikh” for his powerful family ties, argued in the cafe about smuggling and other rackets that underpin the economy of the Alawite hill towns around the port of Latakia; others believe he took exception to complaints about his cousin’s conduct of the war and about the rising death toll the community is suffering.
President Assad’s father Hafez, who led Syria from 1970 until his death in 2000, lies in a grandiose mausoleum at Qardaha, a town of 5,000 nestled amid pine-clad hilltops.
His rule brought wealth and advantage, not least jobs in the army and police, to the long disadvantaged Alawite community, which makes up about 10 percent of Syria’s population. But tribal and other internal tensions have been exacerbated by a war that his son portrays as a battle for survival, not just for himself but for all fellow Alawites against sectarian enemies.
Recent events around Qardaha, however, suggest to some observers, including Western diplomats, that clan rivalries, thousands of deaths among Alawite fighters and economic crisis could break the loyalty of leading Alawite commanders, even as the community finds itself increasingly a target of rebel anger.
With the government severely restricting media access, there is a lack of independent information within Syria but several residents of Latakia region gave similar accounts of events.
One Alawite who has joined the opposition to Assad, Majd Arafat, said there was growing resentment at the suffering of the local population while elite families remained aloof: “The talk all over the mountains is that Alawites are being killed in droves, but none of them are called Assad, Makhlouf or Shalish.”
The latter two families are closely related to the Assads.
A Western diplomat, noting the failure of defections by Sunni generals to sap the strength of Assad’s forces, speculated that were even a less senior Alawite to break ranks, it might raise expectations of a more damaging split: “The defection of one, even a colonel, would be significant,” he said.
Estimates of casualties are hard to establish in Syria. One activist group which compiles reports has said some 7,300 Assad loyalists have been killed, out of a total of 30,000 war dead.
But many believe the overall toll is higher. One who thinks so is a Syrian businessman, not himself an Alawite, who says he funds units of the mostly Alawite “shabbiha” militia, partly to protect his businesses in the area. Speaking to Reuters anonymously, he reckoned the Alawite community in the coastal mountains alone might have lost 15,000 fighters since last year.
In the immediate area of Qardaha, residents estimated that as many as 300 men may have died in the past year, either in battles with rebels or in sectarian ambushes and assassinations.
But the burden, as the riches of the past 40 years, has not been shared equally among the Alawite clans.
The likes of the Makhlouf and Shalish families are cousins of the Assads, and rose from humble beginnings to make fortunes by virtue of winning government tenders - much to the chagrin of more established Alawites sidelined by Assad and his father.
Now those divisions seem to be resurfacing in an environment where the wealth some Alawite mountain leaders have built up through officially sanctioned smuggling and other illicit trades is being threatened by the anti-Assad uprising - and now that many Alawites fear collective retribution from Assad’s enemies.
“Qardaha and its mountains used to be an incubator for regime support. But Assad’s relatives may now have to think twice before walking in the streets,” said the Alawite opposition activist Arafat. “The Alawites are starting to ask themselves ‘why we should back the Assads?’.”
The non-Alawite businessman who funds some loyalist militia said abuses in the clandestine economy run by shabbiha chiefs was turning other Alawites against their rulers: “The regime has been turning a blind eye to the criminality of the shabbiha,” the businessman said. “And it is beginning to hurt it.”
Nonetheless, many Alawites, whose religion is an offshoot of the Shi’ite Islam practiced in Assad’s ally Iran, still support the armed forces and the militia units blamed for sectarian atrocities. Many see them as a bulwark for self-preservation:
“They are afraid of the other side, which has also proved capable of massacres,” Arafat said. “They still see the Assad regime as providing them with a sort of immunity.”
Details of the cafe shootout at Qardaha on September 29, show internal strains are surfacing as the community suffers losses.
The man killed in the gunfight was Sakher Othman. Among prominent members of his family was Isper Othman, a cleric killed in a crackdown by the elder Assad in the 1970s. At Sakher Othman’s funeral, a mourner shouted a demand that Assad quit, prompting loyalist gunmen to open fire, killing four people.
Alawite opposition activists said several pro-Assad fighters were also killed and wounded as fighting spread.
Since then thousands of shabbiha loyal to the president and commanded by Assad relatives have imposed their order on Qardaha and surrounding villages, but anger and disputes have continued.
Activists list members of a number of prominent families which now oppose Assad, including from the Othman, Qouzi, Muhalla, Iskandar, Issa, Khayyer and al-Jadid clans. Homes have been ransacked and several shops owned by anti-Assad Alawites in Qardaha were torched this month, local residents said.
Among notable clan hostilities is that opposing the Khayyers to the Assads. Abdelaziz al-Khayyer, a doctor from Qardaha, spent 12 years as a political prisoner under Hafez al-Assad. He was detained again in September and has not been heard of since.
A delegation arrived from Damascus to try calm passions. It was headed by another prominent Alawite, Walid Othman, father-in-law of Assad’s cousin and Syria’s richest man Rami Makhlouf.
Yet within days there was further trouble, with local people saying youths from rival Alawite families clashed in Qardaha.
These tensions may spell problems ahead for the unity of the Alawite officer corps. And Assad’s forces may also be finding difficulties recruiting in their Alawite heartland - opposition activists say more young Alawites are evading conscription.
“They are seeing that the rebels are getting stronger and that their friends are getting killed,” said activist Lubna Merei, from the coastal town of Jableh, south of Latakia.
However, for all that Alawite communal cohesion may face problems, some believe that the way the civil war has taken on such a bitter sectarian dimension - helped in part by the way Assad himself treated his opponents - may mean the moment has passed when many Alawites might side with the rebels.
Munther Bakhos, a veteran Alawite member of the exile Syrian opposition in France, said the rebels lost an opportunity to make allies in the Alawite heartlands in the early stages of the conflict and he believed that it would now be harder for the mainly Sunni opposition to benefit from the in-fighting there.
“It is naive to think the regime is protecting the Alawites. They are hostage. The regime is using them to defend itself,” Bakhos said. But the sectarian bitterness of the war had made it harder to persuade Alawites to ditch Assad:
“There was an opportunity to pull the rug from under its feet in the first few months of the revolution,” he said. “But now the picture has gotten complicated.”
Editing by Alastair Macdonald