June 14, 2000
By Hugh Pope
QORDOHA, Syria — This country buried its late leader President Hafez al-Assad
yesterday, with displays of national solidarity that showed how 30 years of
iron-fisted rule had forged a common purpose in once-fractious Syria.
But as Mr. Assad’s body was laid to rest outside his home village overlooking
the Mediterranean Sea, there was little of the grief and hysteria that had
characterized mass demonstrations in the capital of Damascus earlier this week.
Instead, there was an underlying anxiety about the future of Syria’s
Alawite Muslims, a 12% minority of Syria’s 15 million population. Mr. Assad,
an Alawite himself, brought his clansmen to the pinnacle of power, from their
origins as a poor and persecuted mountain sect.
Overwhelmingly, the favorite chant of mourners yesterday represented a hope
that Syria can somehow mix economic improvement with stable continuity
though the person of Mr. Assad’s 34-year-old son, Bashar al-Assad: “With soul
and blood, we pledge ourselves to you, Bashar!” they shouted.
The long-limbed Bashar, the eye doctor who now leads Syria’s armed forces
and seems sure to be the next president, showed signs of impatience with
security measures as he walked behind his father’s flag-draped coffin toward its
final resting place. Whether he likes it or not, he can’t now escape the beefy
motorbike outriders that preceded him into town, the scurrying flunkeys holding
onto pistols tucked into their belts, and the flocks of black jeeps with machine
gun-toting guards hanging out of the windows.
The fact is that the people who protect Bashar al-Assad are also protecting
the status quo. Many of them are Alawites, now living in luxuriously appointed
houses in and around Qordoha. And they are just one of the entrenched
Alawite interests Bashar al-Assad will face as he tries to figure out how to
revitalize Syria and its stagnant, state-dominated economy.
But if a continuing anticorruption campaign is aimed at broadening the base of
Syrian politics, Bashar al-Assad will need courage to complete a purge of his
father’s Alawite-dominated regime. Freeing up the economy will mean handing
more financial power to the urban elite of the Sunni Moslem majority, again
threatening entrenched Alawite interests that head many state-sector
And though his support from the Alawite community and other Syrians
appears strong, he still faces a challenge from a weak claim to the succession
by his exiled Alawite uncle, Rifaat al-Assad.
Hafez al-Assad won the respect of most Syrians by putting their small country
firmly on the world map, especially through his intransigence in peace talks
with Israel. And he was quite successful in making his secretive sect of Shia
Islam acceptable to mainstream Sunni Moslem Syrians — which he did partly by
banning talk about Alawite-Sunni differences.
“We and the Sunnis are closer than in the past, because of civilization, the
media, and so on,” says Hassan al-Kheir, an Alawite civil engineer and one of
Qordoha’s 10,000 inhabitants, who attended yesterday’s funeral. Yet his
progressive cousin Fida al-Kheir, in whose backyard lie the ruins of the small
stone school where Hafez al-Assad took his first lessons, says she still
wouldn’t marry a Sunni, for fear he would force her to wear a headscarf.
Of the Alawite community, Mrs. al-Kheir says, “It’s not special treatment
that helps us get good jobs. We are more educated, more intelligent, more
Yet it was Hafez al-Assad’s attention to his community that brought Mrs.
al-Kheir education in a new university nearby, not to mention Qordoha’s huge
hospital and its five-star hotel at the end of a palm-lined boulevard. What’s
more, Syria’s ruling party is headed by a member of the al-Kheir clan.
Such privilege has led to a lingering resentment against Alawites. Funeral
tents put up around the country, where mourners could meet and remember the
69-year-old leader, were well attended in Alawite mountain villages. But they
were nearly deserted in Sunni Moslem areas.
“Yes, we were sad today,” said Nasser al-Hamawi, a Sunni among the
Alawite crowds in Qordoha. “But it was not for Hafez al-Assad. It was in spite