The Al-Alaby Family
Syrian Sunnis in the Middle
The majority of Syria’s population is Sunni, while President Bashar al-Assad’s regime is controlled at the top by his Alawite family. However, Syria’s state is much more than a sectarian construct, and its civil war dynamic cannot be understood solely in sectarian terms.
Walking through the Old City of Damascus in September, I saw a martyr poster with a Sunni-sounding name. I asked around until I found the Al-Alaby home. The brothers of the martyr invited us in. After checking our permission letter from the Syrian government, they told us how they lost their brother.
The Al-Alaby brothers were solidly middle class before the war, Sunnis who were neither passionately pro-government nor heavily politicized. (I wrote about their story and its implications for Syria’s diverse Sunni population in Foreign Policy.)
When Damascus came under sustained assault in 2012 and anti-government militants infiltrated even the heart of the capital, the brothers purchased guns and organized a watch group. Soon men began calling the family home with death threats. They called the al-Alaby brothers shabiha, a derogatory nickname for pro-regime militiamen. In June 2012, they killed Ihab. The following spring, nearly a year later, Mohammed’s mother received a call. “We have prepared a special Mother’s Day present for you,” a voice said. On March 8, 2013, just a week after the call, her son was killed in a most gruesome manner. Mohammed and three relatives, including his younger brother Ahmed, were praying at the grave of their cousin Ihab. A bomb buried in the grave itself exploded, killing Mohammed and wounding Ahmed.
Mohammed left behind a wife, three daughters, and a five-year-old son, Aref.
“Where’s your father?” Assad asked young Aref.
“He was killed,” his nephew answered softly, smiling.
“Who killed him?”
“The free army,” said the boy, conflating the nationalist rebel group called the Free Syrian Army with the Islamist jihadists in the Nusra Front who claimed responsibility for killing his father.
“Where is he now?”
“Now go play,” said his uncle, letting the boy slide off his lap.
The family tries to retain perspective. They fight for a government that doesn’t trust them, because they are Sunni. And they were targeted for assassination for the same reason — because of their sect, since they are Sunnis who chose not to resist the government.
“Thanks be to God,” Assad says, kissing the air, “we are fine. I’d give up the roof over my head for Mohammed to be alive.”
“Many have been wounded by this war, one way or another,” Ahmed says, tugging at his undershirt to show the shrapnel scars on his chest. “We are hoping from God.”
“Have you thought of leaving?” I ask.
“To be honest, we’ve all thought of leaving,” Ahmed said.
“Our soul is connected to this place, it’s too hard to leave,” said his older brother Assad. “Those who left didn’t have a choice. Something forced them to leave.”
“Our sister is in France,” Ahmed said. “She always tell us to join her.”
“But in that country they would call us refugees,” Assad said. “It’s better if we die here, with respect, with dignity.”
“There is no future for our kids here,” Ahmed said, gloomily. “The only reason we think of leaving is for them. Life is hard. We are so many. It’s very expensive.”
Read more about the Al-Alaby family and the Sunnis trapped in the middle of Syria’s polarizing conflict at Foreign Policy.