Last week, Mohammad al-Assad, a cousin of President Bashar al-Assad, was shot and critically wounded in Qardaha, hometown of the Assads in the coastal mountains of Syria. For a member of the Assad family to have been attacked in his native village is news enough, but the most intriguing aspect of the event is the identity of the gunman. At the time of the shooting Assad was arguing with representatives of other eminent Alawite families, who are led by the Khayyir clan. Tempers flared, and Mohammad drew his gun - but not quickly enough.
The incident is significant, because it would appear to be the first sign of an open rift among the Alawite elite. Communal solidarity is a major reason why the regime has failed to crack apart, and why Bashar al-Assad has managed to keep his generals in line.
The news of possible anti-Assad stirrings in his ancestral village naturally attracted the interest of the opposition, which fervently hopes that the shooting represented the first stirrings of politically significant Alawite defections from Assad. Syrian opposition sites and social media feeds went abuzz with several accounts of what happened.
Events like these are murky by definition. Reports are hard to source with accuracy, and they vary in details. But all agree that Mohammad al-Assad, known as the "sheikh of the mountain," is a prominent leader of the shabiha gangs, the notorious Alawite mafia that smuggles and extorts for profit, while also acting as a paramilitary arm of the regime. Assad and his confederates had a brawl with members of the other big clans, which left a number of them dead or wounded.
Credible sources report that the Khayyirs led the other big families in street protests, forcing the hand of the security forces, who cordoned off the village. On Monday, the "coalition of Alawite youth against the Assad regime" reported on a street protest, also led by the Khayyirs, which resulted in another exchange of gunfire and yet more casualties. Tensions continued to rise throughout the week, and the situation does not appear to have been resolved.
While these events seem clear enough, it's much harder to know how to interpret them. Some Syrian oppositionists viewed the fight, especially at first, as a typical dispute between mafia families - turf and spoils, not high politics. However, other sources, including Alawite activists, are telling a different story. They insist that at the heart of the incident is discontent with Bashar al-Assad's leadership. The other big clans, they say, denigrated the president's leadership of the war, and it was this affront that goaded Mohammad al-Assad into pulling his gun.
These sources emphasize that a pall of anxiety has descended on the entire Alawite community. The regime, many feel, has implicated all Alawites in its atrocities. When Assad falls, the community will pay for his crimes with its blood. This anxiety has reached a new level in recent weeks, because the Free Syrian Army has succeeded in making incursions into the coastal mountains, once thought to be an impregnable Alawite stronghold. On Saturday, the rebels announced they were in control of territories just north of Qardaha itself. This advance led the families of the town to fear reprisals for the atrocities committed by Assad's shabiha.