Born From the Stars: The Alawites in Syria

Co-written by Derek Soled

Bashar al-Assad has governed Syria with absolute authority for over a decade, controlling the military and ruling unopposed. On March 15, 2011, the Arab Spring hit Syria. Since the start of the Syrian uprising, the Assad regime has unleashed a ruthless crackdown, leaving over 40,000 Syrians dead in its wake. Armed thugs roam the streets, government tanks continue to shell major cities, and nearly 500,000 refugees have fled the country. Still, opposition towards Assad continues to grow, and the regime’s days may be running out.

Roy Gutman, the European Bureau Chief for McClatchy Newspapers, believes the Assad regime is destined to fall. In an interview with The Politic, he stated, “The highest ranking military defector from Syria told me recently he estimated six months life for the regime, because the national economy is in a downward spiral, morale in the military is low, and recruiting is nearly impossible.” Newsweek correspondent Mike Giglio adds that the Assad regime has already collapsed in most of the country, surviving only in key centers of power. In contrast, Jay Winter, Charles J. Stiles Professor of History at Yale, thinks that the Assad regime will survive, although possibly in a weaker state. At the center of this uncertainty regarding Syria’s future are the Alawi people.

The Shabiha, pro-regime thugs, demonstrate in April 2012.

The Alawi are a small and controversial sect of Shia Islam to which the Assad family belongs. This sect rejects the call to prayer and the pilgrimage to Mecca, two practices most Muslims consider pillars of Islam. Additionally, Alawi contains elements of Zoroastrianism (an originally Iranian religion that incorporates teachings of the Prophet Zoroaster) and Christianity. The foundation of Alawi Islam is that every human was once a star and thus each person is a part of nature. Although the Alawites believe in the Islamic God Allah, they worship the sun and the moon because they see themselves as one with nature. Consequently, they commemorate the arrival of seasons with celebrations. This includes the birth of Jesus on Christmas and his rebirth on Easter because he was a “man of the seasons.” Though it is not typical in Muslim culture to drink alcohol, Alawites traditionally complement each dinner with wine. Instead of praying in mosques, Alawites pray in family homes or outdoors.

Because Alawites have unique customs and traditions, many Muslims consider this sect a threat to the sanctity and holiness of the Islamic faith. Ibn Taymiyyah, a renowned 14th Century Islamic scholar, even called for a holy war against Alawites, declaring them “greater infidels than Christians, Jews, or idolaters.” Many Shia Muslims deem Alawi beliefs “non-Islamic.” Alawites have faced systemic abuse and oppression for centuries. In Syria, Lebanon, and Turkey, Alawites have served as slaves and low-paid employees to members of other religious groups.

In the early 20th Century, while Syria was under French colonial rule, Alawites assumed a new role in Syrian society. The country’s majority Sunni population refused to serve in a military controlled by the French, so the Alawites filled in the ranks. By the mid-1950s, the Alawites made up most of the officer corps. In 1970, a powerful Alawite officer in the army, Hafez al-Assad, galvanized support from the military and led a power coup known as the Corrective Revolution of 1970. A bloodless revolution, the coup replaced an unstable dictatorial government with another one just as unsound. Uncomfortable with his religious identity, Assad instituted a secular reign, but made sure to take care of his fellow Alawites. He installed members of his religion in key government positions and improved economic conditions for Alawites throughout the country.

At last, this formerly subjugated minority had a rallying point and a political voice. Alawites felt a strong religious and cultural connection with their new president, hailing “Uncle Assad” in the media. Through policies of political and economic nepotism, Assad solidified his religious base.

Any form of Alawite security shattered in 1982. In the Syrian city of Hama, in Feb. 1982, thousands of Alawite troops ruthlessly decimated over 20,000 citizens in an iron-fisted act of political repression. From that point onwards, the identities of the Assad family and the Syrian Alawite community were inseparable.

During his presidency, Assad took great caution to ensure a seamless regime-Alawite relationship. In many cases, Alawites were actually subject to harsher punishments than the rest of the populace due to Assad’s fear of a breakdown of his political base. In his article “Syrian Alawites and the Politics of Sectarian Insecurity,” Foreign Affairs contributor Leon Goldsmith writes that “Alawite dissenters like Dalia [a prominent economics professor who was sentenced to seven years in prison for criticizing the regime] seemingly received harsher punishments than non-Alawites, which shows that the regime was highly conscious of a potential ‘lethal’ breakdown of Alawite asabiyya [solidarity].”

Hafez Assad protected himself from Sunni opposition by placing his family members and other Alawites in high government posts. Assad’s son, Bashar, became his chief political adviser. In 2000, Hafez Assad died, and Bashar became the new leader of Syria. As Syria’s leader, Bashar al-Assad continued his father’s tradition of imposing harsh military law on the Syrian people. Unlike his father, however, Bashar has allowed the Alawites – which comprise about 3.5 of 21 million people in Syria – liberty to pray in public places and hold high offices. Approximately 70 percent of the government positions and military are controlled by Alawites. This means that a small minority controls the government and military apparatus over a restless population that is extraordinarily dissatisfied with the current state of affairs.

Like his father, Bashar cultivated the support of his Alawite base through force and fraud. In the wake of sectarian, anti-Alawite violence and rhetoric, Assad propagated the illusion that Alawite security rested in the regime. According to Goldsmith, “Six years into Bashar al-Asad’s rule it appeared promotion of sectarian insecurity was the primary method for holding Alawite ‘asabiyya in place. When scare tactics did not work, the Assad regime did not hesitate to use force.” Giglio notes, “Early opposition to Assad was Alawite. But he cracked down hardest on Alawite dissenters, so they were forced to leave the country or [were] killed early on.”

Unlike previous, anti-Alawite rhetoric, the Sunni Muslim Brotherhood sought to undercut Assad’s political base through a conciliatory tone. Members of the Syrian opposition were determined to steer the conflict away from a fragmented, sectarian battle, and have reached out to their Alawite countrymen touting the slogan “Syrians are one.”

Despite calls for reconciliation, the future of Alawite political support and security are in question. The majority of Sunni citizens believe it is unfair that the Alawite minority dominates the Syrian government. Moreover, many Sunnis wrongly associate Assad’s oppressive practices with his religion.

Gutman adds, “Assad has recruited Alawites into the Shabiha and set them loose to loot, rape and murder non-Alawites…It’s embittered a lot of Sunnis, no doubt.” The Shabiha, or “ghosts,” explains Giglio, are often clan-based, informal militias of local thugs and career criminals that the regime uses to terrorize citizens. They are not part of the military and have no discipline. They are usually the first to be targeted by rebels, as they are the most likely to commit ethnic massacres.

The future of the Alawites is shrouded in uncertainty. “It is in the waning days of a rebellion or a regime that people are most likely to resort to desperate measures,” says Professor David J. Simon, lecturer in the Department of Political Science at Yale. Should the regime collapse, Alawites might be vulnerable to persecution. Former United States ambassador Peter Galbraith stated that “the next genocide in the world will likely be against the Alawites in Syria.” Small-scale massacres against the Alawites have already been perpetrated.

If Assad were to fall, factionalism could generate ethnic violence. Giglio reports that no rebel group currently has sufficient money and weapons to take control. If a power vacuum were created, rebel leaders could mobilize support along ethnic lines, “creating an atmosphere of tacit permission to settle scores on both sides,” in the words of Professor Simon.

Giglio disagrees, asserting that if Assad falls, rebel leaders could divide Syria and maintain order, averting sectarian conflict. Some opposition leaders, he points out, are already trying to administer courts and utilities in areas where the regime is absent. Gutman adds, “A lot of Sunnis realize that Syria’s cultural richness is in its mosaic character.” McManus adds, “Syrians prided themselves on their country’s stability and tradition of tolerance. And now, if you look at prominent figures in the FSA [Free Syrian Army, the main armed opposition group] and former SNC [Syrian National Council, opposition coalition], you’ll see a lot of emphasis on inter-sectarian cooperation, tolerance, and a Syrian nation open to all.”

As Professor Winter pointed out, “The Middle East is a region that defies political prediction and has confounded every conceivable political theory.” Even with Alawite-Sunni relations, “it’s not possible to generalize,” says McManus. “There are Sunnis who support the regime and Alawites who are prominent in the opposition. While some Alawites have benefited immensely from the Assad regime, others have continued to live in abject poverty.” “The problem,” says Giglio, “is no one really knows what will happen.”

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