About the Alawites: On the Margins of Islam, At the Center of Power

As Bashar Al Assad’s grip on power weakens, fears are mounting over the fate of the Alawite community, the Assad family’s heterodox Shiite sect. Who are the Alawites? Why are so many of them fighting for the regime? How they fare in the next phase of the conflict will likely shape Syria’s future.

Written by Mohammed Sergie and Lara Setrakian Published on Read time Approx. 5 minutes

There are roughly 2.5 million Alawites in Syria, making up 13% of the population. They are the stalwarts of Assad’s inner circle, disproportionally <wbr>represented in military and security posts (a U.S. official told Syria Deeply that 80% of military officers come from the sect).

Alawites (singular Alawi in Arabic) practice an offshoot of Shiite Islam that first emerged in the tenth century and took hold in Syria after the earliest adherents fled Iraq.

The Alawite brand of Islam differed sharply from the more widely recognized strains of the religion. The sect is secret by nature, with little of its teachings and rituals shared with the uninitiated. By keeping its books private, the religion “confused observers and produced suspicion among political authorities,” wrote Middle East expert Leon Goldsmith, who profiled the group in the July 2011 issue of Turkish journal Ortadoğ Etütleri.

The biggest diversion from mainstream Islam is the belief in a trinity of three figures: the Prophet Muhammad, one of his companions Salman Al Farsi, and Ali ibn Abi Talib (Muhammad’s cousin). Ali is seen as the essence of god, Muhammad as the veil or outward appearance of Ali, and Farsi as the portal to the deity, said Joshua Landis, an associate professor at the University of Oklahoma and author of the influential Syria Comment blog (his recent lecture on the subject can be seen below).

Other departures from mainstream Muslim beliefs, such as the notion of reincarnation, pitted the nascent sect against conventional Islam as it spread through the region. That divide forced Alawites to seek refuge in the mountains of northwestern Syria. This marginalization was entrenched by three fatwas by a prominent Sunni scholar in the 14th century that “essentially proclaimed their creed as heresy,” Goldsmith wrote.

Alawites continued to be marginalized for centuries under the Ottoman Empire, and few were able to escape the impoverished mountain villages. Even as late as 1945, there were fewer than 500 Alawites living in Damascus, according to Landis, who is married to an Alawite from a Syrian military family. It was the French colonial policy of elevating Alawites through the Syrian military, coupled with populist Arab identity politics promoted by the Baath party, that paved the way for the once sidelined sect to control Syria.

Alawites Rise Through Hafez al Assad

Hafez al Assad, Bashar’s father, came from a poor family in the Alawite village of Qurdaha. He worked his way up the air force ranks and Baath party structure in the ’50s and ’60s, emerging as one of Syria’s most powerful men after the Baath took power in the 1963 coup. He organized another coup that installed fellow Alawite Salah Jadid as the de facto ruler of the country, then deposed Jadid four years later, imprisoning Jadid until his death in 1993.

A certain pragmatism (with heavy doses of oppression) regulated and perpetuated Assad family rule in Syria.

Consolidating power required packing key security and military posts with family members and loyal coreligionists, then forging alliances with other minorities and providing some space for Sunni merchants and professionals to prosper. Promoting a cult of personality around Hafez al Assad also helped solidify totalitarian rule, with Assad’s image plastered on city walls and secret police watching for any hint of dissent.

It may be that Hafez al Assad’s fusing of faith, power, and politics laid the seeds for what has now become a brutal sectarian conflict. For some, identification with the Assad regime substituted religious knowledge, Landis said. “In a sense, Assad became their god.”

That is the backdrop for incidents caught on video (below), purportedly showing Alawite soldiers as they force their captives to declare, “there is no god but Bashar.” That substitutes “Bashar” for “Allah” in the sacred phrase repeated by Muslims multiple times each day. The apparent thinking among those Alawite soldiers: it’s only fair to insult the god of Sunnis, when Syrians are publicly cursing the souls of Hafez and Bashar, tearing up their posters and destroying statues around the country.

Existential Fear: Alawites Fear Life After Assad

Not all Alawites support the regime, and even fewer believe in the holiness of the Assad family. But most all Alawites are afraid of what comes after Assad. Alawites worry “that the fall of the regime would bring disaster for their community,” said Goldsmith.

The sect worries they would face retribution, forced to pay in kind for the bloody episodes of the revolution, and further back, for the 1982 Hama Massacre, which crushed the Sunni Muslim Brotherhood.

That anxiety has increased as the conflict gained heavy sectarian overtones. That’s been reinforced at the regional level, as Syria’s war has pitted regional Sunni powers against Shiite Iran and its allies, drawing extremist Sunni fighters from around the world to wage holy war in Syria. Earlier this month, rebels proudly torched a Shiite mosque near the town of Jisr Al Shagour, as can be seen in the video below.

More disturbing clips of beheadings and other brutality have been distributed widely online and aired by the regime’s media outlets, and the prominence of the deeply sectarian Al Nusra Front, which has been designated as an Al Qaeda affiliate by the U.S., is stoking Alawite fears.

Even those who support the revolution are worried, fearing that the next phase in Syria will see retribution against their community.

“We have seen the world watch tens of thousands of Syrians, most of them Sunnis, being slaughtered since March 2011,” said one Syrian Alawite. “Why should anyone expect that the Alawites will be saved [by foreign powers] from revenge killings?”

In another hint of collective Alawite paranoia, the man he didn’t want to be quoted by name, even though he now lives in the US. For Alawites, stuck between a tense community and a raging revolution, having any opinion is a dangerous game, with brutal consequences for a person’s whole family.

Reaching Out

As defections and loss of territory further weaken the Syrian government, the Assad regime has been “reduced to its repressive apparatus,” International Crisis Group said in a report in August. It now resembles an “entity more akin to a militia than an army in both make-up and ethos,” with regime loyalists still in control of a frightening arsenal of weapons.

Political opponents of the Assad regime have called for a democratic state in Syria, where the rights of all citizens are protected. But that hasn’t been successful in assuaging the fears of the Alawites, to the point where they’d be ready to abandon the Assad cadre.

Moaz al-Khatib, who heads the Syrian National Coalition, is one of the few clerics who dared to speak about the sect in Syria before the revolution. He caused a minor stir in an interview with Al Jazeera some years ago, when he said that he wished Alawites would convert to Shiite Islam so they could follow a clear and structured faith.

During his speech at the Friends of Syria meeting in Marrakech, al-Khatib addressed Alawites directly, in hopes of winning them over. “The Syria revolution is extending its hand to you,” he said. “Extend your hand back and start civil disobedience against the regime because it repressed you like it repressed us.”

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