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Whither the Alawites

Time does not appear to be on the side of Syria's minority Alawite-led regime.  President Bashar Assad has reportedly been offered asylum in Moscow, which wants an orderly transition that will preserve Russian strategic interests.  Other stories have Assad and his loyalists preparing mountain strongholds for a last-ditch stand, fortified by Syria's arsenal of WMDs.  If Assad falls, there will, of course, be winners and losers.  The Arab world's Sunni majority and the Muslim Brotherhood will clearly gain.  Shi'ite Iran, whose mullahs have used Assad's regime to bolster their Hezbollah proxies in neighboring Lebanon, will lose.  Christian, Druse, and Ismaili minorities could also suffer.

Relevant Links
Arab Majorities, Arab Minorities  Zvi Mazel, Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs. The well-being of minorities and group reconciliation are not high on the agenda anywhere in the Arab world.
Just a Matter of Time  Amos Harel, Haaretz. Israeli experts give the Syrian regime a slim-to-none chance of survival.
The Alawites and Israel  John Myhill, BESA Center. If Israel thinks the Assads are warlike, just wait until it sees their successors.
A Tale of Two Villages  Nir Rosen, Al Jazeera. “There is no village here,” says an Alawite general, “that doesn’t have a martyr or two” to the Muslims.

But the biggest losers in an Assad departure would be the Alawites.  Of Syria's 22 million inhabitants, they make up only 12 percent; in contrast, 74 percent are Sunni Muslims (the rest are Druse, Ismaili, Kurd, Turkoman, Armenian, Circassian, and Christian).  According to W. Andrew Terrill of the U.S. Army War College, the post-Assad Alawites may be forced to retreat en masse to their historic mountain region above the coastal city of Latakia. Lately, there's been talk of their seeking refuge on the Golan Heights. In the worst case, they face a massacre.

Who are these Alawites?  Also known as Nusairi, they are an ancient indigenous Middle Eastern tribe.  Their religion, founded in the 10th or 11th century, is theologically distinguished from Islam by beliefs in reincarnation and a Trinity and the deification of Ali, Muhammad's nephew and son-in-law, whom they revere as God's greatest manifestation.  Alawites view Joshua bin Nun, the biblical Hebrew hero who conquered the Land of Israel, as another of God's incarnations; and they venerate certain Christian holy days and symbols.  No wonder Orthodox Sunnis view them as heretical.

For most of their history, the Alawites held themselves apart from Arabs and were socially and economically inferior to the dominant Sunnis.  During the French Mandate over Syria after World War I, Bashar's grandfather, Suleiman al-Assad, is said to have lobbied French Prime Minister Léon Blum against establishing a united Syria, arguing, "The spirit of hatred and fanaticism imbedded in the hearts of the Arab Muslims against everything that is non-Muslim has been perpetually nurtured by the Islamic religion."

Syria became nominally independent in 1936–37 and gained real independence in 1946, in the wake of World War II.  As one Sunni-led coup followed another, the Alawites observed from the sidelines.  Increasing numbers of their sons became educated and went into the army.  They found allies in the Ba'ath Party, founded by a Christian and a Sunni Muslim, with its secular policies and concern for the rural peasantry.  In 1963 the Ba'ath led their own coup. In 1966, following a party schism, yet another coup—the 13th in 17 years—propelled an Alawite into the presidency for the first time.  In 1970, General Hafez al-Assad, Bashar's father, became a sort of super-chief of the four Alawite clans and consolidated control of the regime.

Though the Alawites are, arguably, neither Muslim nor Arab, their regime has embraced both Islam and Arab nationalism.  Theologically, the Assad dynasty has been—well, pragmatic.  Hafez Assad made the hajj to Mecca in 1974, though pilgrimage is not part of the Alawite creed.  Nor is praying at a mosque, though that did not stop him from dedicating one in his mother's memory.  Hafez also sought and received an Islamic theological imprimatur for the Alawites from malleable Shi'ite clergymen.  He sent Alawites to Iran for religious studies.  Syria's school system exposes Alawite pupils to Sunni religious teachings.  As Eli Eshed recently hypothesized in Mekor Rishon, it is as if the Assad dynasty, to survive, stood ready to modify Alawite beliefs in virtually any direction.           

For four decades the Alawites—with their religio-tribal unity, patrimonial structure, and discipline—were able to control the Syrian polity.  In contrast, the Sunni majority was divided along social, geographic, and ideological lines.  Despite the growth of Islam as a rallying cry, it remains fragmented today.

Yet the Assads, by tying the fate of the Alawite community to the regime and compounding past mass murder—in Hama in 1982—with today's brutality, have set in motion the terrible prospect of a merciless Sunni retribution against the Alawites.  So far, 5,000 Syrians have reportedly been killed in the uprising.  Some are regime opponents or members of the security services, but innocent Alawites are among them; no one knows how many.  Whatever Assad's personal fate, it is hard to see the Alawites simply surrendering to the Sunni opposition.

True to form, Damascus initially sought to blame the popular uprising on Israel, labeling the "Free Syrian Army" a Mossad front; otherwise, "not a single Alawite would be willing to kill a Sunni, and vice versa."  Yet it is not clear that Assad's departure would be a net plus for Israel. 

Plainly, it is in Israel's interest to see a smooth transition that secures Syria's weapons of mass destruction (WMDs).  The alternative would be an anarchical end to the regime, with the Syrian state failing à la Lebanon, terror chieftains competing over fiefdoms, and no "central address" for regime decision-making.  Syrian WMDs could fall into terrorist hands.  A power vacuum would enable Palestinian Arab and Hezbollah gunmen to use the Golan to launch attacks on Israel. 

But Israel cannot influence the outcome of Syrian events, and the plausible scenarios are disturbing.  According to Tel Aviv University's Itamar Rabinovich, Assad might lash out against Israel if he reckons his end is near.  Bar-Ilan University's Mordechai Kedar would not rule out Syria's disintegration into a Kurdish North, Alawite West, Druse South, Bedouin East, and Sunni core. 

Ehud Barak, Ehud Olmert, and Benjamin Netanyahu were all rebuffed by the Assad regime in their attempts to exchange the Golan Heights for a genuine peace: The dynasty needed an Israeli enemy to distract the Sunni masses.  Perhaps it was for the best.  Will any successor Syrian regime honor a treaty signed by an Alawite ruler?  Possibly—in the same fashion in which Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood plans to honor the 1979 Egypt-Israel Peace Treaty: by putting it to a popular referendum.

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Steve from Raleigh on January 20, 2012 at 11:25 am (Reply)
Nothing indicates that Assad's regime is more precarious now than it was six months ago. As this slow-motion uprising grinds on, not only will you see less and interest in it in the West, but the only voices talking about it will be pro-Assad. And most of these, not so strangely, will come from the left. Just as the left abandoned the nascent Green Movement in Iran, then openly bowed and scraped to the Ayatollahs, the same so-far-left-it's-right radicals in the west will claim that support for the anti-Assad forces is support for Israel the Great Satan, America the Imperialist warmonger, the banks, etc.--the the usual suspects for "progressives'" A few more weeks of this and Assad will quash most rebellion. The price he's had to pay is more involvement by Iran and Hezbollah, so they will come to collect their due--probably install a Hezbollah or IRGC [Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps] "Prime Minister" to keep an eye on things.

Obama will declare it a great victory for peace and conciliation.
Jerry Blaz on January 21, 2012 at 9:38 pm (Reply)
Many Muslims regard the Alawites as heretics--but recognize them as Muslims (Muslim heretics are regarded as worse than non-Muslims). As states in the article, Alawites exhibit many characteristics unusual among Muslims; their women are particularly free, considering the Muslim and Middle Eastern situation. It is the only Muslim group that permits men and women to dance together in public. I have heard that the State of Israel offered shelter to Alawite refugees when the current regime falls, because of the danger of ethnic revenge on a group that held many of the reins of government for so long. Ordinary Alawites, who lack "big shot" protection, would be most vulnerable. Bashar's fall of Bashar would probably also spell the end of the Ba'ath "pan-Arab socialist" philosophy, which, in its two actual incarnations, in Iraq and Syria, proved to be dictatorial and not particularly socialist or pan-Arab. Michel Afleq, the Christian Arab who was a founder and the principal thinker of Ba'athism, never realized his ideals. By the time of his death over 30 years ago, it was evident that the two Ba'ath governments, of Iraq and of Syria, could not get together because their individual individual nationalisms were stronger than pan-Arabism and because of the ambitions of its respective leaders, which never reached beyond the borders of Iraq and of Syria except in enmity.
Muna Omran on January 31, 2012 at 5:12 pm (Reply)
Alawites are Muslims. They believe in Mohamed and the Koran. The difference between Alawites and Sunnis is related to the succession of the Prophet. One group argues that Abu Bakar , the oldest of Mohamed´s friends, had the right of succession instead of the Prophet's family. He took part of the Rashidun Caliphate. It was ruled by the first four caliphs of Islam, known as the rightly guided Caliphs. The caliphate was founded by Abu Bakr, Muhammad's best friend, who succeeded as leader of this Ummah (community of Islam) when Muhammad died. At its peak, the territories of the caliphate included the Arabian Peninsula, North Africa, the Levant, Persia, part of Central Asia, the Caucasus, and Anatolia, as well as several Mediterranean islands such as Cyprus, Rhodes, Crete, and part of Sicily; that made it one of the greatest empires in history. The empire had two capitals: Medina and Kufa. After the death of Muhammad in 632, the Ansar (citizens of Medina who helped Muhammad) debated which of them should succeed the prophet in the management of affairs of the Muslims while the family of Muhammad was busy with the burial. Abu Ubayd ibn al-Jarrah and Umar ibn al-Khattab, a member of the tribe of Quraish and prominent companion of the Prophet, supported Abu Bakr, who would then become the first Caliph Rasul Allah (Successor to the Messenger of Allah). The caliphate then embarked on a campaign to propagate Islam and spread the message of Allah. For the Kharijites, there were just two caliphs "rightly guided"--because, they say, only the caliphate of Uthman and Ali ibn Abi Talib was well led. Other chains include Hasan ibn Ali as the fifth caliph Rashid. According to Shiites, the first caliph was Ali ibn Abi Talib (Ali), followed by Magnet Shiites because he would have been the designated successor to Muhammad. And the people who continue with Ali when he went to Iraq are designed Alawite.
RuruJew <3 on April 22, 2012 at 4:35 pm (Reply)
Alawites have their own holy book; but its rare, because there are not many Alawites in Syria. They dont believe in Mohammed.
Dani eliz on April 22, 2012 at 4:38 pm (Reply)
Alawites are keeping Muslims in line. We should keep them. Hopefully, it won't turn into the next holocaust for these poor people, who are being executed for their beliefs.
Jerry Blaz on April 23, 2012 at 2:46 am (Reply)
Muna seems to speak with some knowledge about Islam, but I am under the impression that not only Alawites but all Shi'ah Muslims follow Ali. There are practices and/or beliefs of the Alawites that differ from those of other Shi'ites. The group that developed out of Shi'ah Islam that is more debated as to status is not the Alawites but the Druze. There was once an International Islamic Conference (it may still exist), and the only sects rejected for membership were the Druze and the Bahai. All others were accepted as Muslims, but at times some of the smaller groups' Islamic integrity is questioned by other Islamic groups.

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