Whither the Alawites

By Elliot Jager
Friday, January 20, 2012

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.

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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