News reports keep reminding us of the civil war in Syria. An important group in this war is the Alawite sect of Islam, to which President Bashar al-Assad belongs. Who are these Alawites in the middle of this conflict?
The Alawite movement got started in the second half of the 900s by a Shiite called Ibn Nusayr and then got organized a century later by one of Nusayr’s followers called al Tabarani, who won many Syrians living in the coastal mountain range over to his views.
Some observers consider these Alawite views mystical, but Sunni Muslims call them heretical, since it seems one of their tenets is reincarnation. For that reason Alawites have sometimes been persecuted and tended to become secretive about their distinctive beliefs.
The former president of Syria, Hafez al-Assad, played down Alawite differences, admitting Alawites were Shiite but claiming they were otherwise good Muslims who accepted the Quran, recognized the prophet Muhammad, and made their prayers toward Mecca. Alawites constitute about 10 percent of Syria’s population of 23 million people.
Alawites might have remained an Islamic sect living in relative peace had it not been for the French Mandate of Syria from 1923 to 1943 under the League of Nations. It was in effect colonial rule, and the Sunni majority of Syria resented it. To deal with this the French cultivated the loyalty of the Alawite minority as a “counterweight” (as Wikipedia puts it), enlisting Alawites in the military, even for a time creating an Alawite state.
When Syria became independent in 1946 it entered upon an era of rocky politics until Hafez al-Assad, an Alawite air force general, seized power in 1970. Under his presidency Alawites got favored in the military and the economy, although some Alawites, like most Sunnis, resented Hafez’s nondemocratic rule. Hafez died in the year 2000 and was succeeded by his son Bashar. When other Middle Eastern regimes — Egypt and Libya — got overthrown in the “Arab Spring,” opposition arose against the al-Assad regime.
Nothing remains simple in this Syrian civil war. President Bashar al-Assad refuses to resign, resorting instead to violent repression. His shelling and bombing is selective, however, sparing Alawite enclaves in the north and west of Syria.
According to a report in the Oct. 18 New Yorker, “Some of the worst atrocities of the conflict have been committed by … freewheeling armed gangs of largely Alawite thugs.” This selective targeting provokes retaliation by Sunnis killing Alawites simply because they are Alawites.
There are many Alawites who have no love lost for the regime, but they have become targets of the opposition and face death unless they join the regime forces. Others would sit out the conflict, except that the country’s economy is broken to the point that they need to enlist for a paycheck to survive.
“In my opinion,” said one Alawite, “Ninety percent of Alawites join the Army for economic reasons, not because they love Bashar or because they love Syria.” (Oct. 18, 2013, New Yorker)
The Alawites, who began centuries ago as a religious movement that some people of Western Syria chose to join, became an ethnic group, a development not uncommon in the Middle East. As an ethnic group it then succumbed to the temptation to resort to political and military means to gain wealth and power at the expense of other religious-ethnic groups, only to find that such a policy ends up self-defeating.
The Alawites are an example of why we in America should remain vigilant in preserving democratic freedoms, respect for minorities and impartiality in economic, civic, and political opportunities for all.