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.