Syria’s Alawites: The Minority Sect In the Halls of Power

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In Syria, the house that the Assads built is facing its greatest challenge in decades. The country’s entire cabinet — in power since 2003 — resigned Mar. 29, in a bid by President Bashar Assad to nip a burgeoning uprising in the bud. Hundreds of thousands have reportedly rallied in support of the regime, following a fierce crackdown on anti-government demonstrations this weekend by security forces and gangs of thugs loyal to the state.

Perhaps the most curious incident of unrest took place this Sunday in the country’s main port of Latakia, where some 12 people died in clashes between police and protesters. The Assad regime sent in the Republican Guard and locked the city down, making it difficult to determine what exactly took place. There are conflicting reports over the nature of the violence, with some alleging government brutality and others pointing to sectarian troublemakers. Nestled along Syria’s northwest coast near Turkey, Latakia is a multi-ethnic, multi-confessional hodgepodge of Sunnis, Shi’as, Christians and Alawites, a Shi’a sect that comprises just over 10% of the total Syrian population, but make up the majority in Latakia.

They also happen to comprise the majority in power — the Assads are Alawites. Bashar Assad’s father Hafez came from a poor, rural Alawite family in the nearby mountains and went to high school in Latakia. He went on to rule Syria with a proverbial iron fist for three decades until his death in 2000 and brought in many fellow Alawites to hold key military and political positions within the state.

But for centuries before the Assad regime, this community—originally the followers of a 10th century mystic in the lineage of the Twelve Imams of Shi’a Islam— remained in these rugged stretches of the Levant at the edges of empires and city-states, shunned and suspect in the eyes of other Muslims, some of whom saw them as apostates. In his travels through the region at a time when it was still under Ottoman control, T.E. Lawrence—yes, that Lawrence—didn’t even seem to register that Alawites were Muslim, calling them instead

disciples of a cult of fertility, sheer pagan, anti-foreign, distrustful of Islam, drawn at moments towards Christians by common persecution. The sect, vital in itself, was clannish in feeling and politics. One [Alawite] would not betray another, and would hardly not betray an unbeliever. Their villages lay in patches down the main hills to the Tripoli gap. They spoke Arabic, but had lived there since the beginning of Greek letters in Syria. Usually they stood aside from affairs, and left the Turkish Government alone in hope of reciprocity.

The Alawites were historically ill-treated in Ottoman times, subject to the same scrutiny and distrust leveled at other supposedly heretical sects like the Ahmadis of South Asia. Not for nothing is the Alawite heartland clustered around a mountain range.

When Ottoman rule lapsed at the end of World War I, France assumed the “mandate” for much of Ottoman land in the Levant and set about instituting colonial structures the only way it knew: by overzealously dividing its allotted territories along ethnic and sectarian lines. The area around Latakia was for almost two decades recognized as the “Alawite State,” but was eventually subsumed into the rest of French Syria — the same did not hold true for Lebanon, whose manufacture on sectarian lines by France saddled the country with a fragile, volatile politics from its inception.

Syria drifted in a different direction, swept up in the fervor of Arab nationalism that would give way to the rise of the Ba’ath party. Hafez Assad was first and foremost a staunchly secular Ba’athist and a nominal socialist and the regime installed in Syria, for all its brutalities and corruptions, still presides over a country where sectarian tensions simmer far cooler than elsewhere in the Arab world. Yet Hafez did create an insulating political class around himself of predominantly Alawite extraction, appointing friends and family to key positions of power, particularly in the military.

Rage at this nepotistic Alawite state in Arab nationalist clothing was possibly at its most acute (until now) surrounding the bloody events of 1982 in the city of Hama, where Assad deployed the Syrian army to quash a supposed rebellion instigated by the Muslim Brotherhood. At least 10,000 civilians died. Here’s an extract from a pamphlet circulated by Sunni critics of the regime following the massacre:

A thousand years from now, people will say that Syria—during a bizarre period—was ruled by a deviant sect that lacked ethical values, standards, and beliefs and had no loyalty for the people or the nation, and that its traitorous declared, without a hint of hesitation, that the people Hama were demonstrating in support of him after he destroyed their city around them.

Yet this “bizarre” period has continued for decades since. Granted, Bashar has long cast himself in a far warmer light than that of his draconian father. Joshua Landis of the excellent “Syria Comment” blog, wrote in a piece for TIME of the considerable interests much of the country’s urban elites — of all denominations — have in preserving the Assad status quo in the face of what looks like an uprising of the unemployed and the exasperated. But if push comes to shove, fissures in the edifice of the state may appear, says Landis:

Fearful of being pushed from power and persecuted, Alawite military leaders are likely to stick by the President. What remains to be seen is whether the Sunni elite, which has stood by the Assad family for over four decades in the name of security and stability, will continue to do so…

And if that’s the case, then the mysterious flare-up in Latakia may have been a precursor for darker things to come.