Here’s a brief extract from my essay on Syria’s Alawi community, its history and doctrines and its political fortunes under Assadist rule and during the revolution, written for the Sects issue of the Critical Muslim. If you haven’t done so yet, please subscribe, and encourage your library or college to do so. The next issue will be a Syria special.
Syria’s CIA-backed military coup in 1949 was the first in the Arab world. Although there was a later parliamentary interval, the coup brought the army (and therefore rural minority groups) into the centre of Syrian political life, and a pattern of coup and countercoup set in, only brought to an end when Hafez al-Assad, an Alawi air force officer, rose to absolute power in the 1970 ‘Correctionist Movement’, achieving stability through totalitarian control.
From one perspective, Assad’s early years were golden years for the Alawis, as they and other hitherto marginalised sects (Druze and Ismailis) as well as rural Sunnis moved into the cities and entered state elites. (“Syria’s Peasantry, the Descendants of its Lesser Rural Notables, and their Politics” by Palestinian Marxist Hanna Batatu is a wonderfully comprehensive, wonderfully written study of the mechanics and personalities of this movement). The regime settled Alawis (often low-ranking soldiers and their families) in strategic suburbs on the approaches to Damascus. In these early years too, the Ba‘ath demonstrated loyalty to its rural base and its proclaimed socialist values by building schools, clinics and roads for the villages.
The officers of the Republican Guard, the special forces and the security agencies – the real powers running the country – were almost exclusively Alawi. This ‘empowerment’ of the community arguably reversed its growing acceptance by the Sunni majority. Once despised, Alawis were now feared and resented. It was also the reason why the regime found it necessary to reduce Alawi identity to its Ba‘athist, or more properly Assadist, component. Because the regime depended on Alawis for its survival, it was potentially at their mercy. Therefore it needed to ensure that no alternative source of authority existed within the community, so independent Alawi shaikhs were killed, imprisoned, exiled, or intimidated into silence. The president’s brother Jameel, unqualified to say the least, attempted to make himself a spiritual leader in their place. Against the urging of the clerics, Alawi doctrines were not studied in universities. Religious education in schools centred on Sunni tenets and rituals (Christian students had their own classes). The president prayed Sunni-style in public, and Alawis were encouraged to give up their difference and build mosques and to go on Haj.
Paradoxically, Alawi doctrine has been the most repressed of all in Syria. As a result of this oppression, the ‘they have no religion’ slander is a lot more true today than it was in 1970. Most Alawis are not religious and most know very little about their own tradition. When they do turn to religion, they often practise Sunni or mainstream Shia Islam. Their group identification now is as a historically oppressed community whose fortunes are inextricably tied up with the Assad family. Regime policy has made Alawi social difference still more distinct and politically salient. For those Alawis who have no alternative ideology or self-identification, the fall of Ba‘athism is unthinkable. Such people are willing to believe state propaganda against the democratic revolution, and many declare themselves ready to fight and die for the regime.
It could have been very different. The four decades of minority control could have witnessed a controlled public conversation about historical resentments so as to consign those resentments to the past and build a national community, but the regime was much more interested in dividing in order to rule. Under the Ba‘ath, not only expressions of sectarian hatred but even the very mention of sect was taboo. The prohibition went to absurdly patronising lengths: Arabic subtitles on imported television programmes, for instance, would translate ‘church’ as ‘place of worship’ so as not to trigger the viewers’ sectarian thoughts. But just as coerced public declarations of love for the leader didn’t stop Syrians muttering against him in private, so discussion of sect was relegated to bitter whispers. The problem was hidden away to fester. The brutality of Sunni Islamist opposition in the early 80s (which included assassinations of prominent but non-regime Alawis simply for being Alawi) and the even greater brutality of the regime’s repression of this challenge (culminating in the 1982 Hama massacre) allowed the regime to position itself as the saviour of the Alawi and Christian communities. The only alternative to ‘Assad’s Syria’, it suggested, was an extremist Sunni state which would return the minorities to third class status. This lie is serving the regime very well today.
The revolution counters the lie with a dynamic of national unity. One of the most prominent early slogans was wahed wahed wahed/ ash-sha‘ab as-soori wahed – or, One One One, the Syrian People is One. In the blood-soaked city of Homs, even as barricades were thrown up between Sunni and Alawi areas, cross-sect committees were formed to preserve relationships. Revolutionary civil society groups such as Nabd (Pulse) were established specifically to resist sectarian division. Their members include many Alawis who have quietly smuggled food and medical aid into besieged areas. Economist Aref Dalila, novelist Samar Yazbek and poet Rasha Omran are examples of prominent Alawis who have very publically joined the revolution. Alawi actress Fadwa Sulaiman was filmed in a traditionalist Sunni area of Homs leading the crowd in chants of la ikhwan wala salafiyeh, kulna bidna al-hooriyeh – or, No Muslim Brothers, No Salafism, We All Want Freedom – and then went on hunger strike, “to prove to all our partners in the homeland the lies of this government when it claims that there are armed gangs, Salafis and Islamic extremists who want to overthrow the regime and exterminate the minorities.”
Assad’s military suffered so much from desertions and defections, so many (Sunni) soldiers were in effect imprisoned in barracks for fear that they would defect at the first opportunity, that regime fighting forces are now pared down to their Alawi core. As a result, Assad has become increasingly dependent on Shia militias from Iran, Iraq and Lebanon, increasing the perception of Syrian Sunnis that they are being slaughtered and driven from their homes on account of their sect. Most dangerously of all, the regime unleashed its shabeeha thugs alongside the military. In Damascus and Aleppo the shabeeha are armed lowlife from all communities, but in Homs, Hama and Lattakia they are exclusively Alawi. In other words, Alawi villagers are being sent into Sunni areas to kill, burn, kidnap and torture. (The Americans in Iraq did exactly the same thing – sending Shia militas to ‘pacify’ restive Sunni towns). It’s a policy designed to elicit a vicious sectarian response. The shabeeha have perpetrated a string of massacres of men, women, children and babies in Houla, Tremseh, Banyas and elsewhere. And in August 2013 the first recorded mass slaughter of Alawi civilians by Salafist extremists occurred in northern Lattakia province. Another self-fulfilling prophecy.