A paper presented as part of an electronic workshop. the Q&A session at the end also includes a section on the Druze Community.
When talking about the Alawites of Syria, it is always important to distinguish between them and the Alevis of Turkey and Kurdistan. Despite certain similarities, the Alawites of Syria are distinguished by their language (a unique Arabic dialect), their continued clan-based loyalties, as well as certain aspects of their belief systems. Albeit, the Alawites of the Hatay Province in Turkey – a former Syrian territory that was incorporated by Turkey following an invasion in 1938 and a popular referendum in 1939 – are now mostly Turkish speakers, albeit they remain attached to the belief systems and traditions of their fellow Syrian Alawites.
Still, since the Alevis are themselves made up of various Shiism- and Sufism-influenced groups whose teachings are not too homogenous, one could consider the Alawites to be a subset of the Alevis.
In doctrinal terms, the Alawites are indeed an offshoot of Shia Islam, Twelver Shiism to be more specific, but they do have their major differences with them and other Shia groups, especially in regard to their veneration, in fact, downright deification of Ali, the Prophet’s cousin. These differences seem to have been the result of the teachings of Muhammad Bin Nusair (AKA Abu Shuaib Al-Numairi), a disciple of the Tenth Shia Imam Ali Al-Hadi, and later of the Eleventh Imam, Al-Hasan Al-Askari, whose followers held him up after his death as Al-Bab or the Gateway to both the Eleventh Imam and his disappeared son, the Awaited Al-Mahdi, the Twelfth Imam exalted both by Shia and Sunni Islam, albeit in radically different ways.
This is where MBN broke with the majority of the followers of the Twelfth Imam, who, in his absence, or Minor Occultation, followed the dictates of the Four Sufara (the Four Ambassadors) believed to have been in secret communication with the Twelfth Imam). The Sufara castigated the teachings of MBN and excommunicated his followers. Indeed, the first historical persecution the Alawites suffered came at the hand of the Twelver Shia and not the Sunnis.
As such, and despite the current political alliance between the Assad and Iranian regimes, in religious terms, Twelver Shia and Alawites are not comfortable with each other, a fact that speaks to current Alawite discomfort with the growing Iranian influence in their midst and Iran’s proselytization in their ranks.
Most of MBN’s early followers seemed to have come from his tribe, the Bani Numair, from the Iraqi city of Busra where MBN was born in the early 9th Century (since MBN is believed to have been divine in nature no record of his birth or death exists). But soon followers hailed from other tribes as well, including the Banu Furat, some of whose members held high-ranking positions in the Baghdad Caliphate (especially under the Buyid Dynasty), and later Banu Taghlib, from whose ranks the Hamdanid dynasty (that ruled over northern Syria and southern Turkey in the late 10th Century). These vital relations account for the survival of the group despite being castigated and excommunicated by Twelver and other Shia groups.
In historical and academic terms, Bin Nusair was not the actual founder of Alawism. Rather, this role was played by one of his later followers Hussain Bin Hamdan Al-Junbalai, better known as Abu Adallah Al-Khassibi (d. 969 AD). Al-Khassibi was forced to practice Taqiyyah, or dissimulation, in order to evade persecution as he travelled between northern Syria and Iraq to quietly spread word of the new doctrine.
Indeed, and for centuries, the followers of Muhmmad Bin Nusair were known as the Nusairis. This changed in the early Twentieth Century, when the name Alawites became more common, and the term Nusairis came to be considered as a pejorative. The name-change came as a result of a decision made by Alawite elders and intellectuals who, with this move, hoped to bridge the gap with their Sunni neighbors by painting themselves as just another Shia group who held Imam Ali in a particular esteem.
Rather than follow in the footsteps of the Druzes, who, around the same time, decided to flaunt their heterodoxy, make their sacred books public, and force their recognition as a separate religious entity on all, benefitting from their formal recognition in the Ottoman Millet system, the Alawites, who were not recognized by the Millet system (unlike other Alevi groups, such as the Bektashis), opted to hide behind another layer of dissimulation. But not without some challenge as we will see below.
In time, the basic teachings elaborated by Alawite scholars on the basis of the writings left by MBN and Al-Khassibi included:
1) The belief that God has three aspects: Ma’na (meaning), Issm (name) and Bab (gateway). The Ma’na encompasses all three and refers to the transcendental aspect of God, or God as Eternal Light. The Issm refers to the hijab or veil God puts on to separate himself from the creatures of the light, that is, the luminaries who nonetheless could not encompass Him. Finally, the Bab, or the Gateway, is as the name implies the conduit through which people are introduced to the Divine. In specific terms, Ali represented the Ma’na, Muhammad the Issm, and Salman Al-Farisi, the Persian disciple of the Prophet, was the Gateway. All three were divine. Divinity later passed to the twelve Shia imams in a similar manner, that is, there was always an incarnation of the Ma’na, the Issm and the Bab, until the cycle ended with MBN. Such cycles, Adwar, have been taking place since the time of Adam.
2) The belief that existence is separated into two worlds: the World of Light where God dwells, and the material world, which is evil.
3) The belief in the habta, or the fall from grace.
4) The belief in the transmigration of souls as a form of punishment according to which the sinners descend into a “repeated transmigration” (takrir) from humans to animals, plants and on to stones and metals.
5) In contrast to transmigration, the ‘Arif, or the mystic can, through Gnosis, ascend to different stations, maratib, getting ever closer to God and the Immense World of Light, al-ʿālam al-kabir al-nurāni.
6) According to Al-Khassibi and other Alawite scholars, all these teachings, which seem to contradict what other Muslims believe, can actually be found in the Qur’an itself but only through ta’wil, or, the search for the hidden essence or the esoteric and true meaning, the Batin. Other Muslims follow the apparent meaning, or the Zahir.
7) The Alawites also belief that they are the Shiat-ul-Haq, that is, the real Shia. Other Shia are muqassirs, or deficient believers, while the Sunnis are merely the ‘ammah, that is, the “ignorant mass.”
8) A belief in the fall and spring equinox seems to reflect Iranian influences and is connected to a particular cycle of revelation happening within the context of Iranian history.
9) Al-Khassibi further believed that Ashourah should be an occasion for joy, because the killing of Hussain was just like the crucifixion of Jesus: nothing more than an illusion. But it is not clear if this particular belief still lingers in the popular consciousness of the Alawites.
10) In terms of rituals, the Alawites reject the pilgrimage to Makkah as a form of idol-worship, allow for the consumption of wine in certain rituals and while commemorating certain holidays, deleted prostration from their daily prayers, and fixed the religious tax, the zakat, at 20% of the believer’s income.
In time, and especially after the main concentration of Nusairis moved from Iraq to the northern Syria, then on to Lattakia, other practices began to intrude into Alawites belief system including veneration of certain Christian saints, especially Saint George. An element of star-worship seems to have been incorporated as well, so did the belief that women have no souls and should, therefore, not be allowed s share of the any family inheritance. This particular Alawite belief has, paradoxically, led to more open social interactions between men and women, thus making the Alawites appear more modern than their Sunni counterparts to an external observer. In practical terms, however, traditional Alawite women are no less repressed than their traditional Sunni counterparts.
These beliefs of the Alawites, considered as heterodox not only by Sunnis, but also, most other Shia groups, led to the adoption of a highly secretive culture and to the creation of a religious hierarchy that only few men were allowed to join. Most Alawites, at any given point in time, even to this very day, may actually be quite ignorant of the certain aspects of their faith, or of the religious reasoning or justification behind most of the rituals they perform, but, historical experience, the collective memory and the surviving oral traditions seem to have inculcated a deep sense of apprehension and suspicion of “strangers,” of change, of integration within the ranks of the community. Theirs is a taqiyyah on steroids, one that is embraced more as an existential must than a religious doctrine. Their isolationist tendencies became more self-imposed in time, rather than emanating from their neighbors actions.
Indeed, historically speaking, and as is often the case with mountain peoples, Alawites have often been the aggressor as far as their neighbors were concerned, benefitting in their raids on neighboring towns and villages from the chaotic conditions resulting from internecine warfare between various Sunni and Shia emirates and kingdoms, and, later, from the various upheavals that the Levant witnessed during the last decades of the Ottoman Caliphate.
This tendency of theirs, in combination with their particularistic belief system, played a major role in the issuing of the infamous fatwa by the Damascene Sunni scholar Ibn Taymiyyah in the early 14th Century and which practically apostatized the Alawites.
While, for centuries, the fatwa remained forgotten, its revival in the context of the struggle between the Assad regime and the Muslim Brotherhood in the mid-1970s to the early 1980s had a major impact on Alawite thinking and on Sunni-Alawite relations in Syria henceforth.
In modern times, and following the collapse of the Ottoman Caliphate, the Alawites found themselves facing an existential dilemma: should they create a state of their own, as the French proposed? Or, should they fall for the allure of such “modernist” and “secular” ideology as nationalism, which came in two varieties: one advocating a belonging to a Greater Syria that encompassed the ancient Levant (modern Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Israel and Palestine) as well as parts of Turkey and Cyprus. The other advocated a commitment to the Greater Arab World. Both nationalist movements at that stage called for accepting to become part of a unified Syria as a first and necessary step towards the establishment of Greater Syria or the Greater Arab Union.
After the Turkish invasion of Iskandarone (now Hatay) in 1938 and the mass deportation that followed of Alawites (as well Armenians and Sunni Arabs) from there, the remaining Alawites joined the Turkish population in rejecting the idea of establishing an independent republic in Hatay voting voted in the 1939 referendum to join the fledgling Turkish Republic. These Alawites seem to have been encouraged by Mustapha Kemal’s clear commitment to secularism, and, probably, by the fact that many high-ranking officers in the Turkish army at the time came from an Alevi background. Also, the vote may not have been as “free” and “fair” as we are led to believe.
Be that as it may, this move seems to have encouraged the Alawites in Lattakia and Tartous to listen to the allure of nationalism, in its Arab and Levant version, and to accept the idea of becoming part of modern Syria rather than establishing a republic where they were the majority, albeit a slim one.
There were objectors, of course, people who feared that joining the rest of Syrian provinces would expose them to discrimination and persecution by the Sunnis who would make up the de facto majority in a unified Syria. Chief among these objectors was one Salman Al-Murshid, a religious Alawite figure who declared himself a new embodiment of God, that is, an embodiment of the Ma’na, a move that in effect jumpstarted the historical cycle of revelations.
Within a short period, Al-Murshid managed to develop a small but loyal following among the Alawites at the time. Moreover, and from the very outset of the French mandate in Syria in 1920, Al-Murshid managed to enjoy French support, and French engineers helped him mount his elaborate light shows in villages around the coast, shows that helped him increase his following among the poor and uneducated who simply had no idea about electricity and thought the lights to represent signs from God. As a result, Al-Murshid managed to unify a number of Alawite clans under his leadership, acting within the larger clan-federation known as the Haidariyeh.
But, despite his showmanship skills and French support, Al-Murshid’s movement found limited or no appeal among other major clan-federations, including Al-Kallaziyeh (from which the Assad Clan hailed), Al-Numailatiyeh, Al-Haddadiyeh and Al-Kalbiyeh. In fact, Al-Murshid’s pomposity antagonized many Alawites as it revealed certain aspects of their faith and traditions that the overwhelming majority still preferred to keep hidden. Moreover, many educated Alawites at the time were falling under the sway of the nationalist philosophy of Antoun Sa’adeh, the Lebanese founder of the Syrian Social National Party (SSNP) which called for the establishment of Greater Syria. Obviously then, the idea of establishing an Alawite state ran contrary to this stance.
Eventually, the French began to waver in their support of Al-Murshid, deeming him and the Alawites as a whole to be ill-suited for the challenges of running a state on their own, and Al-Murshid and his acolytes and colleagues had to reconcile himself to the idea of joining a unified Syria.
Still, once he committed to the cause of a unified Syria, Al-Murshid seems to have played an important role in reaching out to other Alawites, even beyond his immediate followers, and brought them on board. He is also reported to have played an important role in recruiting Alawite youth to join the ranks of the coastal army that the French began building shortly after the launch of their mandate, and which later formed the nucleus of the national Syrian army.
Indeed, allowing Alawite units to join the national Syrian army intact, rather than getting distributed among other units seems to have come as the primary concession that allowed for Al-Murshid and other Alawites to accept joining the unified republic – a telling fact that gets completely overlooked today.
Be that as it may, eight months following Syria’s independence in 1949, the Syrian parliament where Al-Murshid has been serving as an MP since 1937, voted to lift his immunity, and he was subsequently arrested, tried on accusation of treason and blasphemy, found guilty, and then executed on December 16, 1946. The whole legal proceeding is said to have taken no more than three days.
Naturally, the move could not have happened without tacit support of the Alawite political, military and religious elite who feared Al-Murshid’s growing popularity, especially among the poor. But, more importantly, they feared the fact that he was going public about the esoteric nature of Alawite teachings, and that he was, in effect, going against the consensus reached both within the Alawite community, and between certain Alawite notables and their Sunni counterparts at the time, again as part of the deal to bring the Alawites to embrace the idea of a unified Syria. In a sense, there was a “don’t ask don’t tell” policy in place, and, by insisting on his divine status, Al-Murshid was breaking it.
Still, and due to the secrecy that surrounded the whole affair as well as the secrecy and eclecticism of the Alawite power politics, the event never registered in Sunni consciousness, while in certain Alawite circles, and especially among the Murshidis, the whole affair ended up being blamed on the Sunni establishment. It’s no wonder that the Murshidis fell easily for Assad’s sectarian agenda and played an important role in the violent crackdown against the early protesters who were all painted as Sunni terrorists out for more Alawite blood, just as their forefathers had killed the Alawite God.
The other major objector to joining the union was Sulayman Al-Assad, the grandfather of Hafiz Al-Assad, who might have looked at his colleague’s fate with some apprehension, albeit he is rumored to have tacitly supported it. As such, Hafiz Al-Assad seems to have grown in a social environment that may not have had much trust or faith in the Syrian state and its institutions, and since fighting for an independent Alawite state was no longer an option, and went against Assad’s own ideological convictions as a member of the Baath Party, the only remaining way for “trusting” the state was to wrest control of it.
The policies of “Syrianization” followed by Adib Al-Shishakli, the President of Syria between 1949-54, according to which the concept of a religious minority was seen anathematic, conspiratorial and treasonous, stoked and fed anti-Alawite and Anti-Druze sectarian sentiments and crated more distrust within the ranks of both communities vis-à-vis their Sunni countrymen.
The sectarian motivations behind Hafiz A-Assad and his other Alawite colleagues’ political shenanigans and machinations within the ranks of the armed forces were not exactly hard to detect, and they were certainly noted by Druze and Christian officers, as well as by Islamist politicians. But Sunni intellectuals, politicians and officers who, for the most part, espoused Liberal and Leftist ideologies, seem to have somehow missed them, or at least, missed their significance. Indeed, they seem to have mistaken the mere profession of commitment to a secular ideology to mean that sectarianism was no longer a factor in determining one’s choices and behavior.
By the time they realized how wrong they were, Assad and his colleagues have already taken over the country, and the Muslim Brotherhood, another sectarian movement and more publicly and avowedly so, have become their most vociferous opponent. For their part, the Assads instituted their sectarian system behind the secular façades of Baath ideology and the notion of Arab resistance.
The tragic showdown that would later take place between the MB (alongside various assortments of ideological parties, including the Communist Labor League, a branch of the Syrian Social National Party, some Nasserist currents and some civil unions) on the one hand, and the Assad regime, on the other, would only help to cement the Assads’ hold on power. The fact that Hafiz’s wife, Anisah, came from the Makhlouf clan, whose members largely embraced the secular ideology of Antoun Saadeh (as opposed to the Arab Social Nationalism of the Baath Party) helped Hafiz in his efforts to undermine the specific challenge posed by SSNP, causing many schisms within the Party.
But the success in fending off this popular challenge soon gave rise to internal family-based challenges, setting brother against brother.
One the one hand, we had Hafiz himself who, despite the fatwa issued by the Shia Imam Musa Al-Sadr that allowed him to declare himself a Muslim and thus become illegible to occupy the office of President of Syria, he, in fact, preferred to clothe the Alawite community with a Sunni rather than a Shia veneer. For if the whole idea was to create a rapprochement between the Sunnis and Alawites, and to make this whole sectarian issue go from public view, becoming Shia, another reviled though not apostatized sect, was simply not going to do the trick. But there were limits as to how much Hafiz can push his community on this matter without risking losing their support.
Moreover, there were other family members who had other ideas and that he did not want to antagonize.
Indeed, Hafiz’ older brother, Jameel, favored the Shia doctrine and established the Imam Al-Rida Society with branches all over the country trying to convert all people and not only the Alawites to Twelver Shiism. Meanwhile, Hafiz’ younger brother, Rifaat, was pursuing a strictly anti-religious course coupled with commitment to Alawite dominance and supremacy. The combination translated into an anti-Sunni movement with a special loathing for Sunni religious symbols like the Hijab. At one in fall of 1980, his female followers went on a rampage through the traditional district of Midan snatching hijabs off the heads of Sunni women. This radical move could have led to a Sunni revolt with a popular appeal that could have gone far beyond that of the Brotherhood. The incident was so serious that Hafiz was forced to apologize to the Syrian people for this “error.” But the school system still instituted a ban on wearing the Hijab inside school premises.
In due time, the competing views, temperaments and approaches lead to a failed coup by Rifaat paving the way for his expulsion from the country. Jameel stood by Hafiz and maintained his society, albeit its activities and programs were gradually restricted.
After this period, Hafiz gradually discovered the wisdom of not alienating the traditional Alawite religious elite, seeing in them another source for acquiring more legitimacy within the ranks of the Alawite community, a development that could help him fend off challenges from even within his own family.
So, and after years of seeking to undermine their authorities in the name of secularism, Arabism and socialism, by the late 1980s, Hafiz Assad has managed to court the support of important Alawite religious authorities from all the main clans, including his own, Al-Kallaziyeh, as well as Al-Numailatiyeh, Al-Haddaddiyeh, Al-Kalbiyeh and the Haidariyeh. Religious figures associated with smaller clans simply followed suit.
With this development, Hafiz seems to have acquired a religious significance among the Alawites, and modern Alawite identity was thus formed out of mixture of Shia doctrines, traditional Alawite beliefs and practices, socialist ideas, and a commitment to Arab nationalism, resistance ideology and the Assad family’s leadership as a necessary guarantor of Alawite safety and security.
This is illustrated by a telling observation made by most Syrian dissidents who were imprisoned and/or called in for interrogation by mid-level and high-level security officers (including yours truly), namely that the bookshelves of the interrogating officers prominently featured Nahj Al-Balaghah, a collection of sermons and sayings attributed to Imam ‘Ali, books on national socialism, a collection of famous sayings by Hafiz Al-Assad, and, it finally became available, an edited translation of Patrick Seal’s famous biography of Hafiz.
Throughout the 1990s, the differences between the various Alawite clans became less important as a larger sense of identity seemed to be emerging. The “martyrdom” of Hafiz’ eldest son and heir apparent in 1993 had the paradoxical effect of further consolidating this sense of identity.
But the passing of Hafiz Al-Assad in June of 2000 before signing a peace deal with Israel seems to have interrupted this process. For a figure like Hafiz Al-Assad, a figure that seemed well-nigh divine and messianic to his people, to die before fulfilling his final promise to them and the Syrian people at large, namely: the return of the Golan, was bound to undermine his mystique. The return of the Golan would have been hailed as a triumph for Arabism and resistance ideology against American and Zionist imperialism and was, therefore, needed in order to further justify and legitimate the ideational mixture involved in the formation of modern Alawite identity.
Hafiz’ “untimely” death stunted this trend. Bashar’s later failure would later moot it, once more laying open the question of: what does it mean to be a modern day Alawite?
For now, however, that is, in the year 2000, and shortly after his father’s death, the rise of Bashar Al-Assad was wildly celebrated and endorsed by the Alawites from all social and professional backgrounds, including members of the political opposition. But it did not come without certain expectations: namely to succeed where his father had failed, and to resume his father’s pet project of modernizing the country’s society and infrastructure, a project that was largely abandoned in the aftermath of the upheavals of the 1970s and ‘80s, a project which Alawites hoped will finally bring more developments to their areas, and more avenues for social advancements beyond joining the military and security apparatuses, and seeking employment in the public sector.
While Bashar Al-Assad turned up to be a failure from the very get-go of his presidential career, his publicity machine did a wonderful job manipulating public opinion inside the country at large but more specifically within the Alawite circles, and on an international scale, especially in the run-up to the Revolution.
With drought devastating the lives of millions of Syrians and driving them away from their lands to inhabit the infamous poverty belts around major cities in the western parts of the country; and with corruption, cronyism and unemployment at an all-time high, a series of flashy projects in Aleppo, Damascus, Homs and Lattakia, and few high-level events and meetings, including participation in Euro-Mediterranean Summit in Paris in the summer of 2008 (even as his troops were busy perpetrating a massacre against political dissidents in the Seydnaya prison), visits by Nancy Pelosi, Hillary Clinton and Brangelina (Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt), a few positive interviews including the ones with Diane Sawyer and Katie Couric, and few glowing profiles in the international press with special focus on his wife, Asma, such as the ones in Paris Match and Vogue, everything seemed to be improving, and Bashar finally seemed to be rising to expectations.
At that stage, the return of the Golan was no longer the litmus test, as the promise of stability and development trumped all other consideration. And Bashar appeared to be delivering.
Thus, despite the fact that many Alawites remained poor, and as Assad’s cronies, most of whom were now Alawite and often members of the larger Assad Clan, began taking over different economic and financial sectors, sometimes through outright privatization, the situation seemed promising as a trickle-down effect seemed to be working.
Then came the Revolution, and the rude awakening that it was bound to represent. How else could a people so mired in drunken illusions, so caught up in their fantasy world, react but with extreme violence!
For people who are deathly afraid of change, change came like a hurricane, and it was everything they feared: Sunnis pouring out of mosques shouting Allahu Akbar. Who cares what else they said, why they rebelled, or why they had no choice but to use mosques as staging grounds for their protests? And what could all this talk about nonviolence mean, when their begotten and made government and their sons in the army and security apparatuses were telling them about terrorist infiltrators and Zionist conspirators?
Welcome to an Alawite reality that somehow still fails to be truly fathomed by others: All Alawite families have members, be they sons, fathers, cousins and/or uncles (and occasionally daughters, mothers and/or aunts), working in the various branches and units affiliated with the military-security complex running the country. They have every reason, therefore, to love it and identify with it, even as non-Alawite Syrians have had ample reasons for hating it, with a passion, and no long before the Revolution. For while, numerically speaking, the Sunnis made up the majority working in the military-security complex, the levers of power always belonged to the Alawites, and the most effective and sophisticated fighting units are almost exclusively manned by Alawites with a sprinkling of Druze, Ismailis and Christians, and a dash of highly-vetted Sunnis.
The fact that there are many Afro-American police officers and that three out of six officers charged in the Freddie Gray’s death in Baltimore are Afro-American does not negate the prevalence of racist tendencies in the American justice system. Because we dealing with an institutional problem here, meaning that the people who control the levers of power within the system, the people whose basic concerns and worldviews shape the prevailing culture in it, are predominantly white.
Indeed, and in the institutional sense, demography notwithstanding, Syria has been an Alawite state for decades, and has become more so under Bashar’s rule. It’s no wonder that the four main conditions that the Assad regime laid for taking part I further talks with the opposition, known as the “Four Nos,” run as follows: “no to restructuring the security apparatuses, no conceding any presidential power, no to amending the current constitution (drafted weeks after the Revolution broke out) and no to restructuring the army.”
So, when Alawite families get told by their sons, fathers and uncles that protesters are chanting “Christians to Beirut and Alawites to the Coffins,” of course they believed them, the lack of any proof to this effect notwithstanding. And when security agents uploaded videos to YouTube claiming to show protesters chanting this very slogan, only for viewers to discover that the protesters were saying no such thing, it didn’t matter. The point was to allow regime supporters to say in the international media that there are videos on the internet proving their claim. The Alawites themselves didn’t need a proof.
This intimate family connection between Alawites and the military-security complex also explains the hostile attitude that so many Alawite opposition figures adopted vis-à-vis the Revolution from the very beginning. But the inner ethos involved was finally captured when the two Alawite founders of the Building the Syrian State Current, Louay Hussein and Mona Ghanim, dismissed the revolutionaries, including the early nonviolent protesters, as “riff-raff” and “garbage,” with Hussein going as far as to say that “the shoe of the lowliest security agent is better than all the revolutionaries.” Recording of these statements were leaked by the pro-Revolution Orient TV staff.
Another revealing anecdote in this regard is the controversy surrounding the flag that was adopted by most revolutionaries within weeks following the breakout of the Revolution. The flag was the same one that was adopted by the Syrian Parliament that negotiated independence from France, while the current flag was the one introduced by the Baath Party following the 1963 coup. As such, it made sense for rebels against the Baath Party to go back to the Independence flag. But most Alawites opposition members protested the adoption of the Independence flag claiming that it was the flag introduced by French authorities and, as such, it represented the occupation. Historically speaking of course, this was incorrect; France had no say in this matter, as they were fighting a world war and preparing for the eventual pullout from Syria.
So, and in order to understand Alawite attitude in this regard, we have to bear in mind that the same parliament who adopted the flag was also the one that facilitated the prosecution of Al-Murshid by voting unanimously to remove his amnesty shortly after Independence. Now, Alawite oppositionists may not consciously make that connection, but the idea that the Independence flag represented the occupation rather than the will of the Syrian people expressed through their first freely elected parliament, seems to have evolved as a result of what happened to Al-Murshid at the time, and points to the lingering isolationist streak within the community, which could not identify with the state until it came under their control. In typical Alawite fashion, the mindset facilitated the development of an intellectual non-sectarian justification for the hostility and rejection involved.
Finally, the insistence by Alawite oppositionists such as the well-known Communist thinker, Fateh Jamous, on describing rebels (and not only members of the Islamic State or Al-Nusra Front) as “Fascists,” but going only as far condemning the Assad regime as representing an “exceptional dictatorship,” comes as the icing on the cake, so to speak, because, and for almost four decades, it was the behavior and practices of the Assads and their henchmen that could be described, from an academic point of view, as encapsulating the quintessence of what it means to be a Fascist.
Alawite culture has traditionally been an oral culture, transmitted by trusted sources, which, in contemporary parlance, happened to be members of the military-security complex. It’s like trusting the CIA and NSA to tell you the truth all the time, and not to hide any “inconvenient” facts. Worse, it’s like trusting the KGB or FSB to do that. After all, the CIA and NSA operate within a democratic society and there are legal limits of which they have to be mindful, even if reluctantly, and even if they broke them at times. In an authoritarian system, there are no such rules to worry about. In Alawite families, some members lie and the others simply have to believe them; otherwise, the entire community will cease to function, and will cease to exist.
The tendency to rely on oral transmission has not been challenged by technological developments, because Alawite culture is not meant to be widely broadcasted and discussed where non-Alawites can hear. Except for certain novels, memoirs and dramas mocking Alawite dialect, the seeming simplicity of Alawite villagers, and certain arcane traditions, even secular-minded Alawite intellectuals have refrained from exposing the inner-workings of Alawite communities, or the secretive teachings of their faith. On the contrary, many often defend their community from accusations of holding heterodox beliefs, and point to various books written by Alawite religious figures and meant for public consumption.
Contemporary Alawite culture is one based on denying reality and believing your own lies, at all levels. In this regard, the illiterate masses and the intellectual elites behave very much alike. To all others their truths, to us ours, and ultimately none of these truths need to be provable, comprehensible or logical (not unless you follow a circular logic).
This system of closed thought and circular logic is, in fact, endemic of all communities in Syria and the Levant, perhaps even including Israel through its Sephardic communities. But it is much more established and more deeply entrenched in case of the Alawites. The difference is quantitative, but we are talking few folds difference between its relevance to the Alawite community, and its relevance to others, including the Druzes who, as was noted earlier, made all their sacred books public and became somewhat more open to interacting with other communities at the beginning of the Twentieth Century.
At the beginning of the Syrian Revolution, mobilization within the Alawite community assumed nationalist if not downright supremacist character. It became an Alawite pride movement of sorts, typified by young Alawite soldiers and security officers abusing their Sunni prisoners while shouting all manner of “blasphemies” like “yil’an Allah” (“God be Cursed”) while asserting their own Alawite identity by shouting Ya ‘Ali or Bihaqqi-l-Imamu ‘Ali.
The climate was quite similar to the one that prevailed in the early 1980s, with troops loyal to Hafiz Al-Assad shouting as they massacred their way through the rebellious city of Hama: “hallak ya Allah hallak, Hafiz ye’od mahallak.” (“It’s time, God, that Hafiz took your place”). But now one has to multiply the intensity of the moment by a factor of a hundred. Since the Revolution was everywhere the threat was omnipresent, and the fear and anger had to be that much more intense, and the crackdown that much more bloody.
Indeed, it seemed for a while that Alawites were no longer afraid to declare and celebrate their heterodoxy. Then, the protesters began picking up arms and joining army defectors, the majority of whom was Sunni and quite fed up with Alawite arrogance and domination within the ranks. Soon, the regime’s opponents adopted a similar sectarian ethos, and gradually became the extremists and terrorists they that were feared and heralded to be.
As the Revolution turned into a civil war, suddenly, the Alawites were not too keen on showcasing their heterodoxy. They left that to Hezbollah members and to the Iraqi, Afghani and Iranian members of the Shia militias that poured in to defend the regime, as well as the interests of Iran in the country.
This de facto defeat of Assad, forcing his overt reliance on Iran, Hezbollah and Shia fighters from far and wide, does undermine him in the eyes of his followers, even if they cannot act on their disillusionment and growing resentment at this stage, and perhaps not for a long while.
Indeed, the rise of Iranian influence in the country is threatening the existence of the Alawites in ways that may not be too different from the challenges posed to them by the rise of Sunni extremism. To the Alawites, the Iranians, even if they have come to help, are, nonetheless, outsiders, outsiders who have different beliefs and who consider Alawite beliefs to be just as heterodox as Sunnis do, condescending outsiders who want Alawite to change their beliefs, albeit gradually and through proselytization.
Whatever resentment resulting from this situation, however, cannot be shown now. It will have to wait for when peace have returned to the country, or even the region. That is, unless the regional crisis drags on for decades or a much wider war ensues.
In time, the Assad name might regain its relevance, but probably only after Bashar’s death, and depending on the manner and context of it. Hafiz and Bashar might yet reemerge as semi-holy figures in Alawite consciousness. Such development, however, will denote an Alawite defeat, allowing for a regression into an even more primordial and atavistic state.
The same fate awaits other communities in the region. As we noted earlier, the difference will be quantitative, rather than qualitative. Rebalancing could take decades, and at the end of it, all communities will be utterly exhausted, defeated, and more tribal, that is, more committed to a closed and narrow system of thought and loyalties, than ever. The Sunnis, despite their diversity, and their diffused sense of identity, will not fare much differently.
Within the next couple of decades, the Levant, with the possible exception of some pockets, will be emptied out of any professional elite or intellectuals worthy of the name.
This whole process might have started in Iraq following the U.S.-led invasion, but it’s only when the revolution hit Syria, Assad unleashed his crackdown and America dithered that it passed the point of no-return.[i]
To what extent does Alawite tribalism or clannism (that level beneath the identification as Alawites in general) remain powerful today? Is it powerful enough to cause a schism in the Alawite community between those closest to the Assads and the affiliated clans who enjoy most of the benefits of power and the rest? Also, are there indications of the continuing existence of the clan coalition that existed in the 1920s and which Hafez al-Assad engineered or has the urbanization of the Alawites diminished that?
Alawites clung to the Assads at the beginning of the Revolution in Syria even though the existential threat posed to them by it was more hypothetical than real. Now that the danger is real, it is difficult to see them, even at this stage, turning against the Assads. The difference now is that many, if not most, Alawites seem to have finally realized that the Assads are, in fact, exploiting rather than protecting them. The decision to stick by them now is made because the Assads are not perceived as a necessary evil. The pent-up pressures building within the Alawite community may not come to fore until the threat levels are reduced perceptibly and for a long enough period. Alternatively, should the Alawite heartland come under serious attack by Islamist rebels, there might emerge a group of Alawites willing to negotiate a settlement in which the Assads rather than the Alawite community as a whole become the ultimate sacrificial lamb.
But the question is: will the challengers emerge out of certain previously marginalized clans, or out of the middle ranks of the Assad clan itself as well as its affiliates? The answer may not as simple as we think, due to the existence of other dynamics that inform the sense of identity prevalent among contemporary Alawites.
Indeed, another way of examining Alawite identity is by focusing on the division of labor, so to speak. In this sense, we could speak of mountain dwellers, farmers and urbanites. Most Alawites serving in the military and security sectors tend to come from the coastal mountains and, to a lesser degree, from the farming communities in the central parts of Syria in Homs and Hama and Idlib provinces. The members of the Alawite communities who have become more thoroughly urbanized over the last six decades tend to join the public sector mostly, with some finding a niche in the private sector as well. However, not all Alawite city-dwellers should be considered urbanized, especially those inhabiting Damascus and Aleppo. The Alawites working for the military and security sector and those filling lower ranking positions in the public sector are encouraged to live in special ghettoes on the margins of the big cities. Integration into the larger population (mostly Sunnis) is simply discouraged, because the whole purpose of having them around is to ensure the state’s authority over the population, and clamp down against any form of dissent during times of trouble. This imposed isolationism coupled with arranged continuous movement back and forth between the mountain villages along the coast and the urban ghettoes have allowed these Alawites to retain their traditional ways and clan ties.
At this stage, urban Alawites’ sense of identity is tied more to life in city and advantages and perks it offers as well to the social class with which they identity, mostly middle class. These Alawites often disdain their relatives in the mountains and the farmland and have little connection with them. To them, the “native” villages are at best places for occasional retreat where they can enjoy the quaint feel of their surroundings.
This disconnect means that these Alawites will not be able to directly field challengers to the Assads. At best, they could only field a team of advisers and technocrats to any would be challengers. Meanwhile, their role in maintain Assad’s hold on power is quite critical. For they are the ones who truly drank the Kool Aid and who wholly swallowed what we can refer to as the Assad Doctrine, namely that the only way for Alawites to survive, thrive and protect themselves from their Sunni neighbors is to dominate and subjugate them, even as certain allies are cultivate from their midst as part of a necessary strategy meant to make up for the demographic disparity between the two communities.
Be that as it may, true challengers to the Assads will have to come from the mountain dwellers and the farmers. Due to the low level of education and sophistication involved here, the challengers may not be sophisticated enough to act beyond certain localities where they might cultivate followers on the basis of clan and tribal affiliations. Traditional clan and tribal structures will be relevant to this issue.
As such, we are forced to conclude that the rise of internal challengers to the Assads will actually lead to further fragmentation of the country, and will have disastrous consequences for the Alawites themselves as well as all inhabitants of the regions and provinces currently still under the Assads’ control.
But, should this process managed by an external player, Iran to be specific, as there exists no outside force that is capable of doing this at this stage, then, there is a chance for weakening the Assads as a prelude to an eventual purge targeting at least the top players amongst them. In order to succeed, however, Iran will have to curb ongoing proselytization efforts aimed at converting Alawites into Twelver Shiism, as this represents quite a sensitive issue for most Alawite local clan leaders and clergymen.
If Iran wants to persist in its Shiization efforts by way of cementing its foothold in certain parts of Syria, a longer term and much more nuanced approach is needed. Moreover, Iran needs to reconcile itself with having to exclude Damascus and the Southern parts of Syria from being parts of its dominion of more direct control. Having a politically neutral Damascus is a key factor to ending civil unrest in Syria as a whole, or, at least, decreasing the levels of violence involved.
Can the Alawites really latch on to a Shiite identity to survive with a stronger power (today protected by Iran and Hezbollah)? What is the extent of tashay’u (conversion to Shiism) among the Alawites and how does that affect the cohesion of the community? Can such trends cause schisms in the community?
As I noted above, the issue of Shiization is quite divisive. But a backlash may not happen so long as the conflict continues. The threat levels need to be appreciably downgraded before Alawites feel free to react to ongoing Iran-backed proselytization efforts.
Those Alawites who are gladly embracing Shiism are doing so mostly under the belief that Alawism has been misinterpreted and misrepresented by their religious leaders over the decades both as a result of their earlier isolation from other Shia groups, or due to local power plays.
More importantly though, those new converts are not simply embracing Twelver Shiism, they are also embracing the velayeti faqih doctrine, which binds them directly to Khamenei and the Iranian mullocracy. As their numbers grow, and they are quite hard to estimate at this stage, their presence and activities are definitely bound to raise eyebrows and ire, engendering hostility.
The Murshidis, with their even more particularistic religious beliefs, and the fact that, to them, their current leader is in fact a living deity, are also quite unhappy with this state of affairs.
In fact, Alawite identity faces a more serious threat from lingering Iranian influence and insistence on Shiization than from Sunni militants who, barring unforeseen developments, despite their rhetoric are unlikely to be able to carry out any major ethnic cleansing campaign against the Alawites, on part of the ethnic cleansing against the Sunni inhabitants that has been and still being carried out by the Assads and Alawite and Shia militias against the Sunni population in major swaths of the country.
As such, it is in Iran’s interest to prolong the conflict in Syria, and the only thing that will make her reconsider its efforts is the possibility of losing its foothold in the country as a whole. Bringing Iran to the bargaining table is good for both the Alawites, the Sunnis and all other communities in Syria, but it will take a far more aggressive diplomacy by the international community to get to that point. So, one cannot really raise his hopes at this stage.
In the 1980’s Hafez al-Assad was said to have moved to reduce the power of the rijal al-din (the clergymen) of the Alawite community as he did not want competition. Is that true today and how does that affect local leadership with the waning of the efficacy of the Assad leadership?
Hafiz’s policy regarding Alawite clergymen that informed his attitude throughout the 1970s and the early 1980s was reversed by the late 1980s when he saw their endorsement as necessary in order to shield him from internal rivals even from within his own family. This is why the reports regarding bestowal of a possible religious title on him around 1989 seem legitimate. He may not have gone full-Murshid by declaring himself, albeit quietly, as a deity (albeit some do claim that was exactly what he did and that the title that was bestowed ion him was that of El-Bab. These reports, however, were not corroborated by more informed Alawite contacts), but his position did seem to acquire a religious significance. For this reason, and beginning in the 1990s, and as the country’s international isolation ended following the conclusion of the Cold War and its participation in the anti-Saddam coalition, traditional Alawite clergymen resurfaced and reasserted their authority, especially in the farming communities of Al-Ghab and central Syria. By the time Hafiz passed away and Bashar rose to power, their status in the community has been reasserted, but not among the urbanites who continued to look at them with bemusement.
Before the Revolution, Bashar’s own attitude toward Alawite clergymen was actually quite condescending and dismissive, but not hostile. In other words, his attitude was that of an urban Alawite. Due to his indifference, however, the relevance of traditional clergymen continued to grow under his rule. At the beginning of the Revolution, Bashar and Maher sought to mobilize the more religious elements in the Alawite communities, and for this, they relied both on the security apparatus, local smugglers, marginalized and forgotten social and political figures like Miraj Ural (AKA Mustafa Kayali), the leader of the Front for the Liberation of Iskadarone (that is, the Hatay Province now under Turkish control), as well as trusted Alawite clergymen.
The increased involvement by Iranians in the conflict led to a reversal of this policy, however, the relevance of traditional Alawite clergymen on the local level could not be downplayed anymore, and they are bound to prove troublesome to Iranian authorities as they seek to assert their control over the Alawite heartland. However, and following decades of systemized corruption, many of these “holy” figures are no less susceptible to bribery than their “secular” counterparts, which might present Iran with an interesting opportunity to manage the challenge.
What about the Druze community in Syria, how does the issue of identity formation impact them at this stage?
Despite the prevalent impression that the Druzes have long allied themselves with the regime, in reality, the Druze community’s relationship with the Assads is far more complex. But then, their relationship with the larger Sunni community is also problematic and strained.
Religiously speaking, the Druze faith is as heterodox as the Alawite faith. But, historically speaking, the Druze has been more assertive on the scene and they have long managed to obtain recognition from Sunni authorities, represented by the Ottomans, as a legitimate and independent religious group, entitled to the protections and benefits afforded by the Ottoman Millet system, entitled to a certain degree of autonomy in their area of concentrations, namely Mount Lebanon and its surroundings (a development that benefitted the local Christian communities as well).
Near the turn of the 20th Century, the Druze elders also chose to publish all their sacred texts. Indeed, the Druzes have never been comfortable with the practice of taqiyyah which encouraged them to keep their faith secret when they are being persecuted. For this, and whenever the prevailing conditions allowed, they openly practiced what they believed. This is the attitude that helped finally extract the above concessions from the Ottomans.
The existence of an organized religious hierarchy among the Druzes has also helped them maintain a strong sense of identity. Clans and, therefore, clan rivalries do exist among the Druze, and the Assads have sought to manipulate and play the clans against each other in order to foster mistrust and cultivate clients.
The Druzes played quite the important role in Syria’s bid for independence, and most Druzes seem to have been quite at ease with the Arabist ideology of the Baath Party. But following independence, relations between Sunni and Druze leaders, political, social and military, soured, as the Druzes bid for what amounted to autonomy was not accepted by the central government in Damascus. Under the rule of President Adib Al-Shishakli (1949-1954), the Druzes were heavily repressed. At one point, Al-Shishakli dispatched over 10,000 troops to Jabal Al-Druzes to assert the authority of the central government, a number of Druze towns came under heavy bombardment. Al-Shishakli also used local Sunni tribes in the fight and encouraged them to raid and loot Druze towns. Druze relations with members of these tribes remain strained to this very day.
These policies seem to have fostered a sense of mistrust and vindictiveness among Druze officers similar to the ones espoused by the Alawites.
Indeed, the 1963 Baath coup was heavily supported by Druze officers as well. But Hafiz al-Assad and his companions were highly suspicious of the Druze as well, and saw in them potential rivals. The Druze once again failed to get the autonomy they coveted. Seeking to capitalize on their discontent, and as a reflection of his own following the internal Baath coup of 1966 and his failure to get a prominent position in the new government, the Druze officer, Salim Hatoum, led an insurrection in Jabal Al-Druze. The failure of this move, followed by the execution of Hatoum in 1967 and larger crackdown against Druze officers marked a major defeat for the Druze. The Druze community was gradually marginalized, and the role of Druze officers in the security and the military was visible enough for them to be distrusted by the Sunnis and to consider as collaborators with the Assads, but was, in effect, devoid of any real power, just as is the case with Sunni officers.
This confluence of events should help us understand the ambivalent attitude adopted by the Druze elders and the community at large vis-à-vis the Syrian Revolution of 2011. Naturally, those local figures and officers that have been cultivated by the Assads sided with the regime to protect their privileges. For their part, opposition members and prodemocracy activists from Druze background played an important role in leading the Revolution in its early days. Still, for the most part, the Druze sought to remain neutral, unable to trust both sides, and hoping to spare themselves and their areas the mayhem that was unleashed all around them.
The last four years of conflict have allowed for the Druze to lead a semi-autonomous existence, a situation that is currently being challenged by developments on the ground. But Druze Elders, through their Majlis Al-‘Uqalaa, have regained their relevance. So did clan leaders. The rivalry at this stage posits those who benefited from the Assad system against members of the traditional elite who were marginalized by the Assads. The famous Atrash family is on the rise again, and the Hatoums could also emerge in time.
Whatever the case may be, let there be no doubt that, while so many observers and politicians focus on the Kurdish demand for autonomy, the Druze have a history of seeking and fighting for it as well. The only question at hand now is this: do they have the means to assert it, and to protect themselves from both sides? The Druzes are currently being menaced by both the Alawite regime and its militias, and the rebels, without external assistance, neighboring countries should prepare for a flood of Druze refugees soon.
How do the Sunnis of Syria fit into all this at this stage?
The problem with Syria’s Sunnis is that they are the majority and, historically, they did not feel oppressed, at least not for their religious views. They might have been oppressed under Ottoman rule for being Arabs (we are not considering Kurdish Sunnis here, because for the Kurds nationalism comes first), but they were never oppressed on account of their Sunnism. Even the rise of the Assads and the bloodbath in Hama in 1982 didn’t change that situation enough to create a common Sunni grievance, and, therefore, a sense of Sunni identity.
Until the eve of the Syrian Revolution, a sense of common grievance and identity was something that only Islamists, and the Sunni inhabitants of Hama even the secular elements among them, exhibited. Most Sunnis, however, felt a greater sense of identification with their country, city, province and/or tribe, albeit not necessarily in that order, at least as far as the inner workings of their psyche.
The Revolution of 2011 with its early demonization of the Sunni population, the ethnic cleaning that was carried out against them by the Alawite-led army in cooperation with the various pro-Assad militias and death squads whose formation was facilitated by the regime, and Iran, and with the industrial-scale liquidation of Sunni detainees, all that ended up creating a sense of common grievance against the Alawites and other religious minorities, who were seen as either actively or vocally supported the crackdown.
The problem, however, is that the phenomenon was coupled with an increased identification with certain provinces and regions where people simply grew too tired with being ruled by decree from Damascus. The ongoing polarization between the secular and Islamist elements among the Sunnis is also proving to be a divisive factor.
It seems that for certain minorities, hating the majority can be a strong enough unifying factor, one that can help the people involved rise above their other differences, at least for a certain period of time, in an ongoing faceoff with the majority. For majorities, however, unless they happen to be in control of the state, hating minorities is something that can create more divisiveness. At least this is what happened in Syria in regard to the Sunnis.
Right now, we can speak of a number of Sunni-majority areas in Syria:
1. Hauran, which consists of a number of cities and towns where clan-identification is emerging as a major factor. This is not new to Hauran where each town, with the exception of Deraa, has always been home to a limited number of well-established clans.
2. Damascus City, where the highly urbanized Sunni population will continue to be divided along social and ideological lines. But, a renewed identification with certain traditional neighborhoods, such as Midan and Kafar Sousseh will a stronger role than in it did in the past.
3. The larger Damascus province, which will be divided into various areas, each controlled by a different faction or alliance. The major areas will be the Eastern Ghoutah where Douma are emerging as major focal points; Southern Ghoutah, where towns will be further differentiated in terms of their level of revolutionary participation, or whether they remained loyal to the regime; towns to the southwest of Damascus, such as Daraya and Moadamiyah; the Barada and the Bludan valleys area where despite the anti-regime tendencies of the majority Sunni population, the regime had long managed to reestablish its control; and the Qalamoun are to the North of Damascus, currently divided between the regime and rebels, and the population remains highly mixed, with Christians and Sunnis making up the majority despite the regime attempts at ethnic cleansing.
4. Parts of Homs City, especially Al-Wa’er, where major segments of the Sunni population that were driven out of the inner city now reside.
5. Hama City, where the majority population is Sunni, but where the regime managed to reestablish its control in the early days of the revolution. The Sunni population, it seems, was loathe to witness another large-scale massacre similar to the one that took place in 1982.
6. A hodgepodge of rural communities in the Homs and Hama provinces, which also connect to the Idlib province.
7. Idlib Province, where despite ethnic cleaning, Sunnis still make up the majority population, and have recently took control of most urban centers in the province. The inhabitants of certain areas in the province, especially those of Jabal Al-Zawiyeh, will exhibit a strong sense of identification and pride in their particular ways and traditions, as well as their contributions to the revolution.
8. The situation in Aleppo City and Province is quite similar to Damascus and Damascus Province.
9. The situation in Deir Ezzor, Raqqah and Al-Hassakeh provinces is similar to that in Hauran. But in Raqqah and Deir Ezzor growing hostilities between Kurds and Arabs will play a complicating role.
[i] In writing this essay, I relied mostly on memory and on private conversations I had long ago with some Alawite elders and intellectuals. On occasion, I also consulted the Encyclopedia Iranica at http://www.iranicaonline.org.