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Sectarian Identity and Image in Syria

The Discovery of the Alawites

The Assad family, which has ruled Syria for almost half a century, is from the Alawite sect.
Hafez al-Assad, father of Syria’s current president, gave the Alawites status in society.

The modern view of Alawites in Syria has been largely shaped by their relation to its rulers.

The Assad family, which has ruled Syria for almost half a century, is from the Alawite sect, as are many of the most important regime figures in the security and military apparatus. Therefore, it is not surprising that Alawites and their role in the present and the future of the country have become subjects of debate during the Syrian conflict.


However, many of these debates are ideological in nature, as well as sometimes emotional. Stances are not rational or objective but often simplistic and used for political exploitation. All this has resulted in more confusion and ignorance, especially due to those who have falsely or deliberately created an image in which the Alawite people equals the Assad regime, whether they mean to criticise the sect or defend it. And so the existence of the Alawites is thought by some to depend on the Assad regime. Is this true?


National and political roles


The regime has promoted a specific narrative within the Alawite sect to mobilise its support and allegiance, a story which claims that Hafez al-Assad, father of Syria’s current president, gave the Alawites status in society after they had been forgotten in their mountains and villages. However, those who study Syrian history know that the truth is quite the opposite. Alawites have played an important role in Syria’s modern history since its foundation (with its current borders). Except for a few privileged members of the regime and their associates, they have been no better treated under Assad than other Syrians.


The influence of Alawite officers increased and military experience grew, which later became central to the rise of the Alawites During the French Mandate in Syria, the French occasionally faced armed resistance, often politically motivated, in particular during the Great Syrian Revolution (1925-1927), led by Sultan Pasha al-Atrash. This was preceded by a first stage (1919-1921) led by Sheikh Salah al-Ali in the coastal areas, with the local Alawites succeeding in repelling the French army and preventing them from occupying the mountains for two years.


To facilitate their control over Syria, the French decided to divide the country along sectarian lines. On 1 September 1920, the High Commissioner, General Choro, partitioned Syria and created the State of Greater Lebanon (with a small Christian majority). The rest of the country was divided into the state of Damascus and the state of Aleppo for the Sunnis, the government of Jabal al-Druze and the Alawite state.


Most Alawites rejected the division and separation from Syria. Indeed, the nationalist and integrative trend among them was much stronger than the separatist trend. This precisely contradicts what some Syrian opposition groups have tried to promote in the last few years, focusing on an old document issued by some Alawites who collaborated with France and demanded an independent Alawite state under the French Mandate. These demands were rejected by the majority of the sect, and some of the so-called separatists themselves later joined the Alawite voices calling for the unity and independence of Syria.


In any case, the French Mandate period saw things improve for the Alawites. The French officially recognised them as a religious doctrine and a political entity, which brought them out of centuries of isolation and stagnation and put them back on the Syrian map.


The French, as a tool of colonial seduction, recruited Alawite youth and other minorities (including Circassians and Druze) into the Special Troops of the Levant, established in 1921, under the command of French officers. Minorities joined these forces because they had almost no chance of landing other jobs. The influence of Alawite officers increased and military experience grew, leading to the establishment of a military tradition within the sect, which later became central to the rise of the Alawites.


The education policy of the French Mandate also played a role, with the creation of public schools with unified teaching programmes playing an important role in preventing the spread of sectarian education in Syria. This also contributed to the spread of education among the Alawites and increased young people’s interest in public affairs, culture and politics; many of them were involved in the political parties and movements that emerged during the mandate period, such as the Communist party, the Syrian Social National party and the Baath party.


With the expansion of the Alawites’ role in the army and in some political parties, their presence and influence in political life increased, and they have participated in the various stages and transformations of Syria since independence. Alawites have had deputies and ministers in government, as well as officers participating in the country’s various military coups.


Alawites in power 


Repeated army intervention in politics, combined with the infiltration of the army by some political parties, led to the militarisation of political life in Syria. After the political union of Syria and Egypt, the intelligence services played an increased role in the regime, ultimately leading to military rule after the coup of 8 March 1963. Since Alawite officers were among the leaders of the military coup, they became part of the new regime.


Immediately after the coup, sharp disagreements arose between the Ba’athist officers and their Nasserite colleagues. Independent officers were removed from their positions and the Ba’ath party and its officers took control. Conflict then arose among the Ba’ath party members themselves – between officers and civilians, as well as between leftists and rightists. The struggle between the various party wings resulted in sectarian alignments around a number of officers and civilians.


During the struggle for power in the Ba’ath party, Alawite officers and party members were not united. They had different stances and were to be found on both sides, and they played key roles alongside their ‘teams’ during the coups against each other. Hafez al-Assad eventually triumphed over his former comrades, most of whom he imprisoned or exiled, most notably the Alawites.


He assumed the presidency in 1970, holding it until his death on 10 June 2000, when Bashar al-Assad inherited power. During the rule of Hafez, the country witnessed transformations, conflicts and rearrangements of the roles and centres of power, all without changing the essence of the regime. It was indeed a totalitarian regime, similar to the one-party, one-ruler autocracies that emerged in Eastern Europe after the Second World War, though with unique Syrian characteristics.


The militarisation of the sect


To rule Syria, Hafez relied on family members, close figures from within his sect and those he considered loyal. He appointed Alawite figures to the security apparatus, but this did not mean that Alawites ruled Syria, as some claimed. In fact, Alawites were active in opposition parties, particularly the leftists and the nationalists, such as the Communist Labour Party, the Communist Party and the Arab Democratic Ba’ath Party. Many were imprisoned, and many died under torture in detention centres.


Despite the common idea that a wealthy Alawite upper class with unlimited privilege controls the country, the current regime offers hardly any benefits to most Alawites. In fact, since Hafez al-Assad’s basic services project in some Alawite areas in the 1970s and the 1980s, most Alawite villages have developed only slightly, with the exception of Qardaha, the town where Assad was born.


The bulk of the Alawite regions have seen little economic development, and many Alawite youth joined the army in the absence of any viable economic alternative. Alawites have rarely benefited from corruption, especially under Bashar al-Assad’s rule.


Like any military regime lacking constitutional legitimacy, the Assad regime has increasingly relied on the army and the security apparatus to consolidate its rule. To ensure the highest loyalty, the regime has resorted to building relations with tribal, sectarian and regional groups, playing sectarian groups off against one another; they also strengthened its repressive security apparatus. Alawites played a significant role within that system, and they are still paying for these involvements today.

Tarek Azizeh is a Syrian writer and researcher. He lives in Germany.

Tarek Azizeh