The fighting and the humanitarian crisis in Syria continue to intensify. Factional disintegration threatens to fatally destabilise the ranks of the rebel opposition seeking to end President Bashar al-Assad’s brutal rule.
Al-Assad, his family, and many other high-ranking politicians and military officials in Syria belong to the Alawite sect of Shia Islam. Followers of Ali, the cousin of the Prophet Muhammad, the Alawites have historically remained hidden in the shadows, conscious of the persecution that publicising their beliefs can entail. They form a strong minority in Syria (about 12%), which is a nominally a secular state.
Alawite history is shrouded in mystery yet this traditionally isolated Islamic sect has always resisted efforts to convert it to mainstream Sunni or Shia Islam, particularly during centuries of Ottoman Turk rule.
Always vulnerable to the whims of their Sunni rulers, the Alawites in the Middle East were seen as a backwards and barbaric people. Their fortunes would change significantly, however, with the disintegration of the Ottoman Empire at the end of World War One.
In 1920 Syria and Lebanon, as former Ottoman territories, became a French mandate under League of Nations authorisation. Immediately unpopular with the majority Sunni population – which had long craved genuine independence – the French were forced to improvise to consolidate their rule.
Having crushed a nascent ‘Greater Syria’ movement with 70,000 troops of the French Foreign Legion and occupied Damascus, a series of states within the mandate were created, including one specifically known as the Alawite State, which had its capital at Latakia on the Mediterranean coast. This classic example of divide-and-rule helped weaken any concerted opposition against French control, giving the smaller states within Syria and Lebanon false hopes that they would one day achieve unilateral autonomy over their lands. Such political manoeuvring was reinforced by the continued French military presence.
It was during this time that the French sought to purge the overwhelming Sunni influence in the Syrian Army by appointing several Alawites to key military positions. This sowed the seed for the future political dominance of the sect.
After their parliament refused to accept a 1936 Syrian Independence Treaty, the French remained in Syria until being ousted in 1941. Their final troops only departed in 1946, leaving behind a greatly-fragmented and fragile state with an army dominated by the minority Alawites.
After the failure of the United Arab Republic (1958-1961), a union between Syria and Egypt, President Nazim al-Kudsi was overthrown by the Syrian Ba’ath Party in 1963. In 1966, Ba’ath leader Amin al-Hafiz was himself displaced from the Syrian presidency by a coup d’etat led by a radical faction within his own party. The key players in this were Salah Jadid and Hafez al-Assad, army and air force chief respectively. Both men were Alawites.
Hafez al-Assad overthrew Jadid in another coup in 1970 and the rest, as they say, is history, the Assad family having controlled Syria for the past 43 years.
It is ironic that the Syrian uprising of 2011 was the result of calls for democratic reforms, rather than an attempt by the Sunni majority to finally rid themselves of an obscure Shia sect.
It is only in recent months that a particularly religious element has entered the bitter civil war. Saudi Arabia (Sunni) and Iran (Shia) are using their proxies to attempt to overthrow, in the Saudi case, or prop up, in the Iranian case, the Assad government. Extremist fighters from Al-Qaeda (Sunni) and Hezbollah (Shia) have added a virulent strain of religious militancy and terrorism to the conflict.
Like Iraq, which has crumbled into sectarian violence since the fall of secular leader Saddam Hussein, a Syrian regime which could have proved a beacon of respectability and tolerance in the Middle East is burning to ashes.
Historian Daniel Pipes likened the Alawite rise to ascendancy in Syria to “an untouchable becoming maharajah in India or a Jew becoming tsar in Russia—an unprecedented development shocking to the Sunni majority population which had monopolized power for so many centuries”.
For this the Syrians undoubtedly have the French to thank. What is also certain is that after Assad’s fall, whenever that may be, the days of Alawite influence in Syria will never return.
For more see: Robert Kaplan, Syria: Identity Crisis, The Atlantic (Feb 1993)