Freedom and Justice in the Modern Middle East
Demystifying the Arab Spring
Parsing the Differences Between Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya
Understanding the Revolutions of 2011
Weakness and Resilience in Middle Eastern Autocracies
Why Middle East Studies Missed the Arab Spring
The Myth of Authoritarian Stability
The Arab Spring at One
A Year of Living Dangerously
The Promise of the Arab Spring
In Political Development, No Gain Without Pain
The Mirage of the Arab Spring
Deal With the Region You Have, Not the Region You Want
Tunisia's Post-Revolution Blues
Stagnation and Stalemate Where the Arab Spring Began
Tunisia’s Lessons for the Middle East
Why the First Arab Spring Transition Worked Best
The Tunisia Model
Did Tunis Win the Arab Spring?
Democracy by Necessity
Tunisians Go to the Polls
Tumult in Tunisia
Weathering the Economic and Political Storms
The Muslim Brotherhood's Long Game
Egypt's Ruling Party Plots its Path to Power
The Error Behind the Uproar in Egypt
Even Good Coups Are Bad
Lessons for Egypt from the Philippines, Venezuela, and Beyond
First They Came for the Islamists
Egypt’s Tunisian Future
Can a Myth Rule a Nation?
The Truth About Sisi's Candidacy in Egypt
Egypt's Durable Misery
Why Sisi's Regime Is Stable
The Brotherhood Breaks Down
Will the Group Survive the Latest Blow?
Did Sisi Save Egypt?
The Arab Spring at Five
NATO's Victory in Libya
The Right Way to Run an Intervention
Libya's Militia Menace
The Challenge After the Elections
The Surprising Success of the New Libya
Libya on the Brink
How to Stop the Fighting
Obama's Libya Debacle
How a Well-Meaning Intervention Ended in Failure
Who Lost Libya?
Obama’s Intervention in Retrospect
Setting the Record Straight on Benghazi
What Really Led to Libya's Chaos
Russia's Line in the Sand on Syria
Why Moscow Wants To Halt the Arab Spring
Assad Family Values
How the Son Learned to Quash a Rebellion From His Father
Why Washington Didn't Intervene In Syria Last Time
Comparing 1982 to 2012
Alawites for Assad
Why the Syrian Sect Backs the Regime
Ramadan in Aleppo
A Letter From Rebel-Controlled Syria
The Real Reason Putin Supports Assad
Mistaking Syria for Chechnya
Syria's President Speaks
A Conversation With Bashar al-Assad
The New Great Game
How Regional Powers are Carving Up Syria
The Not-So-Great Game in Syria
And How to End It
Syria's Good Neighbors
How Jordan and Lebanon Sheltered Millions of Refugees
No (Gulf) Country for Syrian Refugees
The Kafala System and the Migration Crisis
ISIS Is Not a Terrorist Group
Why Counterterrorism Won’t Stop the Latest Jihadist Threat
ISIS' Social Contract
What the Islamic State Offers Civilians
How to Defeat ISIS
The Case for U.S. Ground Forces
The President in Practice
The End of Pax Americana
Why Washington’s Middle East Pullback Makes Sense
Fight or Flight
America’s Choice in the Middle East
Getting Over Egypt
Time to Rethink Relations
The Next Front Against ISIS
The Right Way to Intervene in Libya
Algeria After the Arab Spring
Algiers Came Out Ahead—But the Good Times Could Be Over
How Turkey Lost the Arab Spring
Assad Has It His Way
The Peace Talks and After
The Right Way to Think About the Syria Talks
They Aren't About Syria, They Are About Russia
Since the start of the revolt in Syria, the country’s Alawites have been instrumental in maintaining President Bashar al-Assad’s hold on power. A sect of Shia Islam, the Alawites comprise roughly 13 percent of the population and form the bulk of Syria’s key military units, intelligence services, and ultra-loyalist militias, called shabiha (“ghosts” in Arabic). As the uprising in Syria drags on, there are signs that some Alawites are beginning to move away from the regime. But most continue to fight for Assad -- largely out of fear that the Sunni community will seek revenge for past and present atrocities not only against him but also against Alawites as a group. This sense of vulnerability feeding Alawite loyalty is rooted in the sect’s history.
The Alawites split from Shia Islam in ninth-century Iraq over their belief in the divinity of the fourth Islamic caliph, Ali bin Abi Talib, a position branded as heresy by the Sunnis and extremist by most Shias. The community began as a small collection of believers, and over the following centuries it suffered almost constant discrimination and several massacres at the hands of Sunni Muslims. In 1305, for example, following a clerical fatwa, Sunni Mamluks wiped out the Alawite community of the Kisrawan (modern Lebanon). As late as the mid-nineteenth century, in retaliation for the rebellion of an Alawite sheikh, the Ottomans ruthlessly persecuted the Alawites, burning villages and farms across what little territory they held.
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Despite this long-standing persecution, the Alawites fought to integrate into modern Syria. In 1936, as the French mandate waned, Alawite religious leaders convinced their anxious followers to incorporate themselves into the new, overwhelmingly Sunni, Syrian state. Over the next several decades, Alawites moved away from the mountains to pursue educational and employment opportunities in the cities. Between 1943 and 1957, Alawite migration tripled the population of Hama, and between 1957 and 1979 it quadrupled the size of Latakia.
Many Alawites also joined the military. Since Ottoman times, Sunni Arabs had largely spurned army careers, but Alawites welcomed the opportunity for stable income. By 1963, they made up 65 percent of noncommissioned officers in the Syrian army. The rise of Alawites in Syrian society throughout the 1960s was assisted by political infighting among the Sunnis and the Baath Party coup of 1963, which united working-class Alawites and Sunnis under one banner.
Although Sunnis initially tolerated the growing clout of the Alawite community, resentment resurfaced when Hafez al-Assad, an Alawite and the father of the current president, seized power in 1970. When he proposed a new constitution three years later that mandated a secular state and allowed the presidency to be awarded to a non-Muslim, Sunnis protested across the country. In early 1976, with religious tensions flaring, the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood launched its uprising against what it called the “heretic” Alawite regime. The Alawites, harboring their long-standing fear of rejection and persecution by the Sunni community, rallied around Assad. The two sides hardened for battle, and over the next six years Assad relied on his sect to beat back the Brotherhood revolt.
In February 1982, the struggle reached its climax in Sunni-dominated Hama. Seeking to end the rebellion, Assad massacred the Sunni population of the city, killing as many as 20,000 residents. Alawites blamed the Muslim Brotherhood for the disaster, largely convinced that Sunnis had and would always reject their efforts to integrate. Even liberal Alawites, who criticized Assad’s aggressiveness at the outset of the revolt, remained silent in the aftermath of the Hama massacre. They had been transformed from victims into perpetrators.
Since the Hama slaughter of 1982, the Alawites have consolidated their control of the country. According to the Syria scholar Radwan Ziadeh, they comprise the vast majority of Syria’s roughly 700,000 security and intelligence personnel and military officer core. In fact, they constitute so much of the country’s security apparatus that Syrians are said to often put on an Alawite accent when apprehended by intelligence officers in the hope of receiving better treatment.
The Alawites’ loyalty to Assad today is hardly assured, however. Despite popular notions of a rich, privileged Alawite class dominating Syria, the country’s current regime provides little tangible benefit to most Alawite citizens. Rural Alawites have struggled as a result of cuts in fuel subsidies and new laws restricting the sale of tobacco -- their primary crop for centuries. Indeed, since the provision of basic services by the first Assad in the 1970s and 1980s, most Alawite villages -- with the exception of Qardaha, the home of Assad’s tribe, the Kalbiyya -- have developed little. Donkeys remain a common form of transport for many, and motor vehicles are scarce, with dilapidated minibuses offering the only way to commute to the cities for work.
Some Alawites are explicitly breaking ranks. Last September, for example, three prominent Alawite sheikhs, Mohib Nisafi, Yassin Hussein, and Mussa Mansour, issued a joint statement declaring their “innocence from these atrocities carried out by Bashar al-Assad and his aides, who belong to all religious sects.” According to Monzer Makhouz, an Alawite member of the Syrian National Council, a leading opposition group, Alawites are joining protests in the coastal cities of the Alawite territory. And in recent weeks, evidence has emerged of defections of Alawite soldiers and intelligence officers, seemingly from less privileged Alawite tribes, who have described themselves as “Free Alawites” and called for other Alawites to join them.
The fall of Assad presents several possible scenarios for the Alawites. It could launch a comprehensive reconciliation process, drive them back to their mountain refuge in northwestern Syria, or lead to open conflict with the Sunnis. No matter what, the Alawites face a dilemma. If Assad collapses, the community will have to fend off the criticisms of supporting the regime for this long. Sticking with Assad may increase the odds of an unforgiving Sunni retribution, but it at least keeps the sectarian conflict at bay -- that is, as long as Assad remains.