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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.