Syria and the Alawites
August 2000

Commentary by Rick Francona

Syrian flagSince 1966, Syrian politics have been under the influence, if not the utter domination, of the country’s Alawite minority. Despite being only about 12 percent of the country’s estimated 16 million people, they have become the power brokers of the country. From their traditional homeland in the mountains and coastal plain of northwestern Syria, the Alawites are the voices one hears in Damascus. 

An unusual grouping of other minorities, including the Druze and Christians, supports the Alawites. Their rise to power is closely ties to events in Syria and the region in the aftermath of the defeat of the Ottoman Empire in World War I. 

Syria’s modern history – the rise of the Alawites 

The areas of the Middle East that are now Syria, Lebanon, Israel, Iraq, Jordan, and parts of Saudi Arabia were forfeited by the Ottoman Turks after their defeat at the hands of the British. The forfeited lands were placed under League of Nations mandates; France was given mandatory authority over what is now Syria and Lebanon. The League of Nations action merely “rubber stamped” a secret agreement made in 1916 (the Sykes-Picot Agreement*) between Britain and France to divide the area into “spheres of influence.” 

Given the French experiments with colonization in North Africa (Algeria and Tunisia), they were wary of Sunni Arab nationalism. Therefore, in Syria, they decided to stifle Arab nationalism by granting autonomous status to several minority groups, including the Alawites. They also encourage the Alawites to join special units of the French forces made up of the local population. It was this initiative that laid the groundwork for many Alawites to use the military as a stepping stone out of the poverty of northwestern Syria. It also led to the eventual domination of the Syrian military and later the Syrian government by the Alawites. 

Conversely, the French repressed any nationalistic tendencies among the majority Sunni Arab population. They brought French Foreign Legion troops to virtually “occupy” the governorates of Damascus and Greater Damascus. 
Syria gained its independence in July 1947. In the first elections, the National Party under Shukri Al-Quwatli emerged as a minority government. In the aftermath of the humiliating defeat of the Arab armies (including Syria’s) by Israel in 1948, Syrian chief of staff Husni Al-Za'im seized power in 1949. Within a year, he was overthrown, the plotters that overthrew him were themselves overthrown, and Adib Al-Shishakli took power. 

Although Al-Shishakli did restore order, he too was overthrown in 1954 by the emergent Ba’th Party, but the Party floundered in its first attempts and itself was supplanted by an ill-fated democratic movement. In January 1958, Syria joined with Egypt under Gamal ‘Abd Al-Nasir to form the United Arab Republic. The UAR dissolved in 1961, and in 1963 the Ba'th mounted a military coup in Damascus. By this time, after years of Alawites joining the military, members of the sect dominated the Syrian officer corps. The rebellion was short-lived, but in 1966, they tried again. This time they were successful. In 1970, Air Force General Hafiz Al-Asad seized power in what he called the Ba’th Party “Correctionist Movement.” Since then, Syria has been stable and firmly under the control of the 
Alawites, and the Ba’th Party. 

The Alawites and their beliefs… 

Alawite beliefs are relatively unknown. The group, more properly called the Nusaryis after the sect’s founder, Muhammad Al-Nusayr Al-Numayri, are members of an obscure post-Islamic religion with its roots in a ninth-century schism in the Shi’a tendency. However, the Alawites also incorporate facets of Phoenician paganism and Christianity. While the mere fact that the Alawites are considered to be Shi’a by many, their acceptance of pagan and Christian beliefs makes them extreme heretics in the eyes of Syria’s Sunni Muslim majority. 

The Alawites adopted the Arabic language and the Isma’iliyah sect of Islam in the Middle Ages. They broke with that sect and followed the teachings of Nusayri. The beliefs of the Alawite sect are secret and known only to a closed group of elders. It is known that they believe in a holy trinity consisting of the prophet Muhammad, his son-in-law ‘Ali (hence the name Alawite), and a companion of the prophet, Salman Al-Farsi. 

Many Sunni clerics do not consider the Alawites as Muslims. This was problematic for Hafiz Al-Asad. Until this year, Syria’s constitution required that the president of the republic be a Muslim. When the Syrian majlis changed the constitution to accommodate the election of Hafiz Al-Asad’s son Bashar, they removed that clause to preclude any religious challenges. 
The ascendancy of Bashar Al-Asad, or “Doctor Bashar” as he is more commonly known, perpetuates Alawite control of Syrian politics. With but a few exceptions, all key government and military posts are held by Alawites. 

* The Sykes-Picot Agreement of 1916 was concluded between Britain, France and Russia to divide the areas of the Ottoman Empire after the eventual defeat of the Turks. Russia’s interest was in the control of the Turksh Straits and guaranteed access to the Mediterranean Sea for its Black Sea ports. The Russians pulled out of the agreement in 1917 in the wake of the Bolshevik Revolution. 

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