The Saudi-owned Arabic daily Asharq Alawsat published an analysis by a Jordanian commentator last week that asked an important question: How has Bashar Assad continued to stay in power for nearly a year since the revolt against his regime began, while the Tunisian and Egyptian leaders were overthrown in just a few weeks? True, Moammar Gadhafi fell from power because of external intervention, but his regime collapsed in a relatively short period of time. According to the Asharq Alawsat article, the difference between these cases and the revolt against the Syrian regime is the Syrian Army, whose officer class has a large contingent of Alawis belonging to the same religious minority as the Assad family. It makes sense that these officers understand they are fighting not only for Assad’s political survival, but for the Alawis’ very future in Syria.
Who are the Alawis and why might they be at risk if Assad falls? The Alawis are a relatively small minority in Syria, making up at most 12 percent of the population. In comparison, Sunni Muslims are roughly 75% of the Syrian population. Their faith provides a special role for the fourth caliph of Islam, Ali, and because of their name Alawis – or followers of Ali – are often thought to constitute a legitimate branch of Islam. But aside from their use of the Koran, Alawis rely on their own holy book that is not recognized by other Muslims. Their religious faith is based on revering a trinity of three individuals as divine manifestations: Muhammad, Ali, and a third individual named, Salman al-Farisi, a Persian Christian who became a Muslim and knew Muhammad in Medina. Their actual religious rituals are kept secret. They do not build mosques. Yet, in the 1970s, Lebanese Shiite leader Imam Musa Sadr issued a proclamation that the Alawis were legitimate Muslims.
Unlike Imam Musa Sadr, Sunni religious clerics have viewed the Alawis over the centuries as heretics who are not part of the Islamic world. They were not even defined as “people of the book,” like Jews and Christians under the Ottoman Empire. They sought to isolate themselves in the Nusayriya mountains in western Syria, above the city of Latakia. When Ottoman rule over Syria was replaced with French rule, the Alawis had an opportunity to improve their standing. They backed the French mandatory authorities and as a result were recruited into the Syrian military in disproportional numbers along with other minorities, like the Druze and the Ismailis. After Syria’s independence, the Alawis were attracted to the military because it provided them with a vehicle for upward social mobility to escape poverty. The Alawi officers launched massive recruitment drives of fellow Alawis, whom they could trust. In the meantime, the Alawis were attracted to the secular orientation of the Ba’ath party in Syria, which first came to power in 1963, since in a secular state, religious sectarianism would be expected to matter far less. Between the Syrian Army and the Ba’ath party, the Alawis had a firm grip over Syria, despite their small numbers.
The rise of the Muslim Brotherhood across the Middle East during the recent insurrections undoubtedly must influence Alawi calculations to defeat the revolt against Assad at all costs. Over the last 30 years, Saudi Arabia has been promoting Wahhabi Islam in the Sunni Muslim world, by many times employing Muslim Brotherhood networks. The Salafi movements that have arisen as a result of these efforts take an even more hostile view of the Alawis than traditional Sunni Islam. The Saudis’ Wahhabi religious leaders have seen their role as one of cleansing Islam from any traces of polytheism, like saint worship, by giving them nearly divine status. Saudi Arabia’s grand mufti in the 1990s used to call the Alawi-dominated Ba’ath party, Hizb al-Shaitan, meaning “party of the devil.”
The Muslim Brotherhood is less visible in the Syrian opposition today compared with its role in insurrections in Tunisia, Libya, and Egypt. The Syrian Muslim Brotherhood is stronger outside of Syria than inside. This might be explained, in part, by their having been decimated in February 1982 by Hafez al-Assad, in the city of al-Hamma, where the Syrian Army massacred more than 20,000 civilians. Whatever the reason for the lower profile of the Muslim Brotherhood in Syria, Bashar Assad’s Alawi officers have to assume that should they be defeated, leading the Sunni majority to take over Syria, a bloodbath would ensue against the Alawis.
Despite the war of the Assads against the Muslim Brotherhood, other Islamists have managed to penetrate Syria over the last decade, who could magnify traditional antipathy to the Alawis. Because Syria served as a rear base for Sunni volunteers entering Iraq to fight the U.S., many extremist religious groups took root in the Syrian countryside. For example, back in 2007, the Syrian army already had to use helicopter gunships against al-Qaida affiliates that were attacking its units, like Jund al-Sham.
In recent months, Alawis were reminded of how Sunni clerics from Islamist circles view them. Sheik Yusuf Qaradawi, the spiritual leader of the Global Muslim Brotherhood, called the Assad government “a heretical regime.” Sheik Adnan al-Arour a Syrian Sunni religious leader appeared on a Saudi television network in June and addressed his words specifically to the Alawis who were opposing the Syrian uprising: “I swear by God we will mince them in grinders and feed their flesh to the dogs.”
Given the prevalence of these sentiments, the revolt in Syria has all the trappings of an existential war for the Alawi minority, which explains, but hardly justifies, the reprehensible policies their army has adopted. Moreover, the ultimate consequences of the Syrian civil war have not been lost on the Israel Defense Forces. They also could explain why Chief of Staff Lt.-Gen. Benny Gantz told the Knesset Foreign and Defense Committee this week that Israel must prepare for a wave of Alawi refugees who might seek refuge in Israel as the conflict continues in Syria.