The Alawi Capture of Power in Syria
For many centuries, the ‘Alawis were the weakest, poorest, most rural, most despised, and most backward people of Syria. In recent years, however, they have transformed themselves into the ruling elite of Damascus. Today, ‘Alawis dominate the government, hold key military positions, enjoy a disproportionate share of the educational resources, and are becoming wealthy. How did this dramatic change occur? When did the ‘Alawi manage to escape their traditional confines, and what was the mechanism of their rise?
Sunnis and others unsympathetic to the Asad regime answer this question by accusing the ‘Alawis of an elaborate and long-term conspiracy to take power in Syria. Annie Laurent suggests that “determined to get their revenge” after the failure of a rebel leader, Sulayman Murshid, “the ‘Alawis put into effect a strategy of setting up cells in the army and the Ba’th Party, and this won them power in Damascus.” Adherents of this view date the ‘Alawi ascent to 1959, the year that the Military Committee of the Ba’th Party was formed. Why, they ask, did leaders of this group keep its existence secret from the party authorities? This furtiveness suggests that the Military Committee from the beginning had a sectarian agenda. Matti Moosa argues that “it is almost certain that the officers were acting not as Baathists, but as Nusayris [‘Alawis], with the intent of using the Baath and the armed forces to rise to power in Syria. The formation of the military committee was the beginning of their plan for a future takeover of the government.”
This speculation is confirmed by the 1960 clandestine meeting of ‘Alawi religious leaders and officers (including Hafiz al-Asad) that reportedly took place in Qardaha, Asad’s home town. “The main goal of this meeting was to plan how to forward the Nusayri officers into the ranks of the Ba’th Party. They would then exploit it as a means to arrive at the rule in Syria.” Three years later, another ‘Alawi meeting in Homs is said to have followed up the earlier initiatives. Among other steps, it called for the placement of more ‘Alawis in the Ba’th Party and army. Further secret meetings of ‘Alawi leaders appear to have taken place later in the 1960s.
Analysts better disposed to Asad tend to discount not just these meetings and a premeditated drive for power, but the sectarian factor more generally. John F. Devlin, for example, denies that the disproportion of ‘Alawis in the army implies ‘Alawi dominance of Syria. He would resist seeing “every domestic disagreement in terms of a Sunni-‘Alawi clash.” For him, the fact that ‘Alawis are in power is basically accidental: “The Ba’th is a secular party, and it is heavy with minorities.” Alasdair Drysdale calls it “reductionist” to focus on ethnicity, arguing that this is one of many factors-geographic, class, age, education, occupation-that define the ruling elite. According to Yahya M. Sadowski, “sectarian loyalties play an insignificant role in the Ba’th, and even confessional bonds are only one among many avenues by which patronage is extended.”
The truth lies between conspiracy and accident. The ‘Alawis did not “plan for a future takeover” years in advance, nor was it mere chance that the Ba’th Party was “heavy with minorities.” ‘Alawi power resulted from an unplanned but sectarian transformation of public life in Syria. Michael van Dusen explains: “From 1946 to 1963, Syria witnessed the gradual erosion of the national and eventually subnational political power of the traditional elite, not so much through the emergence of new and especially dynamic elites but rather by internal conflict.” Translated from the jargon of political science, van Dusen is saying that internal divisions caused non-Ba’th civilian Sunnis to lose power. This provided an opening that Ba’thist officers of ‘Alawi origins exploited.
How these processes occurred is my subject here. First, however, some background on the ‘Alawis and their place in traditional Syrian society, followed by a sketch of their ascent.
THE ‘ALAWI HERESY TO 1920
People and Faith
“‘Alawi” is the term that ‘Alawis (also called ‘Alawites) usually apply to themselves ; but until 1920 they were known to the outside world as Nusayris or Ansaris. The change in name – imposed by the French upon their seizure of control in Syria – has significance. Whereas “Nusayri” emphasizes the group’s differences from Islam, “‘Alawi” suggests an adherent of ‘Ali (the son-in-law of the Prophet Muhammad) and accentuates the religion’s similarities to Shi’i Islam. Consequently, opponents of the Asad regime habitually use the former term, while its supporters use the latter.
‘Alawis today number approximately 1.3 million, of which about a million live in Syria. They constitute some 12 percent of the Syrian population. Three-quarters of the Syrian ‘Alawis live in Latakia, a province in the northwest of Syria, where they make up almost two-thirds of the population.
‘Alawi doctrines date from the ninth century A.D. and derive from the Twelver or Imami branch of Shi’i Islam (the sect that predominates in Iran). In about A.D. 859, one Ibn Nusayr declared himself the bab (“gateway to truth”), a key figure in Shi’i theology. On the basis of this authority, Ibn Nusayr proclaimed a host of new doctrines which, to make a long story short, make ‘Alawism into a separate religion. According to Ibn Kathir (d. 1372), where Muslims proclaim their faith with the phrase “There is no deity but God and Muhammad is His prophet,” ‘Alawis assert “There is no deity but ‘Ali, no veil but Muhammad, and no bab but Salman.” ‘Alawis reject Islam’s main tenets; by almost any standard they must be considered non-Muslims.
Some ‘Alawi doctrines appear to derive from Phoenician paganism, Mazdakism and Manicheanism. But by far the greatest affinity is with Christianity. ‘Alawi religious ceremonies involve bread and wine; indeed, wine drinking has a sacred role in ‘Alawism, for it represents God. The religion holds ‘Ali, the fourth caliph, to be the (Jesus-like) incarnation of divinity. It has a holy trinity, consisting of Muhammad, ‘Ali, and Salman al-Farisi, a freed slave of Muhammad’s. ‘Alawis celebrate many Christian festivals, including Christmas, New Year’s, Epiphany, Easter, Pentecost, and Palm Sunday. They honor many Christian saints: St. Catherine, St. Barbara, St. George, St. John the Baptist, St. John Chrysostom, and St. Mary Magdalene. The Arabic equivalents of such Christian personal names as Gabriel, John, Matthew, Catherine, and Helen, are in common use. And ‘Alawis tend to show more friendliness to Christians than to Muslims.
For these reasons, many observers – missionaries especially – have suspected the ‘Alawis of a secret Christian proclivity. Even T. E. Lawrence described them as “those disciples of a cult of fertility, sheer pagan, antiforeign, distrustful of Islam, drawn at moments to Christianity by common persecution.” The Jesuit scholar Henri Lammens unequivocally concluded from his research that “the Nusayris were Christians” and their practices combine Christian with Shi’i elements.
The specifics of the ‘Alawi faith are hidden not just from outsiders but even from the majority of the ‘Alawis themselves. In contrast to Islam, which is premised on direct relations between God and the individual believer, ‘Alawism permits only males born of two ‘Alawi parents to learn the religious doctrines. When deemed trustworthy, these are initiated into some of the rites at 16-20 years of age ; other mysteries are revealed later and only gradually. Religious secrecy is strictly maintained, on pain of death and being incarnated into a vile animal. Whether the latter threat is made good, mortals cannot judge; but the first certainly is. Thus, the most renowned apostate from ‘Alawism, Sulayman Efendi al-Adhani, was assassinated for divulging the sect’s mysteries. Even more impressive, at a time of sectarian tension in the mid-1960s, the suggestion that the ‘Alawi officers who ran the country publish the secret books of their religion caused Salah Jadid to respond with horror, saying that, were this done, the religious leaders “would crush us.”
Women do most of the hard labor ; they are prized “precisely because of the work they do that men will not do except grudgingly, finding it incompatible with their dignity.” Women are never inducted into the mysteries (“Would you have us teach them whom we use, our holy faith?”); indeed, their uncleanliness requires their exclusion from all religious rituals. Females are thought to retain the pagan cult of worshipping trees, meadows, and hills, and to have no souls. In all, females are treated abominably; but one consequence of this disrespect is that they need not be veiled and enjoy greater freedom of movement than Muslim women.
Unveiled women and several other ‘Alawi practices – in particular, that wine drinking is permitted, and that some ceremonies take place at night – long excited Muslim suspicions about ‘Alawi behavior. Then too, the obsessive secrecy inherent to the religion suggested to many Sunnis that the ‘Alawis had something to hide. But what? Over the centuries, the Sunnis’ imaginations supplied a highly evocative answer: sexual abandon and perversion.
Thus, the theologian al-Ash’ari (874-936) held that ‘Alawism encourages male sodomy and incestuous marriages and the founder of the Druze religious doctrine, Hamza ibn ‘Ali (d. 1021), wrote that ‘Alawis consider “the male member entering the female nature to be the emblem of their spiritual doctrine.” Accordingly, ‘Alawi men freely share their wives with co-religionists. These and other accusations survived undiminished through the centuries and even circulated among Europeans. A British traveler of the early 1840s, who was probably repeating local rumors, wrote that “the institution of marriage is unknown. When a young man grows up he buys his wife.” Even ‘Alawis believed in the “conjugal communism” of their religious leaders. Such calumnies remain a mainstay of the anti-‘Alawi propaganda circulating in Syria today.
Although the charges are false, ‘Alawis do reject Islam’s sacred law, the Shari’a, and therefore indulge in all manner of activities that Islamic doctrine strictly forbids. ‘Alawis ignore Islamic sanitary practices, dietary restrictions, sexual mores, and religious rituals. Likewise, they pay little attention to the fasting, almsgiving, and pilgrimage ceremonies of Islam ; indeed, they consider the pilgrimage to Mecca a form of idol worship. “Spiritual marriages” between young (male) initiates and their religious mentors probably lie at the root of the charges of homosexuality.
Most striking of all, ‘Alawis have no prayers or places of worship ; indeed they have no religious structures other than tomb shrines. Prayers take place in private houses, usually those of religious leaders. The fourteenth-century traveler Ibn Battuta described how they responded to a government decree ordering the construction of mosques: “Every village built a mosque far from the houses, which the villagers neither enter nor maintain. They often shelter cattle and asses in it. Often a stranger arrives and goes to the mosque to recite the [Islamic] call to prayer; then they yell to him, ‘Stop braying, your fodder is coming.'” Five centuries later another attempt was made to build mosques for the ‘Alawis, this time by the Ottoman authorities; despite official pressure, these were deserted, abandoned even by the religious functionaries, and once again used as barns.
Beyond specific divergences, non-conformity to the Shari’a means that ‘Alawi life follows its own rhythms, fundamentally unlike those of Muslims. ‘Alawis do not act like Sunni Muslims, with only slight differences; rather, they resemble Christians and Jews in pursuing a wholly distinct way of life. Matti Moosa notes that, “like the other extremist Shiites… the Nusayris had total disregard for Muslim religious duties.” Ignaz Goldziher put it succinctly: “This religion is Islam only in appearance.” It is important to make this point very clear: ‘Alawis have never been Muslims and are not now.
Yet, as Ibn Battuta’s account suggests, there is a permanent inconsistency in the ‘Alawi wish to be seen as Muslim. In his case, it was mosques built and then neglected; at other times it is some other half-hearted adoption of Islamic ways. ‘Alawis have a long history of claiming Islam when this suits their needs and ignoring it at other times. In short, like other sects of Shi’i origins, ‘Alawis practice taqiya (religious dissimulation). This might mean, for example, praying side-by-side with Sunni Muslims but silently cursing the Sunni caliphs. The apostate ‘Alawi, Sulayman Efendi al-Adhani, recounted having been sworn to dissimulate about his religion’s mysteries. An ‘Alawi saying explains the sentiment behind taqiya: “We are the body and other sects are but clothing. However a man dresses does not change him. So we remain always Nusayris, even though we externally adopt the practices of our neighbors. Whoever does not dissimulate is a fool, for no intelligent person goes naked in the market.” Another ‘Alawi phrase expresses this sentiment succinctly: “Dissimulation is our righteous war!” (al-kitman jihadna).
A British traveler observed in 1697 that the ‘Alawis are
of a strange and singular character. For ’tis their principle to adhere to no certain religion; but camelion-like, they put on the colour of religion, whatever it be, which is reflected upon them from the persons with whom they happen to converse…. No body was ever able to discover what shape or standard their consciences are really of. All that is certain concerning them is, that they make much and good wine, and are great drinkers.
A hundred and fifty years later, Benjamin Disraeli described the ‘Alawis in a conversation in the novel Tancred:
“Are they Moslemin?”
“It is very easy to say what they are not, and that is about the extent of any knowledge we have of them; they are not Moslemin, they are not Christian, they are not Druzes, and they are not Jews, and certainly they are not Guebres [Zoroastrians].”
Sulayman Efendi al-Adhani explained this flexibility from within:
They take on the outward practices of all sects. If they meet [Sunni] Muslims, they swear to them and say, “We are like you, we fast and we pray.” But they fast improperly. If they enter a mosque with Muslims, they do not recite any of the prayers; instead, they lower and raise their bodies like the Muslims, while cursing Abu Bakr, ‘Umar, ‘Uthman, and other [major figures of the Sunni tradition].
Taqiya permitted ‘Alawis to blow with the wind. When France ruled, they portrayed themselves as lost Christians. When Pan-Arabism was in favor, they became fervent Arabs. Over 10,000 ‘Alawis living in Damascus pretended to be Sunnis in the years before Asad came to power, only revealing their true identities when this became politically useful. During Asad’s presidency, concerted efforts were made to portray the ‘Alawis as Twelver Shi’is.
Relations with Sunnis
Mainstream Muslims, Sunni and Shi’i alike, traditionally disregarded ‘Alawi efforts at dissimulation; they viewed ‘Alawis as beyond the pale of Islam – as non-Muslims. Hamza ibn ‘Ali, who saw the religion’s appeal lying in its perversity, articulated this view: “The first thing that promotes the wicked Nusayri is the fact that all things normally prohibited to humans – murder, stealing, lying, calumny, fornication, pederasty – is permitted to he or she who accepts [‘Alawi doctrines].” Abu Hamid al-Ghazali (1058-1111), the Thomas Aquinas of Islam, wrote that the ‘Alawis “apostatize in matters of blood, money, marriage, and butchering, so it is a duty to kill them.”
Ahmad ibn Taymiya (1268-1328), the still highly influential Sunni writer of Syrian origins, wrote in a fatwa (religious decision) that “the Nusayris are more infidel than Jews or Christians, even more infidel than many polytheists. They have done greater harm to the community of Muhammad than have the warring infidels such as the Franks, the Turks, and others. To ignorant Muslims they pretend to be Shi’is, though in reality they do not believe in God or His prophet or His book.” Ibn Taymiya warned of the mischief their enmity can do: “Whenever possible, they spill the blood of Muslims. They are always the worst enemies of the Muslims.” In conclusion, he argued that “war and punishment in accordance with Islamic law against them are among the greatest of pious deeds and the most important obligations” for a Muslim. From the fourteenth century on, Sunnis used the term “Nusayri” to mean pariah.
‘Alawis had had no recognized position in the millet (sectarian) system of the Ottoman Empire. An Ottoman decree from 1571 notes that “ancient custom” required ‘Alawis to pay extra taxes to the authorities and justified this on the grounds that ‘Alawis “neither practice the fast [of Ramadan] nor the ritual prayers, nor do they observe any precepts of the Islamic religion.” Sunnis often saw food produced by ‘Alawis as unclean, and did not eat it. According to Jacques Weulerrse, “no ‘Alawi would dare enter a Muslim mosque. Formerly, not one of their religious leaders was able to go to town on the day of public prayer [Friday] without risk of being stoned. Any public demonstration of the community’s separate identity was taken as a challenge [by the Sunnis].”
Sunnis were not alone in reading ‘Alawis out of Islam-mainstream Shi’is did likewise. And ‘Alawis in turn saw both groups as deficient.
Sunni heresiographers excoriated Alawi beliefs and viewed the Alawis as disbelievers (kuffar) and idolaters (mushrikun). Twelver Shi’i heresiographers were only slightly less vituperative and regarded the Alawis as ghulat, “those who exceed” all bounds in their deification of Ali. The Alawis, in turn, held Twelver Shi’is to be muqassira, “those who fall short” of fathoming Ali’s divinity.
There was one exception to this consensus that ‘Alawis are not Muslims. Toward the end of the nineteenth century, as Christian missionaries began taking an interest in the ‘Alawis, Ottoman authorities tried to bring them into Islam. The French already had special ties to their fellow Catholics, the Maronites, and the authorities in Istanbul feared a similar bond being created with the ‘Alawis. So they built mosques in the ‘Alawi areas, built schools to teach Islam, pressured ‘Alawi religious leaders to adopt Sunni practices, and generally tried to make the ‘Alawis act like proper Muslims. This isolated case of Sunnis reaching out to ‘Alawism came to an end after a few decades and had very little impact on ‘Alawi behavior.
The Islamic religion reserves a special hostility for ‘Alawis. Like other post-Islamic sects (such as the Baha’is and Ahmadis), they are seen to contradict the key Islamic tenet that God’s last revelation went to Muhammad, and this Muslims find utterly unacceptable. Islamic law acknowledges the legitimacy of Judaism and Christianity because those religions preceded Islam; accordingly, Jews and Christians may maintain their faiths. But ‘Alawis are denied this privilege. Indeed, the precepts of Islam call for apostates like the ‘Alawis to be sold into slavery or executed. In the nineteenth century, a Sunni shaykh, Ibrahim al-Maghribi, issued a fatwa to the effect that Muslims may freely take ‘Alawi property and lives; and a British traveler records being told, “these Ansayrii, it is better to kill one than to pray a whole day.”
Frequently persecuted-some 20,000 were massacred in 1317 and half that number in 1516, the ‘Alawis insulated themselves geographically from the outside world by staying within their own rural regions. Jacques Weulersse explained their predicament:
Defeated and persecuted, the heterodox sects disappeared or, to survive, renounced proselytism…. The ‘Alawis silently entrenched themselves in their mountains…. Isolated in rough country, surrounded by a hostile population, henceforth without communications with the outside world, the ‘Alawis began to live out their solitary existence in secrecy and repression. Their doctrine, entirely formed, evolved no further.
E. Janot described the problem: “Bullied by the Turks, victim of a determined ostracism, fleeced by his Muslim landlord, the ‘Alawi hardly dared leave his mountain region, where isolation and poverty itself protected him.” In the late 1920s, less than half of one percent lived in towns: just 771 ‘Alawis out of a population of 176,285. In 1945, just 56 ‘Alawis were recorded living in Damascus (though many others may have been hiding their identity). For good reason, “the name Nusayri became synonymous with peasant.” The few ‘Alawis who did live away from their mountain routinely practiced taqiya. Even today, ‘Alawis dominate the rural areas of Latakia but make up only 11 percent of the residents in that region’s capital city.
Centuries of hostility took their toll on the ‘Alawi psyche. In addition to praying for the damnation of their Sunni enemies, ‘Alawis attacked outsiders. They acquired a reputation as fierce and unruly mountain people who resisted paying the taxes they owed the authorities and frequently plundered Sunni villagers on the plains. John Lewis Burckhardt observed in 1812 that those villagers “hold the Anzeyrys [Ansaris] in contempt for their religion, and fear them, because they often descend from the mountains in the night, cross the Aaszy [‘Asi, or Orontes River], and steal, or carry off by force, the cattle of the valley.”
Matters seemed to be even worse in 1860 when Samuel Lyde added that “nothing is thought of thus killing a Mussulman as a natural enemy, or a Christian as an unclean thing.” Writing about the same time, a British travel-guide writer warned of the cool reception to be expected from the ‘Alawis: “They are a wild and somewhat savage race, given to plunder, and even bloodshed, when their passions are excited or suspicion roused.” With wonderful understatement, the guide author concluded, “their country must therefore be traversed with caution.”
‘Alawis retreated to the mountains because of persecution; they then remained there, shielded from the world at large, lacking political power beyond their region’s confines, isolated from the larger polities around them, almost outside the bounds of historical change. The survival well into the twentieth century of archaic practices made the ‘Alawi region (in Jacques Weulersse’s turn of phrase) a “fossile country.” Little changed in that country because “it is not the Mountain that is humanized; man, rather, is made savage.” ‘Alawis suffered as a result: “the refuge they had conquered became a prison; though masters of the Mountain they could not leave.”
Governments had difficulty subduing the ‘Alawi territory; indeed, it only came under Ottoman control in the late 1850s. Pacification of the region then led to Sunni economic inroads and the formation of an ‘Alawi underclass. As badly educated peasants lacking in political organization or military strength, ‘Alawis typically worked farms belonging to Sunni Arab landlords, receiving but a fifth of the produce. Ottoman agents would often exact double or triple the taxes due in the Latakia region.
‘Alawis were so badly off after World War I, many of the youth left their homeland to work elsewhere. Sons left to find menial labor or to join the armed forces. Daughters went off at the age of seven or eight years to work as domestics for urban Sunni Arabs. Because many of them also ended up as mistresses (one estimate holds that a quarter of all ‘Alawi children in the 1930s and 1940s had Sunni fathers), both Muslims and ‘Alawis saw this practice as deeply shameful. In some cases, daughters were even sold. It is no exaggeration to say, as does one indigenous historian, that ‘Alawis “were among the poorest of the East.” The Reverend Samuel Lyde went even further, writing in 1860 that “the state of [‘Alawi] society is a perfect hell upon earth.”
The political effects of poverty were exacerbated by the nature of these divisions, which followed geographic and communal lines. Sunnis who lived in the towns enjoyed a much greater wealth and dominated the ‘Alawi peasants. Jacques Weulersse described in 1934 how each community “lives apart with its own customs and its own laws. Not only are they different but they are hostile… the idea of mixed marriages appears to be inconceivable.” In 1946, he added that “the antagonism between urban and rural people goes so deep that one can almost speak of two different populations co-existing within one political framework.” A generation later, Nikolaos van Dam observed, “Urban-rural contrasts were sometimes so great that the cities seemed like settlements of aliens who sponged on the poverty-stricken rural population…. In the course of time, the Alawi community developed a strong distrust of the Sunnis who had so often been their oppressors.” This ‘Alawi resentment of Sunnis has proven enormously consequential in recent years.
THE RISE OF THE ‘ALAWIS, 1920-1970
The ‘Alawis’ ascent took place over the course of half a century. In 1920 they were still the lowly minority just described; by 1970, they firmly ruled Syria. This stunning transformation took place in three stages: the French mandate (1920-46), the period of Sunni dominance (1946-63), and the era of ‘Alawi consolidation (1963-70).
The French Mandate, 1920-1946
According to Yusuf al-Hakim, a prominent Syrian politician, the ‘Alawis adopted a pro-French attitude even before the French conquest of Damascus in July 1920. “The ‘Alawis saw themselves in a state of grace after hell; accordingly, they were dedicated to the French mandate and did not send a delegation to the [General] Syrian Congress.” So intensely did they oppose Prince Faysal, the Sunni Arab ruler of Syria in 1918-20 whom they suspected of wanting to dominate them, they launched a rebellion against his rule in 1919, using French arms. According to one well-informed observer, the ‘Alawis cursed Islam and prayed “for the destruction of the Ottoman Empire.” General Gouraud received a telegram in late 1919 from 73 ‘Alawi chiefs representing different tribes, who asked for “the establishment of an independent Nusayri union under our absolute protection.”
Two years later the ‘Alawis rebelled against French rule under the leadership of Salih al-‘Ali, an event that the Asad government proudly points to as an anti-imperialist credential. But a close look, suggests that the revolt had more to do with the fact that the Isma’ilis had sided with France and, given the state of Isma’ili-‘Alawi relations, this led to hostilities between the ‘Alawis and French. As soon as the French authorities granted autonomy to the ‘Alawis, they won ‘Alawi support.
The French mandatory power issued Syrian stamps with an overlay marked “Lattaquie.”
Indeed, the establishment of French rule after World War I benefited the ‘Alawis more than any other community. French efforts to cooperate with the minorities meant the ‘Alawis gained political autonomy and escaped Sunni control; the state of Latakia was set up on 1 July 1922. They also gained legal autonomy; a 1922 decision to end Sunni control of court cases involving ‘Alawis transferred these cases to ‘Alawi jurists. The ‘Alawi state enjoyed low taxation and a sizeable French subsidy. Not surprisingly, ‘Alawis accepted all these changes with enthusiasm. As an anti-‘Alawi historian later put it, “At the time when resistance movements were mounted against the French mandate, when Damascus, Aleppo, and the Hawran witnessed continuous rebellions on behalf of Syrian unity and independence, the Nusayris were blessing the division of the country into tiny statelets.”
In return, ‘Alawis helped maintain French rule. They turned out in large numbers when most Syrians boycotted the French-sponsored elections of January 1926. They provided a disproportionate number of soldiers to the government, forming about half the eight infantry battalions making up the Troupes Spéciales du Levant, serving as police, and supplying intelligence. As late as May 1945, the vast majority of Troupes Spéciales remained loyal to their French commanders. ‘Alawis broke up Sunni demonstrations, shut down strikes, and quelled rebellions. ‘Alawis publicly favored the continuation of French rule, fearing that France’s departure would lead to a reassertion of Sunni control over them. Henri de Jouvenel, the French High Commissioner for Syria (1925-27), quoted a leading ‘Alawi politician telling him: “We have succeeded in making more progress in three or four years than we had in three or four centuries. Leave us therefore in our present situation.”
Pro-French sentiment was expressed especially clearly in 1936, when the temporary incorporation of the ‘Alawi state into Syria provoked wide protests. A March 1936 petition referred to union with the Sunnis as “slavery.” On 11 June 1936, an ‘Alawi leader wrote a letter to Prime Minister Léon Blum of France, reminding him of “the profoundness of the abyss that separates us from the [Sunni] Syrians,” and asking him to “imagine the disastrous catastrophe that would follow” incorporation.
Days later, six ‘Alawi notables (including Sulayman Asad, said to be Hafiz al-Asad’s grandfather) sent another letter to Blum in which they made several points: ‘Alawis differ from Sunnis religiously and historically; ‘Alawis refuse to be joined to Syria, for it is a Sunni state and Sunnis consider them unbelievers (kafirs); ending the mandate would expose the ‘Alawis to mortal danger; “the spirit of religious feudalism” makes the country unfit for self-rule; therefore, France should secure the ‘Alawis freedom and independence by staying in Syria.
An ‘Alawi note to the French government in July 1936 asked: “Are the French today ignorant that the Crusades would have succeeded if their fortresses had been in northeast Syria, in the Land of the Nusayris?…. We are the people most faithful to France.” Even more strongly worded was a petition of September 1936, signed by 450,000 ‘Alawis, Christians, and Druzes, which read:
The ‘Alawis believe that they are humans, not beasts ready for slaughter. No power in the world can force them to accept the yoke of their traditional and hereditary enemies to be slaves forever…. The ‘Alawis would profoundly regret the loss of their friendship and loyal attachment to noble France, which has until now been so loved, admired, and adored by them.
Although Latakia lost its autonomous status in December 1936, the province continued to benefit from a “special administrative and financial regime.”
‘Alawi resistance to Sunni rule took a new turn in 1939 with the launching of an armed rebellion led by Sulayman al-Murshid, the “half-sinister, half-ludicrous, figure of the obese, illiterate, miracle-working ‘god.'” Murshid, a bandit who proclaimed himself divine, challenged Sunni rule with French weapons and some 5,000 ‘Alawi followers. In the words of a 1944 British consular report: “The local Alaouite leaders, whose conception of the new order in Syria is a Nationalist Government who will treat them after the fashion of the French, upholding their authority and condoning their excesses, are doing their best to combine, and the movement appears to be supported by the French.” Murshid succeeded in keeping Damascus’ authority out of the ‘Alawi territories.
Right up to independence, ‘Alawi leaders continued to submit petitions to the French in favor of continued French patronage. For example, a manifesto signed by twelve leaders in March 1945 called for all ‘Alawi soldiers to remain under French command and French arbitration of disputes between the ‘Alawi government and Damascus.
Sunni Dominance, 1946-1963
It was the Sunnis, and especially the urban Sunni elite, who inherited the government when the French mandate ended in 1946. Even after independence, ‘Alawis continued to resist submission to the central government. Sulayman al-Murshid led a second revolt in 1946, ending in his execution. A third unsuccessful uprising, led by Murshid’s son took place in 1952. The failure of these efforts led ‘Alawis to look into the possibility of attaching Latakia to Lebanon or Transjordan – anything to avoid absorption into Syria. These acts of resistance further tarnished the ‘Alawis’ already poor reputation among Sunnis.
When they came to power, the Sunni rulers in Damascus spared no effort to integrate Latakia into Syria (in part because this region offered the only access to the sea). Overcoming armed resistance, they abolished the ‘Alawi state, ‘Alawi military units, ‘Alawi seats in parliament, and courts applying ‘Alawi laws of personal status. These measures had some success; ‘Alawis became reconciled to Syrian citizenship after the crushing of a Druze revolt in 1954 and henceforth gave up the dream of a separate state. This change of outlook, which seemed to be a matter of relatively minor importance at the time, in fact ushered in a new era of Syrian political life: the political ascent of the ‘Alawis.
Once they recognized that their future lay within Syria, the ‘Alawis began a rapid rise to power. Two key institutions, the armed forces and the Ba’th Party, had special importance in their transformation.
Even though the special circumstances which had brought them into the military lapsed with the French departure, ‘Alawis and other minorities continued after independence to be over-represented in the army. Old soldiers remained in service and new ones kept coming in. Given the Sunni attitude toward ‘Alawis, the persistence of large numbers of ‘Alawis in the armed forces is surprising. This anomaly resulted from several factors. First, the military retained its reputation as a place for the minorities. Patrick Seale observed that Sunni landed families, “being predominantly of nationalist sentiment, despised the army as a profession: to join it between the wars was to serve the French. Homs [Military Academy] to them was a place for the lazy, the rebellious, the academically backward, or the socially undistinguished.” For the non-Sunnis, however, Homs was a place of opportunity for the ambitious and talented.
Second, the Sunni rulers virtually ignored the army as a tool of state; fearing its power in domestic politics, they begrudged it funds, kept it small, and rendered military careers unattractive. Third, the dire economic predicament of the ‘Alawis and other rural peoples meant that they could not pay the fee to exempt their children from military service. More positively, those children saw military service as a means to make a decent living.
Accordingly, although the proportion of ‘Alawis entering the Homs Military Academy declined after 1946, ‘Alawis remained over-represented in the officer corps. A report from 1949 stated that “persons originating from the minorities” commanded “all units of any importance” in the Syrian military. (This did not mean just ‘Alawis; for example, the bodyguard of President Husni az-Za’im in 1949 was entirely Circassian.) ‘Alawis formed a plurality among the soldiers and some two-thirds of the non-commissioned officers.
Sunni leaders apparently believed that reserving the top positions for themselves would suffice to control the military forces. Accordingly, minorities filled the lower ranks and for some years found it difficult to rise above the company level. Ironically, this discrimination actually served them well; as senior officers engaged in innumerable military coups d’état between 1949 and 1963, each change of government was accompanied by ruinous power struggles among the Sunnis, leading to resignations and the depletion of Sunni ranks. Wags claimed, with some justice, that there were more officers outside the Syrian army than inside it. Standing apart from these conflicts, the non-Sunnis, and ‘Alawis especially, benefited from the repeated purges. As Sunni officers eliminated each other, ‘Alawis inherited their positions. With time, ‘Alawis became increasingly senior; and, as one ‘Alawi rose through the ranks, he brought his kinsmen along.
Purges and counter-purges during the 1946-63 period bred a deep mistrust between the officers. Never knowing who might be plotting against whom, superior officers frequently bypassed the normal hierarchy of command in favor of kinship bonds. As fear of betrayal came to dominate relations between military men, having reliable ethnic ties gave minority officers great advantage. In circumstances of almost universal suspicion, those officers within reliable networks could act far more effectively than those without. Sunnis entered the military as individuals, while ‘Alawis entered as members of a sect; the latter, therefore, prospered. ‘Alawi ethnic solidarity offered a far more enduring basis of cooperation than the shifting alliances formed by Sunni officers.
In addition to the military, ‘Alawis also acquired power through the Ba’th Party. From its earliest years, the Ba’th held special attraction for Syrians of rural and minority backgrounds, including the ‘Alawis, who joined in disproportionately large numbers (especially at the Ba’th Party’s Latakia branch ). Rural migrants who went to Damascus for educational purposes constituted a majority of the membership in the Ba’th Party. They tended to be students of lower middle-class origins, the sons of ex-peasants newly arrived in the towns. In Aleppo, for example, the Ba’th claimed as members as many as three-quarters of the high school students in some schools. One of the founders of the party was an ‘Alawi, Zaki al-Arsuzi, and he brought along many of his (rural) coreligionists to the Ba’th.
In particular, two doctrines appealed to the ‘Alawis: socialism and secularism. Socialism offered economic opportunities to the country’s poorest community. (The Ba’th’s socialism was unclear, however, until the 1960s; only when the minorities took over did this feature became prominent ). Secularism – the withdrawal of religion from public life – offered the promise of less prejudice to a despised minority. What could be more attractive to members of a downtrodden religious community than a combination of these two ideologies? Indeed, these aspects drew ‘Alawis (and other poor rural minorities) to the Ba’th more than its Pan-Arab nationalism.
The only rival to the Ba’th was the SSNP, which offered roughly the same attractions. The two competed rather evenly for a decade, until the Ba’th eliminated the SSNP through the Maliki affair in 1955. From then on, especially in Syria, ‘Alawis were associated predominantly with the Ba’th.
‘Alawi Consolidation, 1963-1970
Three changes in regime marked the ‘Alawi consolidation of power: the Ba’th coup d’état of March 1963, the ‘Alawi coup of February 1966, and the Asad coup of November 1970.
‘Alawis had a major role in the coup of 8 March 1963 and took many of the key government positions in the Ba’th regime that followed. Between 1963 and 1966, sectarian battles pitting minorities against Sunnis took place within the military and the Ba’th Party.
First the military: to resist President Amin al-Hafiz, a Sunni, and to consolidate their new position, ‘Alawi leaders flooded the military with cosectarians. In this way, minority officers came to dominate the Syrian military establishment. When seven hundred vacancies opened in the army soon after the March 1963 coup, ‘Alawis filled half the positions. So restricted were Sunnis, some graduating cadets were denied their commissions to the officer corps. While ‘Alawis, Druze, and Isma’ilis held politically sensitive positions in the Damascus region, Sunnis were sent to regions distant from the capital. Although communal affiliation did not drive every alliance, it provided the basis for most enduring relationships. ‘Alawi leaders such as Muhammad ‘Umran built key units of members from their own religious community. Sunni officers often became figureheads, holding high positions but disposing of little power. In retaliation, Hafiz came to see nearly every ‘Alawi as an enemy and pursued blatant sectarian policies, for example, excluding ‘Alawis from some positions solely on the basis of communal affiliation.
Even ‘Alawi officers who resisted confessionalism eventually succumbed to it. Political events solidified ties between ‘Alawis, reducing the tribal, social, and sectarian differences that historically had split them. Itamar Rabinovich, a foremost student of this period, explains how confessionalism acquired a dynamic of its own:
J’did [Salah Jadid, ruler of Syria 1966-70] was among those who (for political reasons) denounced ‘Umran for promoting “sectarianism” (ta’ifiyya) but ironically he inherited the support of many ‘Alawi officers who had been advanced by ‘Umran…. The ‘Alawi officers promoted by ‘Umran realized that their overrepresentation in the upper echelons of the army was resented by the majority, and they seem to have rallied around J’did, by then the most prominent ‘Alawi officer in the Syrian army and the person deemed most likely to preserve their high but precarious position. It was also quite natural for [Amin al-] Hafiz… to try to gather Sunni officers around himself by accusing J’did of engaging in “sectarian” politics…. The solidarity of [Jadid’s] ‘Alawi supporters seems to have been further cemented by the feeling that the issue had assumed a confessional character and that their collective and personal positions were at stake.
The same factors caused Druze officers – also overrepresented in high military offices – to throw in their lot with the ‘Alawis in 1965.
A similar dynamic occurred in the Ba’th Party. Just as ‘Alawis filled more than half of seven hundred military vacancies, so they moved in numbers into the party. To make their recruitment possible, ideological requirements for admission were relaxed for two years after March 1963. Many party officials brought in members of their family, tribe, village, or sect. As an internal Ba’th Party document of 1966 explained the problem, “friendship, family relationship and sometimes mere personal acquaintance were the basis” of admission to the party, leading “to the infiltration of elements alien to the party’s logic and points of departure.” While ‘Alawis brought in other ‘Alawis, many Sunnis were purged. Membership quintupled in the year after its accession to power, transforming the party from an ideological to a sectarian affiliation. The Ba’th became an entirely different institution during its first two and half years in power (March 1963 to late 1965 ).
These changes culminated in Hafiz’ decision in February 1966 to purge 30 officers of minority background from the army. Hearing of his plan, a group of mainly ‘Alawi Ba’thist officers pre-empted Hafiz and took power on 23 February in Syria’s bloodiest-ever change of government. Once in office, they purged rival officers belonging to other religious groups – first the Sunnis and Druze, then the Isma’ilis – further exacerbating communal tensions. ‘Alawi officers received the most important postings, and acquired unprecedented power. The Regional Command of the Ba’th Party, a key decisionmaking center, included no representatives at all during the 1966-70 period from the Sunni urban areas of Damascus, Aleppo, and Hama. Two-thirds of its members, however, were recruited from the rural and minority populations in Latakia, the Hawran, and Dayr az-Zur. The skewing was even more apparent among military officers on the Regional Command; during 1966-70, 63 percent came from Latakia alone.
The ‘Alawi hold on power provoked bitter complaints from other communities. A Druze military leader, Salim Hatum, told the press after he fled Syria that ‘Alawis in the army outnumbered the other religious communities by a ratio of 5-to-1. He noted that “the situation in Syria was being threatened by a civil war as a result of the growth of the sectarian and tribal spirit.” He also observed that “whenever a Syrian military man is questioned about his free officers, his answer will be that they have been dismissed and driven away, and that only ‘Alawi officers have remained.” Playing on the Ba’th slogan, “One Arab nation with an eternal mission,” Hatum mocked the rulers in Damascus, saying that they believe in “One ‘Alawi state with an eternal mission.”
‘Alawi domination did not assure stability. Two ‘Alawi leaders, Salah Jadid and Hafiz al-Asad, fought each other for supremacy in Syria through the late 1960s, a rivalry that ended only when Asad prevailed in November 1970. In addition to differences in outlook – Jadid was more the ideologue and Asad more the pragmatist – they represented diverse ‘Alawi sects. The September 1970 war between the PLO and the Jordanian government was the decisive event in Asad’s rise to power. Jadid sent Syrian ground forces to help the Palestinians but Asad refused to send air cover. The defeat of Syrian armor precipitated Asad’s bloodless coup d’état two months later. This, Syria’s tenth military coup d’état in seventeen years, was to be the last for a long time to come. It also virtually ended intra-‘Alawi fighting.
The man who won the long contest for control of Syria, Hafiz ibn ‘Ali ibn Sulayman al-Asad, was born on 6 October 1930 in Qardaha, a village not far from the Turkish border and the seat of the ‘Alawi religious leader. Hafiz was the second of five children (Bayat, Hafiz, Jamil, Rif’at, Bahija); in addition, his father had an older son by another wife. The family belongs to the Numaylatiya branch of the Matawira tribe. (This means Asad’s ancestors came from Iraq in the 1120s.)
Accounts differ whether his father was a poor peasant, a fairly well off farmer, or a notable. Chances are, the family was well off, for while Qardaha consisted mostly of dried mud houses, the Asads lived in a stone house. In later years, however, Asad cultivated a story of poverty, recounting to visitors, for example, about having to drop out of school until his father found the 16 Syrian pounds to pay for his tuition.
True or not, Hafiz was a superior student and, on the strength of his academic record, he moved to the nearby town of Latakia in 1940, where he attended a leading high school, the Collège de Lattaquié. Then, sometime after 1944, it appears that he changed his name from Wahsh, meaning “wild beast” or “monster” to Asad, meaning “lion.” In 1948, when only 17 years old, he went to Damascus and volunteered in the Syrian army to help destroy the nascent state of Israel, only to be rejected as under age. Nonetheless, at least according to his own testimony, Asad did fight. He enrolled at the Homs Military Academy in 1950, graduated in 1952, and began attending the Aleppo Air School in 1952. He became a combat pilot in 1954 and distinguished himself in this capacity. (He shot down a British plane during the Suez operation.) Asad studied in Egypt and then, for eleven months in 1958, in the Soviet Union, where he learned how to fly MiG 15s and 17s and picked up a bit of the Russian language. During the UAR years, he commanded a night-fighter squadron near Cairo.
Asad was active in politics as early as 1945, serving first as president of the Students’ Committee at the Collège de Lattaquié, then as president of the National Union of Students. While still a student, Asad was jailed by the French authorities for political activities. He joined the Ba’th Party soon after its creation in 1947 (making him one of the party’s earliest members). Even as he rose through the military ranks, he remained active in the Ba’th Party. In 1959, during his exile in Egypt, Asad helped found the Military Committee and organize its activities. By that time, he had also begun the decade-long process of consolidating his position within the Syrian armed forces.
Asad was a powerful figure in 1961, so the conservative leaders who took power in Damascus late that year (after the dissolution of the UAR) forced him to resign his commission as captain and take up a minor position in the Ministry of Transportation. But Asad continued to participate in Military Committee activities, joining in a failed putsch on 29 March 1962, after which he fled to Tripoli, Lebanon, where he was apprehended by the authorities and jailed for nine days, then extradited back to Syria. This misadventure notwithstanding, he played an important role in the 1963 coup and was rewarded with a recall to the army and a meteoric rise through the ranks, going from major in early 1963 to major-general in late 1964 and field marshal in 1968. (He resigned from the military in 1970 or 1971.) Asad took command of the air force in 1963 and made this his power base to take control of the entire armed forces during the subsequent years of turmoil.
Asad’s support for the rebellion in February 1966 proved decisive in the coup that brought the ‘Alawis to power; his reward was to be appointed defense minister just twenty minutes after the new regime had been proclaimed. This new position gave Asad an opportunity to extend his authority beyond the air force, especially to the combat forces of the army. Then Asad’s coup of November 1970 was the culmination of the ‘Alawi rise to power in Syria.
The manner of the ‘Alawi ascent reveals much about Syria’s political culture, pointing to complex connections between the army, the political parties, and the ethnic community. The Ba’th Party, the army, and the ‘Alawis rose in tandem; but which of these three had the most importance? Were the new rulers Ba’thists who just happened to be ‘Alawi soldiers, or were they soldiers who happened to be ‘Alawi Ba’thists? Actually, a third formulation is most accurate: these were ‘Alawis who happened to be Ba’thists and soldiers.
True, the party and the military were critical, but in the end it was the transfer of authority from Sunnis to ‘Alawis that counted most. Without deprecating the critical roles of Party and army, the ‘Alawi affiliation ultimately defined the rulers of Syria. Party and career mattered, but, as is so often the case in Syria, ethnic and religious affiliation ultimately define identity. To see the Asad regime primarily in terms of its Ba’thist or military nature is to ignore the key to Syrian politics. Confessional affiliation remains vitally important; as through the centuries, a person’s sect matters more than any other attribute.
The Sunni response to the new rulers, which has taken a predominantly communal form, bears out this view. The widespread opposition of Sunnis – who make up about 69 percent of the Syrian population – to an ‘Alawi ruler has inspired the Muslim Brethren organization to challenge the government in violent, even terroristic ways. Although unsuccessful until now, the Brethren have on several occasions come near to toppling the regime.
It appears inevitable that the ‘Alawis – still a small and despised minority, for all their present power – will eventually lose their control over Syria. When this happens, it is likely that conflicts along communal lines will bring them down, with the critical battle taking place between the ‘Alawi rulers and the Sunni majority. In this sense, the ‘Alawis’ fall – be it through assassinations of top figures, a palace coup, or a regional revolt – is likely to resemble their rise.
June 15, 2000 update: Pace the last paragraph above: The fall of the ‘Alawis is indeed inevitable, but the succession of his Bashshar al-Asad on the death of hs father Hafiz al-Asad on June 10, ‘Alawi rule in Syria continues.
March 1, 2010 update: “Today, the Alawis of Syria are the only ruling religious minority in the Muslim world.” With that striking statement, Yvette Talhamy, formerly of Haifa University, opens her important article, “The Fatwas and the Nusayri/Alawis of Syria” in Middle Eastern Studies.. She reviews fatwas hostile to the ‘Alawis from before the twentieth century and three friendly ones from the twentieth century, arguing that “these fatwas shaped the history of the Nusayris.” It’s one of the few pieces of research to build on the subject of the article above.
June 21, 2012 update: As sectarian strife picks up, expect to see more analyses of this topic. Here’s one: Ayse Tekdal Fildis, “Roots of Alawite-Sunni Rivalry in Syria,” Middle East Policy, Summer 2012, pp. 148–156.
- A War Against Alawis (mideastpress.org)
- Syrian Civil War (mollnewsworld.wordpress.com)
- Mohamad al Alawi Spirit of Syria Union Free… (yallasouriya.wordpress.com)
- The Uprising And New Syria: Islamists Rise In Raqqa While Damascene Christians Dodge Fire – OpEd (albanytribune.com)
- 50 Years of Syrian Misery (algemeiner.com)