Primer on the Alawites in Syria
December 1, 2016
The Syrian conflict has captured the attention of the world. Currently, at least 470,000 Syrians have been killed, and 13.5 million are in need of humanitarian assistance. Additionally, more than 11 million people (almost half of Syria’s pre-war population of 23 million) either have been killed or have fled their homes. Approximately 6.5 million Syrians are displaced within Syria, and 4.8 million are refugees. What began as peaceful protests in March 2011 and was largely influenced by the “Arab Spring,” the conflict in Syria has now evolved into a civil, sectarian, and proxy war. Sectarian strife, which existed before the official beginning of the Syrian conflict, was exacerbated as powerful foreign nations joined the conflict, backing actors on opposing sides of the civil war. Russia, Iran, Hezbollah, and Iraqi Shia militants joined the side of the Assad regime, while Saudi Arabia joined with Jordan, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates to support the majority Sunni rebels. Sunni Islamist groups such as ISIS and al-Qaeda’s former affiliate, Jabhat al-Nusra, have increasingly become involved in the conflict further cultivating sectarian tensions and complicating any peaceful resolution to the Syrian conflict. The United States’ agenda in Syria is twofold. Not only does it lead a coalition against ISIS in Syria, but it also desires an end to the crisis—whether an end includes an Assad regime in power remains uncertain. Turkey, attempting to eradicate ISIS and to deter the Kurds, has become more involved in Syria, clouding the once distinct alliances with its attempts to cooperate with both Russia and the United States.
The scope of this paper is not to resolve or fully understand all perspectives and nuances of the Syrian conflict. Rather, it intends to shed light on one of the key religious groups in the Syrian conflict: the Alawites, a minority group that has been ruling over a majority Sunni population for decades. In modern times, the Alawites have resided mainly in Syria although minority groups exist in both Turkey and Lebanon. In total, about three million Alawites live in these three countries. Before the Syrian conflict started, most Syrian Alawites lived in the north-west (in the Latakia province) although some inhabited the cities of Damascus, Aleppo, and Homs. Before the conflict, Alawites comprised approximately 7-13% of the Syrian pre-war population, compared to the about 70% Sunni Muslims that lived in Syria. Alawites are formally characterized as and assumed to be Shias. This paper will frame the Alawites’ role in the Syrian conflict mainly through a sectarian lens.
Shia and Alawi Islam: Same or Entirely Different Beliefs?
While Iran and other Shia groups have bolstered the Assad regime, the assumption that the basis for such support is on religious commonalities may be misguided. Rather, Iran may support Assad for more geopolitical and pragmatic reasons masking its intentions by creating the appearance that its alliance with Syria is based on the two regimes’ shared religious ideology, which fuels the assumption that Iran’s alliance with Syria is purely sectarian.
Dating back to the 9th and 10th centuries in Iraq, the Alawite religion was initially called Nusayri, after the name of Muhammad ibn Nusayr, “who, after the death of the 11th Imam Hasan al-Askari, claimed he was the imam’s intimate messenger.” The Alawites moved to Syria (specifically the area of modern day Aleppo) under the dynasty of Sayf al-Dawla al-Hamadani (890-1004), who spread the religious Alawite beliefs and was influenced by Hussein bin Hamdan al-Khusaibi (874-961), an Alawite scholar who helped to found the Alawite practices. The Alawites concentrated themselves in the Latakia mountains following a large massacre in Aleppo, which was spurred by three religious fatwas in the 1300s issued by Taqi ad-Din Ahmad ibn Taymiyyah (1263-1328), a Hanbali scholar who declared that Shias, Alawites, Druze, and Ismailis were infidels. As one scholar summarized the Alawite situation,
The Alawites were persecuted by the Umayyad, Abbasid, Mamluk and Ottoman states, which carried out massacres against the Alawites after occupying the Levant in 1516 . . . The Mamluk and Ottoman authorities used these fatwas as religious justifications to kill Alawites. This persecution deeply affected Alawite society, which resorted to taqiyya in religious practice and to nationalist, leftist and secular ideologies in political and partisan work.
The Alawite practice of taqiyya, the concept of religious camouflage, allowed the group to avoid religious persecution and complete extermination by the ruling Sunnis or Christians at any particular time. In 1920, France changed the name of the religious group from Nusayri to Alawite, pragmatically associating the religious group closer to the Shia subsect (given both groups believe in the legitimacy of Ali and his succession after Muhammad’s death). This change made the Alawites and Sunnis seem more equal. By creating the impression of equality, France was able to foster sectarian divisions between the Sunnis and Alawites as well as grant the Alawites an independent state to counter nationalist and independence movements in Syria. With the intention of promoting pan-Arabism and countering colonial “divide and rule” strategies, the Sunni Haj Amin al-Husayni declared that Alawites were Muslim in 1936. In 1973, a religious fatwa declared by Lebanese Shia cleric Musa Sadr first officially recognized the Alawites as Shia Muslims.
From a religious perspective, Shias insist that Muhammad’s rightful successor after his death in 632 should have been from the Prophet’s bloodline. For this reason, Shias feel that Muhammad’s heir should have been his son-in-law, Ali bin Abu Talib. Alawites adhere to this general Shia principle and share other commonalities with Twelver Shias, the most common Shia subsect in the Arab world. Both believe in “the oneness of God, justice of God, prophecy of Muhammad, divine leadership of the 12 imams [descendants of Ali] and the day of judgment.”
While the practices of the Alawites are not completely known and the sect remains secretive due to their fears of religious persecution, certain beliefs are known by scholars and writers. For the most part, it is thought that the Alawites believe that Ali was a divine individual, part of what resembles the Christian Holy Trinity, “comprising [Mohammad], Ali, and Salman the Persian [Salman al-Farisi], a Companion of the Prophet.” This trinity concept corresponds to the belief that Ali is God in flesh, God created Muhammad from his spirit, and Muhammad created Salman al-Farisi. The Alawites believe that before Ali’s caliphate in the 7th century, God manifested himself through six other people. Similarly, other scholars argue that God was manifested in seven trinities. In each triad (Meaning, Name/Veil, and Gate), the “Meanings” have been subordinate to the “Name/Veil.” Thus, while Muhammad is the “Name/Veil,” God’s manifestation is through Ali.
Along with having these core beliefs, the Alawites believe in the transmigration of the soul and do not adhere to the five pillars of Islam. Rather, Alawites attempt to achieve “inner knowledge” (a person’s experience in life which helps them overcome sin and become closer to God) by interpreting the five pillars with an “inner meaning.” According to The Islamic Monthly’s Phuong-Mai Nguyen,
It is very likely that the Shia principle of taqiyya (religious dissimulation) was the base for this interpretation [of the five pillars]. For [Alawites], revealing religious secrets to outsiders can lead to severe punishment. Their holy books and rituals are restricted to a few people who pledge to keep the secrets of the faith (Kitman); they are called Khassah while the ignorant majority are Ammah. The syncretic and mythical belief is a secret, even to its own believers.
Along with the religion’s “rejection of Shariah and of common Islamic practices, including call to prayer, going to mosque for worship, making pilgrimages to Mecca,” it does not require women to wear head scarves. “Other specific elements such as the belief in divine incarnation, permissibility of alcohol, celebration of Christmas and Zoroastrian new year makes [Alawi] Islam highly suspect in the eyes of many orthodox Sunnis and [Shias].”
While considered part of the Shia subsect of Islam, Alawi Islam does, in fact, have many beliefs that are considered heretical to the mainstream Muslim community, a community which includes both Sunnis and Shias. Whether a distinction can be made between mainstream Shia Islam and Alawi Islam is up to debate although evidence does exist that the Alawites have vastly different beliefs than the majority of mainstream Shias. The notion that the Alawites were only recently considered Shias and the fact that the Alawites were compelled to adopt taqiyya in order to prevent their extermination does suggest that enough differences exist for Alawites to be a distinct subsect of Islam rather than a subsect of Shia Islam. According to Ari Heistein,
The religious decrees of the 20th century including [Alawites] within the Islamic tradition were clearly motivated by the self-interest of the religious figures who issued them. Yet, they have failed to address the accusations of heresy that have plagued the Alawite minority for most of their history and formed the basis of all pre-1900 fatwas. Indeed, the later fatwas can hardly make invisible the gaps on important ritualistic issues dividing Shia and [Alawites].
The Syrian Alawite community, which has recently distanced itself from the Assad regime and both Sunni and Shia Islam, has potentially validated the claim that Shia Islam and Alawi Islam are different. Nevertheless, the opinion expressed by a few religious leaders may not encompass the true beliefs of the rest of the Alawite community given some scholars’ claims that the Alawites view themselves as moderate Shias.
History of Alawites in Syria
Alawites in Syria: French Mandate and Sectarian Tensions
The role of the Alawites in Syria first became apparent after World War I with the division of the Arab provinces of the Ottoman Empire by Britain and France. The division resulted in the assignment of Palestine to Britain and Syria and Lebanon to France. France, fearing potential independence movements and Arab nationalism which threatened its control over the region, intentionally inflamed sectarian separations during its mandate from 1920-1946. Minorities, such as the Druze and Alawites, also feared the nationalist movements that were mostly dominated by Sunnis. With France fearing movements threatening its power and minorities fearing similar movements for more religious reasons, France pragmatically granted autonomy to areas where these minorities were heavily populated. On July 1, 1922, “the state of Latakia” was established for the Alawites, and by September 15, 1922, a court decision granted the Alawites legal autonomy. Not only did such autonomy strengthen the weaker minorities, but it also allowed for distinctions between religions and sects to be created thus preventing a unification of all Arabs and ensuring the preservation of France’s power. Until 1942, and except for a three-year period from 1936 to 1939, the Alawites and Druze remained separate from the rest of unified Syria. To ensure sectarian divisions and to prevent any takeover by Arab nationalists, France deliberately ignored developing a ruling elite, coupling such a decision by having each institution represented by a different religious or ethnic group. Any former amicable relationship between the minority and Sunni majority and any possibility of growth in the nationalist movement in Syria deteriorated significantly because of France’s “divide and rule” policy.
This new relationship between groups in Syria continued after Syria’s independence in April 1946, stymieing any attempts for Arab unification and fostering greater attention towards local ambitions. Before independence from France, Syrians were united under one party and the common goal of achieving independence. After independence, a Sunni elite became in charge of the government, and integration of the minorities into Syrian society was necessary for a more nationalist approach. To eliminate regionalism and the domination of the minorities in parliament (due to their close relationship with France under its mandate), the Sunnis attempted to limit the representation of the concentrated minority groups in parliament. The Sunni elite eradicated the Alawite state, parliamentary seats, and certain minority jurisdictional rights.
The abolition of jurisdictional rights in order to establish a centralized rule in Damascus ignited confrontation among the minorities . . . The Alawites became reconciled to common Syrian citizenship and gave up the dream of a separate Alawite state. This change of outlook, which seemed to be of minor importance at the time, actually led to a new era in Syrian politics: the political rise of the Alawites.
The basis for sectarian tensions between Sunnis and Alawites is evident when one considers the change from Alawite autonomy to subordination under the Sunnis.
Formed in 1921, the Troupes Spéciales du Levant was a local military used by the French that eventually evolved into the Lebanese and Syrian military. Similar to France’s “divide and rule” approach, the integration of the Troupes Spéciales du Levant was done in a way so that it was difficult for any group to attain enough power to threaten French rule. Given the threatening nature of the Sunnis at the time, many of whom supported Arab nationalist movements, the military gained a large minority presence, and “military recruitment involved weakening the forces of nationalism that Arab Sunnis used to challenge the French over the future of Syria.” Sectarian tensions were further developed with the creation of the Troupes Spéciales du Levant, given that the minority-dominated military frequently suppressed Sunni movements.
Minorities frequently found themselves joining the military because it provided a source of income and potential for social mobility. Unlike the Sunni elites—who refused to send their children into the military under the pretense that it was furthering France’s imperial desires and used their money to become exempt from military service—the Alawites and other minorities took advantage of the potential opportunity the military provided. By 1949 (the year of the first military coup in Syria), the Alawites had gained a political presence. By 1955, about 65% of the non-commissioned officers were Alawites. Before 1963, the Alawites did not outnumber the Sunnis in the officer corps, but they did dominate the lower positions of the military. Nevertheless, the trend towards higher ranking positions began after Syrian independence from France. After Syria’s independence, the number of schools in Syria expanded greatly. This expansion gave lower class citizens more educational opportunities, and they became more qualified for military academies, such as the Military Academy at Homs. Sunni leaders believed that dominating the higher positions in the military was enough to ensure Sunni command of the military. This notion proved to be a key factor in the Sunni elite’s demise.
As the Alawites continued to dominate the lower ranks and ascend towards higher positions, the higher-ranking Sunnis failed to remain unified. The Sunnis led three military coups from 1949 to 1954. With the formation and establishment of the Syrian-Egyptian Union from 1954 to 1958, the officer corps failed to remain unified and split into factions. Even after the Sunni officer-led “union pledge” in January 1958, a coup led by Sunni officers in September 1961 resulted in Syria’s separation from the union. The lack of unity between Sunni officers, specifically after Syria’s break from the union, “greatly weakened Sunni representation in the officer corps and strengthened the minorities, mainly the Alawite officer corps. ‘As Sunni officers eliminated each other, Alawites inherited their positions and became increasingly senior; as one [Alawite] rose through the ranks, he brought his kinsmen along.’”
Along with the military, the Baathist movement in Syria fostered greater Alawite power and furthered sectarian tensions. Unlike pan-Arabism, which, “aimed at the political resurrection of the Arabs as one nation” and had a strong association with Sunni Islam, “Baath nationalism was different from Sunni Arab nationalism in that [Baathists] wanted a united secular Arab society.” Pan-Arab nationalists attempted to incorporate Islam into the pan-Arab movement for they believed that the religion played an integral role in both Arab history and culture. Even though the pan-Arab movement was considered to be spearheaded by Sunnis from the perspective of the minorities, many Sunnis disapproved of pan-Arabism because Islam did not play a sufficient role in its doctrine. While many Sunnis believed in a doctrine more heavily influenced by Islam, “the religious minorities supported the Baath’s nationalistic ideology, in which all Arabs were equal, whether Sunni Muslims, Alawites or members of other heterodox Muslim communities or Christians.”
Founded in Syria in 1940 by Orthodox Christian Michel Aflaq and Sunni Salah al-Din Bitar, the Baathist movement was influenced by secular and pan-Arab ideas, championing freedom from foreign powers, Arab unity, and socialism. By April 1947, the Baath Congress gathered in Damascus, and another party, comprised mainly of Alawites, emerged with similar ideas. While the group supported Baathist ideas such as Arab independence and unity, the members followed Alawite scholar Zaki Arsuzi (follower of Alawite socialist, Dr. Wahib al-Ghanim), who placed priority on social justice. Ghanim insisted that particular socialist ideas be adopted into the Baathist constitution. While Aflaq rejected such adamancy, Bitar consented to uniting the Baath and Arab Socialist Party, which advocated for the same issues as Ghanim. Akram al-Hawrani, the leader of the Arab Socialist Party, received the support of many rural Alawites and young Alawite officers. With the merger of the two parties into the Arab Baath Socialist Party in September 1953, the Baathist movement gained strong support from officers (presumably minority officers) and the Alawite community, given the fact that the party’s advocacy for social justice would inherently bolster the Alawites against the repressive Sunnis.
While the Syrian-Egyptian Union resulted in the disbandment of all political parties, the Baathist ideology remained with organized Alawite groups that had a sizeable amount of control over the Latakian region. Thus, after Syria seceded from the union in 1961, the Alawites “were the strongest and most organized force in the much-weakened national organization.” During the Syrian-Egyptian Union, a military faction within the Baath Party developed, and a secret organization among Baathist-supporting officers in Egypt was created in 1959. Dr. Ayse Tekdal Fildis writes:
The goal of the organization was to restore the Syrian army to Syrian control. The members of this secret military organization, eventually known as the military committee, were not involved in the Baath’s traditional leadership or party structure. They operated as one of several politically active groups of officers involved in the dissolution of the union in 1961 and in the fight for political control of Syria during the subsequent year and a half.
Following Syria’s separation from the union, the Baath Party gained political potency swiftly. The Baath Party itself became a national ruling party only after the Baathist military faction’s coup on March 8, 1963, which overthrew the “separatist regime” (responsible for Syria’s secession from the Syrian-Egyptian Union and was undergoing infighting among Sunni leaders). With the rise of the Baath Party came the rise of and partiality towards the Alawites given the group’s dominance in the Baath Party and its representation in the Baathist military faction (specifically the Military Committee). After this coup, the minority representation in the officer corps, especially that of the Alawites, increased greatly as Baathist military leaders (five out of the fourteen members of the Military Committee were Alawites) attempted to consolidate their power. “The climax of the [Baathists’] power [monopolization] came on [July 18, 1963], when a group of predominantly Sunni Nasserist officers, led by Colonel Jasim ‘Alwan, staged an abortive coup. Most of the officers who suppressed this coup, not without bloodshed, were of minoritarian backgrounds, and among them [Alawites] played a prominent role.” Discrimination between Sunnis and the minorities became prevalent and more apparent in the years following 1963. In order to strategically preserve Baathist and minority power, army units were filled with “trusted” officers and stationed in tactical areas such as Damascus. Units filled with non-minority members were more likely to be stationed in areas farther from the Baathist stronghold. These moves allowed for the military coup on February 23, 1966, which resulted in Alawite control of Damascus, to take place.
Even as the Military Committee came into power following 1963, the leaders began to split and gain the support of those regionally and ideologically tied with them to bolster their individual powers. While leaders frequently strengthened themselves with people of the same sectarian background, alliances amongst the Military Committee leaders were not always along sectarian lines, and many times were merely for practical reasons to pursue their interests. In 1970, both Alawite rivalries and Syria’s series of coups “were put to rest with a bloodless military coup led by then-air force commander and Defense Minister Gen. Hafiz [al-Assad] (now deceased) against his Alawite rival, Salah Jadid. [Al-Assad] was the first Alawite leader capable of dominating the fractious Alawite sect.”
Alawites in Syria: Assad Regime and Sectarian Tensions
Following the coup in 1970, which effectively marked the beginning of the Assad regime that exists today, Hafez al-Assad consolidated his power among trusted Alawites and prominent Sunnis in order to strategically thwart potential revolts by the Sunni majority. Specifically, he “stacked the security apparatus with loyal clansmen while taking care to build patronage networks with Druze and Christian minorities that facilitated the [al-Assad] rise.” Additionally, to mollify Sunni dissatisfaction, the Assad “leadership co-opted key Sunni military and business elites, relying on notables like former Syrian Defense Minister Mustafa Tlass to contain dissent within the military and Alawite big-business families like the Makhloufs to buy loyalty, or at least tolerance, among a Sunni merchant class that had seen most of its assets seized and redistributed by the state.” Such actions facilitated resentment from Sunnis, especially Sunnis extremists. Hafez al-Assad further engendered tensions between the Alawites and outspoken Sunni Islamists by constraining their abilities to spread the Sunni religious doctrine. The regime took over religious funding and discharged leaders of Friday prayers. Along with consolidating power through sectarian means, Hafez al-Assad politically established himself. In the period from 1971-1973, Assad bolstered himself through a nominated Baath legislature, confirmed himself as President for a seven-year term through a national referendum, and established a new constitution that declared Syria a secular socialist state with Islam being the majority religion.
With the Assad regime stabilized and consolidated through the support of Alawites, minority groups, and key Sunnis, any attempts to overthrow the regime were suppressed and only added to the sectarian tensions that already existed at the beginning of Hafez al-Assad’s leadership. Such suppression peaked in the regime’s crackdown on Sunni insurgents led by the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood, who were protesting Assad’s new constitution. The constitution had established a secular state and allowed a non-Muslim to be president (this was later amended). The uprising, intended to overthrow the heretical Assad regime, began in 1976 and became the most violent in 1982, in Hama. In this Sunni-populated town, Assad and his Alawite constituency killed up to 20,000 residents. Since the incident at Hama, the Alawites continued to consolidate power and control over Syria. The Assad regime also preserved its power by overcoming various potential destabilizers: events that if handled improperly could have undermined the whole Assad regime. An attempted coup by Hafez al-Assad’s brother, the death of Hafez al-Assad’s apparent heir, Syria’s frequent feuds with Israel, and Syria’s involvement in Lebanon, all had the potential to destabilize the Assad regime. Rather, Assad dealt with these events in ways that either preserved Assad’s rule or further strengthened the regime’s power.
Following the death of Hafez al-Assad on June 10, 2000, the Syrian parliament reduced the minimum age for presidential eligibility from 40 to 34 allowing Hafez al-Assad’s son, Bashar al-Assad, to run for president and maintain the regime. Bashar al-Assad’s regime preserved its ruling authority by imprisoning activists who advocated for democratic elections in August 2001.
It is important to note that while an apparent bias towards Alawites existed under the Assad regime, both Assads claimed that Syria was a non-sectarian state. For this reason, many Alawites still remain poor, and the Syrian education system promotes the majority orthodox faith in Syria, Sunni Islam. Moreover, dissent amongst Alawites exists in Syria, and Alawite dissenters have sometimes experienced harsher punishments than non-Alawites. Additionally, the Alawite regime did not completely repress the Sunni majority and promote Alawi Islam. Rather, the Alawite regime under Hafez al-Assad attempted to gain approval from the Sunni population as well as create a new relationship and distinction between government and Islam. According to Joshua Landis, director of the Center for Middle East Studies,
When [Hafez al-Assad] came to power in 1970, one of his primary goals was to establish a new balance between the government and Islam. One of the central planks of his “Corrective Movement” was to abandon the radical secularism and socialism of the Jadid regime that preceded him. Although he reached out to Sunni clerics, giving them greater leeway in society, he strictly limited their influence in politics. At the same time, he encouraged Alawites to embrace mainstream Islam. He declared the Alawites to be nothing but Twelver [Shias], forbade Alawite Shaykhs to venerate Ali excessively, and set the example for his people by adhering to Sunni practice. He built mosques in Alawite towns, prayed publicly and fasted and encouraged his people to do the same. In short he tried to turn Alawites into “good” (read Sunnified) Muslims in exchange for preserving a modicum of secularism and tolerance in society… To police this understanding, he squashed any semblance of democracy in Syrian political life, forbidding elections even within professional organizations and trade unions. As a result, civil society was crushed, ministries became havens for mafia groups, and any political life outside the secretive factions in the regime came to a standstill.
Besides obtaining support from outside nations and groups such as Iran, Russia, and Hezbollah, Assad’s regime initially received support from the Alawite community. The Alawites supported Assad for various reasons. While some backed the regime out of pure loyalty, other Alawites understood their fate if Assad’s Alawite regime were to fall. For the latter group, the downfall of Assad would inevitably result in another Sunni rule, allowing the Sunni elite to once again oppress the Alawites. More importantly, given the acts of the Assad regime (including the killing in Hama), many Alawites understood their grim fate if Sunnis regained power and exacted their revenge for the loss of thousands of innocent Sunnis. For the most part, “the Assad regime has played on Alawite fears to help it stay in power.” Nevertheless, “the wholehearted loyalty that Hafez enjoyed in his early stage of rule has switched to another type of connection for Bashar based on sectarian insecurity.”
At the beginning of the Syrian conflict, many Alawites joined a militia called the Shabiha. The Shabiha were the “the bearded enforcers and bodyguards that accompanied security forces at the start of the conflict. The Shabiha were accused by the opposition of committing some of the worst atrocities against antiregime protesters—something the Syrian government has denied.” Eventually, as the Syrian conflict developed and became more drawn out, Alawites, motivated by sectarianism and pecuniary benefits, joined the National Defense Force, a predominately Alawite paramilitary group that has been integral to the regime’s efforts to regain rebel-held territory and maintain power. Created in 2012 with the assistance of Hezbollah and Iran, the National Defense Force has more than 100,000 members, each of whom are armed, licensed, and paid by the Syrian government. “The defense force is part of a metamorphosis the Assad regime has undergone in the caldron of war. The regime has mobilized state resources—money, arms, control over key commodities such as wheat, fuel and even international aid—to fortify its core Alawite constituency and allied minority groups for what it believes will be a protracted sectarian battle.” This group has been responsible for defending regime-held areas against rebel offensives, participating in offensives against rebels, as well as manning and monitoring checkpoints and streets. Additionally, the National Defense Force works in conjunction with more elite and professional groups. “While much of the focus has been on the role of international supporters like Iran and Russia in Mr. Assad’s survival, little attention has been paid to how his regime has channeled the traditional solidarity of groups like the Alawites into new structures such as the defense force.” Nevertheless, the National Defense Force has continued to aggravate sectarian tensions, participating in the May 2013 Bayda and Baniyas massacres.
While militias and paramilitary groups such as the Shabiha and National Defense Force have buoyed the once-staggering Assad regime, many of the Alawites that have participated in these groups are faced with a complicated future. While the Alawite community has recently attempted to distance itself from the regime, only a complete distancing and recognition of distinction between the Alawite community and the regime by Sunni nations, Islamists, and citizens will allow the Alawite community to leave the Syrian conflict unscathed if Assad falls. Currently, such distinction, while being made by Alawite leaders, has not been made by Sunnis leaving all Syrian Alawites in danger.
Syria-Iran Alliance: Sectarian or Pragmatic?
Both the beliefs of the Alawites and their history in the Middle East point to the notion that this religious group was and continues to be repeatedly rejected by the mainstream Muslim community. A mainstream Shia country like Iran openly supporting a “heretical” Syrian Alawite regime along religious ideology seems suspect given the underlying theme of Alawite rejection that has consistently unfolded for years. The idea that the Syria-Iran alliance is more pragmatic than sectarian can be seen through an analysis of the alliance’s foundation and origination. The foundation of the alliance is a combination of both nations’ intent to pursue shared interests as well as further separate distinct ambitions. The main premise of the alliance remains the same, and thus Iran’s involvement in Syria is merely a fulfillment of its alliance obligations to support its ally while furthering its own regional ambitions.
Both Syria and Iran are authoritarian and adamantly independent; however, their political and religious ideologies differ. While Syria is led by an Alawite regime that advances secular and socialist (Baathist) ideas, Iran is part of the mainstream Twelver Shia sect with a government that incorporates religion heavily into politics. Even amongst these differences, the two nations have been allied for over three decades and primarily are responsible for hindering the regional pursuits of Iraq, Israel, and the United States since the Iranian Revolution in 1979. Formalized in March 1982, the Syria-Iran alliance formed from common enemies, common need, and distinct intent on achieving individual long-term pursuits and objectives. To prove this notion, one can merely analyze the alliance’s role over the years in countries such as Iraq or Lebanon or even observe the alliance’s response to perceived threats (primarily Western nations). All actions taken by both nations or even by one nation demonstrate the essence of the Syria-Iran alliance: to react to common enemies, to ensure stability and thus the fulfillment of both nations’ needs, and to ensure the continuous attainment of the former two goals while advancing each nations’ own individual goals. The alliance has been rather successful in deterring encroaching “enemies.” For example, the cooperation between the two nations prevented Saddam Hussein’s Iraq from becoming dominant in the region. In 1984, United States peacekeepers were forced out of Lebanon by the work of the alliance, and Israel’s attempt to bring Lebanon under its sphere of influence was frustrated for eighteen years, eventually resulting in Israel’s withdrawal from Lebanon in 2000. Even with ideological differences, “The odd bedfellows together sired or supported Hezbollah, Hamas, Palestinian Islamic Jihad and an array of radical Palestinian groups. All reject peace. And together they have inflicted repeated setbacks on six American presidents.”
The Syria-Iran alliance also reveals both nations’ desire to fulfill a common need: survival in the Middle East. Not only does the partnership reflect a mutual recognition that such an alliance preserves both nations’ international standing and allows each to maintain the status quo even among domestic and international demands for reform, but it also reveals a shared interest in accomplishing individual long-term objectives. The Syrian regime hopes the alliance will aid in its efforts to defeat the opposition groups that have been threatening its rule for five years, help it regain the Golan Heights that it lost to Israel in 1967, and maintain its veto power over politics in Lebanon. Iran hopes to use the alliance to maintain regional dominance over the Persian Gulf and guarantee control over neighboring Iraq while promoting and protecting its Islamic interests.
A brief investigation of Iran’s actions in Syria demonstrates the same original premise and intention of the alliance. Iran’s reasons for involvement in Syria, both short-term and long-term, are more pragmatic than sectarian. By becoming involved in the Syrian conflict, Iran has attempted to preserve the historic Syria-Iran alliance that has lasted for years and has benefited both nations. Iran’s involvement, which was evident at the beginning of the conflict during “Assad’s counterinsurgency campaign,” reflects the alliance’s short-term interests: preserving the alliance and thus the Assad regime so that both nations can remain dominant in the Middle East. “The Assad regime remains Iran’s best bet to protect its interests in Syria. If there is a negotiated political transition, Iran will likely try to keep some elements of the regime in power to maintain its longstanding alliance with Syria.” To ensure the fulfillment of this goal, Iranian security and intelligence services, manifesting itself through and evolving into the “Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) Ground Forces, Quds Force, intelligence services, and law enforcement forces,” continue to assist and advise the Syrian military. Additionally, along with assisting the Shabiha and the National Defense Force, Iran has used the air to provide the Assad regime with military supplies. While Iran’s immediate concern in Syria is the preservation of the Assad regime, its participation in Syria also demonstrates its long-term strategy concerning the future of the alliance, Iran’s influence in and access to the Levant, and its ability to counter enemies like Israel. Iran has gained access to and has supplied many of its proxies (Palestinian Islamic Jihad, Hamas, and Lebanese Hezbollah) through Syria. Hence, an “unfriendly” Syria (presumably if Assad’s regime falls) hinders Iran’s abilities to aid these proxies. A complete loss of Syria as an ally negatively affects Iran’s abilities to project its power, especially in the Levant.
It is clear that Iran has become involved in Syria to preserve the Assad regime (and thus, the Syria-Iran alliance) as well as to maintain influence in the Levant if Assad were to fall. The notion that Iran’s involvement in Syria is purely for sectarian reasons is a heavily misinformed assumption. Nevertheless, given Iran’s Shia identity and the involvement of more sectarian-motivated Shia groups such as Hezbollah and Iraqi Shia militants, groups which have some sort of association with Iran and have further cultivated sectarian tensions in Syria, one can understand why the assumption has been made that Iran has joined the conflict for primarily sectarian reasons. After all, a component of the Syria-Iran alliance does include the fighting of Sunni radicalism. This paper does not discredit the notion that another factor in Iran’s decision to join the conflict was because of religious affinity with the Syrian ruling regime, nor does the scope of this paper explore whether if, in fact, a smaller contributor to Iran’s reason for joining the conflict was religious ideology. This paper merely highlights that Iran’s actions in Syria are driven mainly by strategy and pragmatism.
Recent Alawite Community and Assad Regime Relations
The Alawites’ passionate support for the Assad regime at the beginning of the Syrian conflict recently has deteriorated. According to the Wall Street Journal’s Sam Dagher, “Some Alawites bemoaned the way they have been pushed by Mr. Assad and his regime down an irreversible path of confrontation with the country’s Sunnis. Many Alawites fear that their community has passed a point of no return and can survive only if Syria is partitioned into smaller chunks, including one for the Alawites.” Other Alawites have expressed bitterness towards the regime, which has shown minimal care for the sacrifices made by Alawite fighters. Some Alawite soldiers have even defected, calling themselves “Free Alawites.”
Prominent Alawite leaders have also distanced themselves from the Assad regime. According to the Foreign Affairs’ Leon Goldsmith, “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.’” In a document released by Syrian Alawite leaders, further distancing from the Assad regime by the Alawite community is seen. Along with declaring that Alawi Islam was separate from Shia Islam, the Alawite leaders expressed a commitment to combat sectarianism and advance secularism and democratic ideals. Thus, the leaders attempted to distance themselves and the Alawite community from the Assad regime and its actions. Furthermore, these leaders noted that Assad’s legitimacy “can only be considered according to the criteria of democracy and fundamental rights.”
With apparent discontent with the Assad regime, the question arises as to how long will the apparent façade of Alawite support for the Assad regime last, and more importantly, how would a complete distancing from the regime affect the future of the Alawite community and the stability of the Assad regime?
Future of the Alawites
The future of the Alawites largely depends on the way the Syrian conflict ends. While a formal resolution to the conflict which preserves the Assad regime would largely benefit the Alawite community, a conflict that goes on for additional years or ends with the deposition of the Assad regime and a takeover by a Sunni population will negatively affect the Alawite community—given the common assumption made by the opposition that the regime and the Alawite community are one entity responsible for numerous human rights violations, bombings of Sunni villages, massacres of Sunni innocents, and years of government oppression of the Sunni majority population. At the current juncture, Assad’s regime remains in power and has benefitted greatly from the help of Russia and other foreign powers. Nevertheless, with a conflict that does not end with Assad remaining in power, the Alawites do face the potential of extinction, even amidst the recent distancing of the Alawite community from the Assad regime.
The continuous brutalities carried out by Assad and his allies, which do help the Assad regime’s attempt to stay in power, will continue to negatively affect the rest of the Alawite community in Syria. The fate of the Alawite community is linked to the strategy of the Assad regime: “[It] remains inimically linked to the Assad regime; it is hostage to Bashar’s realpolitik approach to a zero-sum conflict that transcends Syria’s borders, the outcome of which will have great significance for the future power balance in the region.” Only after a solution to the Syrian conflict is implemented can the future of Syria, the Alawites, and the Middle East be determined more concretely.
 Nikolaos Van Dam, The Struggle for Power in Syria, 4th ed. (London, England: I.B. Tauris, 2011), 27, digital file.
 Van Dam, The Struggle, 27.
 Van Dam, The Struggle.
 Van Dam, The Struggle.
 Van Dam, The Struggle, 33.
 Van Dam, The Struggle, 36.
 Van Dam, The Struggle, 39.