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5 December, 2016 00:00 00 AM

Primer on the Alawites in Syria

Along with the military, the Baathist movement in Syria fostered greater Alawite power and furthered sectarian tensions
Devin Trivedi
Primer on the Alawites in Syria

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 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.
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], when a group of predominantly Sunni Nasserist officers, led by Colonel Jasim ‘Alwan, staged an abortive coup. 

    Eurasia Review


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Editor : M. Shamsur Rahman
Published by the Editor on behalf of Independent Publications Limited at Media Printers, 446/H, Tejgaon I/A, Dhaka-1215.
Editorial, News & Commercial Offices : Beximco Media Complex, 149-150 Tejgaon I/A, Dhaka-1208, Bangladesh. GPO Box No. 934, Dhaka-1000.

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