On 8 August 2015 large crowds of Alawites demonstrated in Latakia in western Syria, with many demanding the execution of Suleiman Hilal al-Asad, a relative of Bashar al-Asad who murdered—mafia style—the Alawi Colonel Hassan al-Sheikh during an apparent road rage incident. While the regime ordered the arrest of Suleiman, who at the time of writing remains defiant and at large, this incident reflects rising Alawite discontentment with the narrow Asad clique which has been at the centre of Syrian and Alawi power since 1970. Alawites have paid a heavy price in lives in the struggle to preserve Asad rule, and they have become increasingly frustrated at the inability of the regime to make good on its promises to defeat so-called foreign-backed ‘terrorists’—a blanket term in regime discourse that encapsulates the moderate opposition and more extremist groups. Back in July 2012 the regime rallied its loyal forces for a mass assault on rebels in Aleppo, Syria’s commercial hub, promising that this would be ‘the last battle waged by the Syrian army to crush the terrorists and after that Syria will emerge from the crisis.’ (Al-Watan, Damascus, 26 July 2012) This promise proved hollow and the sect’s frustration was shown in Alawite protests following a brutal massacre of mainly Alawite soldiers by ISIS fighters at Taqba airbase in Raqqa province in August 2014. Alawites protested in Homs after a suicide bomber targeted a school in an Alawite neighbourhood in October 2014 killing around forty-one children.
Nonetheless, four-and-a-half years into the Syrian conflagration Alawite solidarity has largely remained intact in support of the Asad regime. Fear of majoritarian Sunni revanchism—perceived or real—has welded the community to the regime and seemingly intertwined their fates. But while many observers rarely differentiate greatly between the 1000-year-old Shi’a-derived Alawite sect and the fifty-two-year-old Ba’athist regime, the picture is not so simple. To suggest that the conflict is a zero sum game between the opposition groups and the Alawites (alongside other minorities) ignores much of historical reality. History would in fact suggest that a turning point could emerge in the near to medium term where Alawites may look to extricate their interests from those of Bashar al-Asad and his inner core. Rather than a turn to the opposition this would actually reflect a narrowing of Alawite interests and an impulse to activate longstanding pragmatic methods of communal survival.
The Alawite sect did not persist in an often hostile environment for over 1000 years by accident. It survived through three main strategies: falling back on the defensive qualities of the Syrian coastal mountains, the application of taqiyya (which essentially means religious dissimulation or keeping their identity vague), and a willingness to take brutally pragmatic steps when necessary. Alawites who stepped outside these bounds, putting the sect at risk, have usually met a violent end—often from their own people.
Power-shifts in the Levant, such as we are seeing today, generally impacted negatively on the security of the Alawites. But the Alawites always found a way to reach an accommodation with the new powers. When the crusaders lumped the Alawites together with other Muslims many were massacred. Rather than engaging in futile resistance, however, the Alawites emphasised their Christian-like aspects and found accommodation with the crusaders.
In the early fourteenth century the Sunni Mamluks cracked down on the suspect Alawites, prohibiting them from practising their religion. When 3000 Alawites rebelled in 1318 the sultan in Cairo ordered the extermination of the entire sect. The Alawites managed to survive through pragmatically refusing to support the rebellion. The leader of the rebellion perished at the hands of the Ottomans but the Alawites as a community carried on. In contrast, around the same period, the Ismailis (often known as the Assassins) were less pragmatic and suffered persecution from which they never really recovered.
In 1516 the new Ottoman power again sought to eradicate the heretical Alawites, mainly because they were suspected of collusion with their arch enemies, the Shi’a Safavids of Iran. In this instance it was the rugged terrain of the coastal mountains that saved the Alawites from destruction. Thereafter Alawites practised taqiyya in order to maintain their security under Ottoman rule. In 1697 British traveller Henry Maundrell commented of the Alawites, ‘… ‘tis their principle to adhere to no certain religion… Nobody was ever able to discover what shape or standard their consciences are really of.’ (A Journey from Aleppo to Jerusalem in 1697, Beirut: Kyats, 1963, pp. 16-7.)
Another salient example of Alawite pragmatism came in the late 1850s. When the powerful and ruthless Alawite chief Ismail Khayr Bey refused to bow to Ottoman authority, imperial troops threatened to scourge the entire Alawite territory. With the community faced with catastrophe Ismail was killed and beheaded by his own uncle who appeased the Ottomans by presenting them with the grisly trophy.
After 1936, with the French mandate winding down, the Alawites once more made the necessary compromises to survive in a potentially hostile environment. When an eccentric but influential figure named Suleiman al-Murshid (d. 1946) and later his son Mujib (d. 1952) tried to assert Alawite autonomy and raise rebellions, the other Alawite tribes declined to assist and both father and son perished at the hands of the new Syrian government.
The capture of power by Alawite officer Hafiz al-Asad in 1970 represented the most dangerous overextension of all. Alawites therefore perceived grave threat in the uprising against Asad by the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood in 1976-82. Asad, an astute political tactician, had however built a broad coalition including rural Sunnis, merchants in Damascus and Aleppo and, though generous donations and endowments, many Sunni clerics. The key cities of Damascus and Aleppo therefore remained quiet while the regime pulverised the rebels at the city of Hama in 1982. So rather than endangering the sect, Hafiz al-Asad was seen by Alawites as successfully protecting them from the ‘extremism’ of the Muslim Brothers.
Through the first year-and-a-half of the current uprising, for most Alawites, supporting Bashar al-Asad seemed the pragmatic option. The internal and external opposition was fragmented, the international community was standing back, and Aleppo and Damascus were, again, quiet. Thus it seemed the uprising would eventually be brought under control. A possible turning point came in July 2012 with determined rebel assaults in Damascus and Aleppo, the successful assassination of four top regime figues on 18 July and high level defections including the president’s boyhood friend Manaf Tlass. With the regime struggling to simultaneously control its borders, large parts of the countryside and the two major cities, many Alawites at that time started to believe it was a lost cause. One Alawite calling himself Abu Ali, having left Damascus for the relative safety of the Syrian coast, commented on the wisdom of continuing to back the regime: ‘It doesn’t seem to be in our interest, the regime is losing.’
The pragmatic option began to change from sticking with the regime to ditching it. Alawite defections were rare but slowly increased. On 11 July 2012, Alawite officer Nasr Mustafa and his men announced their defection to the Free Syrian Army, followed by the customary ‘takbir! Allahu Akbar!’ It seems unusual for Alawites to make this religious declaration commonly associated with Sunni Muslims; it is however consistent with Alawite traditions of taqiyya.
In 2013, the regime recovered militarily, which arrested the potential for pragmatic detachment by Alawites. Two key factors assisted the regime to survive this dangerous moment. Hezbollah intervened inside Syria when it besieged the key strategic border town of Al Qusayr, south of Homs, in April 2013. In addition, the United States clearly demonstrated that it was not willing to intervene in Syria after withdrawing from its commitment to act after the chemical attacks against Ghouta in rural Damascus on 21 August 2013. The effect of regime revival was to delay the tough choices for Alawites; the pragmatic option returned to sticking with the regime. Moreover, the rise of jihadist groups like Jabhat al Nusra, ISIS and other extremist factions raised the stakes for Alawites.
Since 2012 Alawites have been relocating out of the cities of the Syrian interior and heading for the relative safety of the coast and mountains of north-west Syria. This retreat may prove to be only a temporary reprieve, however. If Bashar al-Asad loses control of Damascus and retreats back to Latakia or the Asad clan’s home village of Qurdaha the various opposition factions, including those extremist groups bent on extinguishing the ‘heretic’ Alawites from Syria, will bear down on the coastal region. For Alawites, their chances of finding a secure place in a new Syria could be enhanced if they sought separate accommodation with the moderate Syrian opposition—including the remaining Free Syrian Army forces in the north and the Southern Front opposition formations in the south—and distanced themselves from Bashar al-Asad similarly to the way that Alawites gave up Ismail Khayr Bey to the Ottomans in the 1850s. Many Alawites have no love for Asad and would be happy to make the transaction. The previously influential Kana’an clan from B’hamra, for example, have never forgiven him for the thinly veiled ‘suicides’ in 2005 of their patriarch Ghazi Kana’an and his brother ‘Ali—Ghazi was found dead in his interior ministry office and Ali on a railway line.
Looking ahead to a potential post-Asad Syria, an attempt by Alawites to forcibly carve off their coastal enclave from the rump of Syria is unlikely to succeed in ending the danger for Alawites. Any detachment of the coastal region would be unacceptable to most Syrians and any new power in Damascus, not to mention key regional actors like Turkey, who would strongly oppose any secessionist precedent. Many Alawites recognise that an Alawite state is unattainable and, in fact, as the community determined after much debate in 1936, undesirable. The Alawite Shaykh ‘Ali Yeral told this author emphatically in March 2011 ‘we don’t want and we don’t think about dividing Syria.’ A new accommodation with the Sunni dominated Syrian interior will therefore have to be made. There will be scores to settle but the vast majority of a traumatised post-conflict Syrian population will not want to begin a new era with genocide against the whole Alawite sect.
The international context appears more favourable for the Asad regime, with its Iranian allies achieving diplomatic successes over its nuclear program and then immediately seeking to launch new diplomatic initiatives to rehabilitate Bashar al-Asad. These international manoeuvres disguise cracks starting to emerge in Asad’s Alawite support base. Alawites are becoming increasingly exhausted and disillusioned about their level of sacrifice since 2011. The thuggish behaviour of Asad family cronies like Suleiman al-Asad only serves to compound Alawite frustration and anger.
Leon T. Goldsmith teaches in the Department of Political Science, Sultan Qaboos University, Muscat, Oman. He is the author of Cycle of Fear: Syria’s Alawites in War and Peace.
On Twitter: @LeonGoldsmith