Since the start of the revolt in Syria, the country’s Alawites have been instrumental in maintaining President Bashar al-Assad’s hold on power. A sect of Shia Islam, the Alawites comprise roughly 13 percent of the population and form the bulk of Syria’s key military units, intelligence services, and ultra-loyalist militias, called shabiha (“ghosts” in Arabic). As the uprising in Syria drags on, there are signs that some Alawites are beginning to move away from the regime. But most continue to fight for Assad -- largely out of fear that the Sunni community will seek revenge for past and present atrocities not only against him but also against Alawites as a group. This sense of vulnerability feeding Alawite loyalty is rooted in the sect’s history.
The Alawites split from Shia Islam in ninth-century Iraq over their belief in the divinity of the fourth Islamic caliph, Ali bin Abi Talib, a position branded as heresy by the Sunnis and extremist by most Shias. The community began as a small collection of believers, and over the following centuries it suffered almost constant discrimination and several massacres at the hands of Sunni Muslims. In 1305, for example, following a clerical fatwa, Sunni Mamluks wiped out the Alawite community of the Kisrawan (modern Lebanon). As late as the mid-nineteenth century, in retaliation for the rebellion of an Alawite sheikh, the Ottomans ruthlessly persecuted the Alawites, burning villages and farms across what little territory they held.
(…)The Alawites’ loyalty to Assad today is hardly assured, however. Despite popular notions of a rich, privileged Alawite class dominating Syria, the country’s current regime provides little tangible benefit to most Alawite citizens. Rural Alawites have struggled as a result of cuts in fuel subsidies and new laws restricting the sale of tobacco -- their primary crop for centuries. Indeed, since the provision of basic services by the first Assad in the 1970s and 1980s, most Alawite villages -- with the exception of Qardaha, the home of Assad’s tribe, the Kalbiyya -- have developed little. Donkeys remain a common form of transport for many, and motor vehicles are scarce, with dilapidated minibuses offering the only way to commute to the cities for work.
Leon Goldsmith is a Middle East researcher at the University of Otago in New Zealand.
The above article was published in foreignaffairs.com on April 16th, 2012.