Understanding the Alawites in Syria

Nir Rosen, one of America’s finest independent journalists, has spent much of this year travelling around Syria. His latest dispatch is published in the London Review of Books:

Syria’s Alawite heartland is defined by its funerals. In Qirdaha in the mountainous Latakia province, hometown of the Assad dynasty, I watched as two police motorcycles drove up the hill, pictures of Bashar mounted on their windshields. An ambulance followed, carrying the body of a dead lieutenant colonel from state security. As the convoy passed, the men around me let off bursts of automatic fire. My local guides were embarrassed that I had seen this display, and claimed it was the first time it had happened. ”˜He is a martyr, so it is considered a wedding.’ Schoolchildren and teachers lining the route threw rice and flower petals. ”˜There is no god but God and the martyr is the beloved of God!’ they chanted. Hundreds of mourners in black walked up through the village streets to the local shrine. ”˜Welcome, oh martyr,’ they shouted. ”˜We want no one but Assad!’

It was April, my sixth month travelling through Syria. After I left I heard of another funeral not far away, in the village of Ras al-Ayn, near the coast. A village of seven thousand people now had seven martyrs from the security forces, six missing or captured and many wounded. ”˜Every day we have martyrs,’ an officer said. ”˜It’s all a sacrifice for the nation.’ Another talked about ”˜their’ crimes, and said ”˜they’ had killed the soldier because he was an Alawite. One of my guides berated him for speaking of the conflict in sectarian terms in front of me. ”˜The opposition have left us no choice,’ another soldier said. ”˜They accept nothing but killing.’

Alawites – the heterodox Shia sect to which the Assads belong and which remains most loyal to the president and his government – make up about 10 per cent of the population. Most Syrians – about 65 per cent – are Sunni Arabs. The Alawites are one of several minorities, along with Sunni Kurds and Christians, the Druze, non-Alawite Shi’ites and Ismailis. But they have always been seen as a special case. Few Alawites are familiar with the tenets of Alawite faith: they are known by initiates only. But belief in the transmigration of the soul, reincarnation and the divinity of the Prophet’s cousin Ali – in a trinity comprising Ali, Muhammad and one of his companions, Salman al Farisi – puts Alawites at a remove from mainstream Islam. For most Alawites, religion is less a rigorous faith than an expression of their culture.

Alawite identity turns on a minority complex and fear of Sunni domination. Alawites like to rehearse the story of their oppression. ”˜The lot of the Alawis was never enviable,’ the Palestinian historian Hanna Batatu wrote. ”˜Under the Ottomans they were abused, reviled and ground down by exactions and, on occasion, their women and children led into captivity and disposed of by sale.’ They were practically serfs to the Sunni feudal lords put in place by the Ottomans. It was only when the French mandate began in 1920 that the traditional Sunni elite was eroded and minorities, Alawites among them, began to enjoy a measure of social mobility. The Alawites pleaded in vain with the French to grant them a separate state that would protect them from a Sunni ascendancy.

Text and images ©2024 Antony Loewenstein. All rights reserved.

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