The Dangerous Illusion of an Alawite Regime

June 11, 2013

Assad mural

Photo by Thierry Ehrman / Flickr(cc)

Reports from Syria often casually refer to Bashar al-Assad's government as an Alawite regime. Though the phrase seems harmless enough, it isn't. Calling it an Alawite regime not only bolsters Assad but also creates the conditions for more sectarian violence in the future.

The Alawites are followers of a branch of Shi'a Islam, and represent about 12 percent of the Syrian population. The name Alawite (Arabic: Alawīyyah) refers to Ali ibn Abi Talib, cousin of the Prophet Muhammad and considered the first Shi'a imam and the fourth "Rightly Guided Caliph" of Sunni Islam. Historically subject to social and religious discrimination, the Alawites lived before 1970 principally along the coastal and mountainous regions of northwestern Syria, where under the French they briefly had their own state. Many Alawites retain close ties to that region, although today Alawites live in all of Syria's major cities and some rural areas.

Since the rise of the Hafez al-Assad in 1970, the Syrian government has been dominated by a political regime composed of Syrians of different backgrounds that is overseen by an Alawite family. While reference to an "Alawite regime" may seem like innocent shorthand for this state of affairs, it quietly perpetuates three unfounded and dangerous illusions about the regime, the people of Syria, and the war itself.

1. All Alawites support Assad. This is not the case. Many Alawite villages have been miserable under Assad, and countless Alawites are poor and disenfranchised. Even before the revolt began in 2011, those who know Syria spoke of strong Alawite opposition to the Assad dynasty. As Leon Goldsmith explained last year in Foreign Affairs, "despite popular notions of a rich, privileged Alawite class dominating Syria, the country’s current regime provides little tangible benefit to most Alawite citizens…. [M]ost Alawite villages—with the exception of Qardaha, the home of Assad’s tribe, the Kalbiyya—have developed little." In fact, after two years of war, Alawites’ lives are even more difficult. Many Alawites who oppose the regime have died fighting with the rebels. Calling this an Alawite regime writes their sacrifices out of history.

2. No Sunnis support Assad. This is also untrue. Many Arab Sunni Syrians have died fighting for the Assad regime; they, too, are written out of history when we talk about an Alawite regime. Both economically and politically, a significant part of Syria's Sunnis have benefitted from the Assad regime. Many are still fighting tooth and nail for the regime's survival. The Assads could not have maintained their formidable grip on power for so many decades without support from a substantial part of the Sunni population. Bashar cultivated excellent ties with influential sectors of the Sunni Arab majority, and much of the Syrian economic elite is comprised of urban Sunnis.

3. Alawites are a simple sect, tied by blood and loyalty. Because of the Assads, this heterodox Muslim sect has too simplistically come to be equated with support for his regime. But like people everywhere, Alawites hold multiple, complex, and often conflicting affiliations and allegiances. Individuals who identify as Alawite have differing levels of attachment to Alawite history and tradition—as all of us do to our religious and ethnic identities. Some may identify strongly as Alawite, but as Aziz Nakkash observes, "others consider themselves trapped in the 'Alawite box' as a result of the current crisis." The myth of an Alawite regime turns this identity into an iron cage.

In fact, the Alawites have a complex story. Though well absorbed into Assad's authoritarian state project, they were never particularly well integrated into Syrian society. Clinging to the state in a desperate attempt to hold onto their modest gains in social and economic standing, many built their identities under Assad by playing down their origins, even changing their accents. Syrian authorities will have to grapple with the aftershocks of the Assad regime's use and abuse of this community for decades to come.

Which makes this the most dangerous falsehood in the bunch. To refer to an Alawite regime is to reinforce the lie that Alawites are separate from other Syrians. It transforms Alawites from complex and motley human individuals into easy targets of anti-regime violence, segregation, and discrimination. Naming this an Alawite government, in other words, is an oversimplification that can lead to sectarian violence.

What will happen after the war? The regime has taken full advantage of the Alawites' alienation and insecurity. Whoever assumes power will be forced to confront the legacy of Assad's co-optation of the Alawites. Suspended between a difficult and discriminatory past, a frightening and violent present, and an uncertain future, the Alawites have been held ransom by an authoritarian state. It is wrong that the Alawite community as a whole should be associated with the horrors perpetrated by this regime on the Syrian people.

Assad’s is not an Alawite regime. It is an embattled and desperate dictatorship. The Syrian war is an existential battle between this dictatorship and a fractured yet determined opposition. It is not a war between the Alawites (and, more broadly, Shi'a Muslims) and their Sunni enemies. It is, rather, a war over who will govern Syria, how, and under whose auspices. Russian economic interests, Iranian foreign policy, Turkish security, Iraqi politics and a host of other factors are at play in the conflict. This cannot be reduced to religion.

Powerful forces are arrayed against this reading of the conflict. Iran is deeply invested in the notion of an embattled Alawite regime battling a radicalized Sunni opposition because this legitimizes Iranian intervention on behalf of its ally, the Syrian regime, and allows Iran to secure its own interest in maintaining access to Hezbollah. Turkey's government stands accused of adding fuel to the sectarian fire, as rumors circulate that the Turkish government is pressing for a Sunni majority Syrian government after Assad falls. Opposition from Turkish citizens to this perceived sectarian agenda at home and in foreign policy is among the factors fueling current anti-government protests across Turkey.

The Syrian revolt did not start out as a sectarian conflict. It began as a fight between the regime and the people of Syria—of all backgrounds—who were oppressed by the state. Now it's a proxy battle to control the heart of the Middle East. It is not a religious conflict. There is no single Alawite position on the war. There is no united Sunni Muslim front. Yet the myth of an Alawite regime remains powerful: it makes the violence seem inevitable, it allows the lives and hopes of real Syrians to recede into the distance, and it makes the notion of a peaceful transition appear farfetched and dreamy.

The regime has a lot riding on this sectarian gamble. They are hoping we fall for it. To the extent we do, it is Assad and his supporters who win the war.


Agreed, that the Syrian revolution did not start out as a sectarian war and that, even today, sectarianism does not explain the varied allignments of Alawites, Sunnis, Christians, and Kurds for or against the regime.  But these lines have recently hardened along sectarian lines, largey to fulfill the agendas of neighboring states:  Iran and its Hizbollah proxy and Qatar/KSA and their Jihadists proxies.  Curiously, this generally anti-regime article does not once mention Qatar/KSA (publicly or privately) despite the billions of dollars they've spent in supporting the most extreme jihadists.  Sectarian bloodshed is likely to continue for a long time, and the US arming of the resistance will only make it longer and worse. 

Act 1: Cheer for the black scpooirns, red scpooirns, or for roughly equal piles of both types of dead scpooirns.Act 2:Keep to the safe sidelines as sharp elbowed players from the eventual losing side "refugees" pile into Canada to pick up their one year vacation tickets provided at taxpayers expense.

The fact that all Shiites in the world are supportive of the criminal regime in Syria, tells us it's a Shiite regime.

The only place in the middleast that christians and women live there lives freely!!!
Criminal state you say....Saudi, Qatar, Libya, Bahrein...sunni states cutting the head of women because they feel to express, forbidding teaching and practising of other religions than islam, who the fuck do you call criminal my friend, the christians nin turkey are no more, thanks to a genocide committed by your sunni friends, Christians in Egypt are threatened with extermination by your sunni friends (salafis and "m.brothers", Syria and its leaders have been the most tolerant
and moderat in the region.
Areas were the so could rebels in syria for some time have occupied and been in power- racca, parts of idlib, parts of Aleppo, parts of all areas they  imposed Sharia Laws, and do you meen that Sharia laws are the same as
human rights???? And you dare call them criminals, sorry about my english, I hope I made my point.Its not difficult for people to find out that between two bad things (assad or his enemys) in rule in Syria, EVERYBODY except radicalized sunni hardcores would chose Assad.

Its easy to blame a sect but if ur religious sights r being attacked on daily basis u will always support the side which is protecting it
Its idiotic to support terrorists like jabhat al nusra & taliban which were actually made by the so called super powers who don't care about human lives they call it supporting democracy but if u give a gun to a kid obviously he'll do something wrong
Now for the so called states which support them they too have there own benefits in it all r fighting there own proxy war countries like iran saudia jordan turkey & qatar all r playing there part for there personal interests
They don't care a damn about the people of syria or democracy
All these countries themselves don't recognise democracy. Saudi qatar & jordan r actually kingdoms with kings living at the fullest & public living under the poverty level
These countries including the super powers made these terrorists & then they walk away see wat is happening in pakistan suicide attacks on daily basis they asked for pakistans. Help in fighting terrorism & then they abandoned them now taliban is killing people everyday & on the other end there drone attacks r killing people & the peoople who live to see the other day also join taliban now where r human rights
1 trade centre fell down & they were fighting all the muslims in the world
And now they r the reason of over 10 million people killed In iraq pakistan syria & afghanistan whose to answer

  I am interested in all these opinions although I don't understand the complexity of this serious situation.  However, including the main article and all the opinions above, I have concluded that I am not alone.  Only the Syrian people,( even though it appears even  they are confused and misguided), need to solve their own problems.  We, the United States, should be concerned and informed but not directly involved at this point..  Let the many countries, sects, and individuals actually involved with their own agendas take care of this mess themselves!!!  U.S. politicians, too, are using this, another world crisis, to make political hay and promote their political agenda. President Obama, I trust your intellegence. Stay out of it!! 

Who knows Syria well enough will appreciate this insightful analysis of the reality in Syria.

In todays real time, Assad was the referee of a dozen participants, all itching to take his place. History will show the future outcome. This time it will smack of an American meddling of the absurd. If America leaves any type of footprint, it will reek of Isreali domination over a Muslim nation. Muslims will never succumb to Isreali rule. Isreali nuclear and chemical stockpiles wont hold back a kazillion Muslims attacking Jerusalem with swords, stones, and fire. After the war of that crusade is settled, Muslims will go hack to tribal sects, and allow themselves to be ruled by their regional higharchy of the Koran.
American political capitalists, fool their citizens for only so long. Just look at the history of US involvement all around the world. America has always prided itself as the manufacturing capitol of the earth. America lives off wars. It's a built in economy that it can't live without. The future wars will be a mix of military weapons of unbelievable laser (drone) technology. These kills will come from sattelite drones. Another major economic support of US capitol will be the cyber arena.
Two years from now, the Google search will read back, "ASSAD WHO ?"

The premise that if you are an alawite and poor, then you cannot be a supporter of assad is FALSE!
The premise that the sunnis in business are fighting for assad is also FALSE!
Poor and rich alawites are supporting and fighting tooth and nail for assad because in alawite religion and community have gained a divine position and they know what sunnis will do to them in revenge for all the massacres committed by the alawites since 1970!
The sunnis in business supporting assad do so only with money and because they are forced to do by assad or he will burn their business, like he did with many sunni business districts and malls and markets in aleppo and damascus and hama and homs. Very very few sunnis would even dare to carry guns to defend assad and his alawites by slaughtering their own sunni brothers for a brutal regime that will eventually dispose of them when they dont need them anymore!--in fact, the few sunnis that defend assad with guns are usually stuck between a rock and a hard place; Assad has many sunni families of sunni air officers taken hostage at air bases to prevent the sunni pilots from bombing the palace or alawite regions.
ths article is so full of nonsense and lack of knowledge that i would have to write ten articles to show and explain how much bull it contains!

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