The Alawites are a small, historically oppressed people, whose political future will determine whether Syria remains united in some form or disintegrates into even smaller ethnic and religious entities.
As they will play such an important role, America, Israel, and other forces interested in the future of Syria might do well to get to know them, their concerns, and how others can best come to terms with them.
Syria's non-Sunnis have historically lived in apprehension of what the Sunnis might do to them. Although Arab Sunnis are the largest religio-ethnic group in Syria, non-Sunni Arabs make up upwards of 40% of the population. Historically, until the end of Ottoman rule after World War I, the Sunnis assumed they were the region's natural rulers, and by and large controlled the destinies of the large numbers of non-Sunnis who lived among them. The non-Sunnis seem to have "known their place" in Syrian society – second class citizens. The Sunnis determined the rules.
In the 19th century, Western concepts of nationalism and equality for all people began to appear in the Middle East. The idea that everyone – irrespective of ethnicity or religion – is equal before the law has seemed anathema to the Sunnis: such an idea would contradict the basic Islamic principle that non-Muslims – known as dhimmis, or second-class, barely-tolerated citizens – could live in an Islamic society only if they accepted their place as unequal and unworthy of political and social equality. However, even though all Sunnis might consider themselves equal, in reality, clans, tribes, or ethnic identities, not to mention gender, usually prevail.
After World War I, when the French ruled Syria, they tried to introduce the concept of equality of all people before the law – a principle that never took root. During French rule, the people today known as Alawites – and who today rule Syria – begged the French to allow them to set up their own state in their ancient homeland along the Mediterranean coast between today's Lebanon and Turkey. One of those who most passionately supported this option was the grandfather of the ruler of Syria today: Suleyman al-Assad.
This is because Syrian Sunnis have historically referred to individual Alawites as "abid" [slave], and treated the Alawites as such. The Alawites were servants in Sunni households. Alawite tradition is filled with horror stories of Sunni abuse, both working in Sunni households and in other areas of as well.
The Alawites, an offshoot of Shiite Islam, were terribly discriminated against under Sunni rule. The Sunnis attitude towards the Alawites – and towards the other non-Muslims – was "noblesse oblige," or an attitude of condescension, if not outright hostility.
According to Alawite religious beliefs, the Muslim prophet Muhammad's cousin and son-in-law – Ali – was a deity. That a human could be a deity is anathema in Islam. Moreover, even though Christians are officially regarded as dhimmis, or second-class citizens, by the Muslims, many also refer to Christians as pagans: Christians deify Jesus who, in Muslim eyes, was a merely a prophet, born to a human mother and father.
Under the French and in the early years of Syrian independence after 1946, wealthy and respectable Sunnis did not want to have their sons serve in the military. Their Alawite servants, however, recognizing the military as a way to advance, persuaded their Sunni masters to sign recommendations to allow the children of their Alawite servants enter the military. Gradually, the Alawites rose in the ranks. Eventually in 1966, they overthrew the existing order to took over the country, and have dominated it since.
Many of these military officers, like their Christian counterparts, embraced Arab nationalism, perhaps hoping through nationalism to gain the equality that had eluded them in religion under the Sunni-dominated, society. These officers did their best to put their non-Sunni identities aside, and hoped – at times even demanded – that their Sunni fellow-Arabs do the same.
As the Alawites rose in the military, they also rose to senior positions in the Ba'ath Party, the basic tenant of which is militant Arab nationalism. But even as militant anti-Israeli Arab nationalists, these Alawites still feared that the majority-Sunnis would lie in wait, and pounce on the Alawites if the Alawites showed any weakness. The Alawites never allowed themselves forget that the Sunnis hated them; and that even though they controlled Syria, they had better come to an agreement with the leading Sunni families to provide them with stability and enable them to make money – in return for the Sunnis allowing the Alawites to control the country militarily and also make money.
During the so-called peace talks between Syria and Israel, the Alawites, according to their own admission, appointed Sunnis – and not Alawites – to negotiate with the Israelis – so that Alawites would not to be held responsible if any concessions were made to the Israelis. The Alawites were most likely concerned that if they had given in even ever so slightly to any Israeli requests, the Sunnis would have used that as an excuse to claim that the Alawites were not "true" Arabs.
Many Alawites have believed that the Arab-nationalist route of being accepted by the majority-Sunnis was doomed. According to discussions with people who have escaped Syria, as well as many still there, they feared, in their heart of hearts, that, just has the President Syrian President Assad's grandfather had warned, whatever they did, the Sunnis would never accept them. For these Alawites, the only solution would be a separate Alawite state, or entity, where they could control their destiny and not be under the dreaded Sunni yoke.
Many Alawites, who, quietly, had long opposed Assad's rule, are again, like Assad's grandfather in the 1930's, trying to put forward the idea of creating an independent Alawite state. Every day they can see around them that Middle Eastern culture places a high value on revenge, so that the Sunnis would never forgive them for having been ousted from power 46 years ago. The Alawites would be wise to fear that whatever happens in Syria, the Sunnis will massacre them for having governed Syria and for having killed so many Sunnis during the current war.
The concept of compromise simply does not exist in the Middle East – one either wins or loses. Compromise, because it invariably entails a partial loss, is evidently seen as bringing shame on oneself – to be avoided at all costs. Syria's Alawite regime therefore probably sees no alternative other than to keep fighting the Sunni-dominated opposition – which itself is succumbing to Turkish, Saudi, and Qatari-inspired Islamic fundamentalist leadership – and to try to ethnically cleanse the Alawite areas of all Sunnis in the hope of retreating to that area with the help of outside allies – be they Iranians, Russians, or other non-Sunni Arabs in the area – and barricading themselves in against the Sunnis.
Consequently, it is hard to imagine any settlement in which Syria remains a centralized and unified state. One could imagine local autonomous regions, where the Alawites could finally control their own destiny. Maybe other groups – such as the non-Arab Kurdish Sunnis in the north – might also have their own entities to throw off the yoke of Arab rule. Whatever the eventual outcome, the Kurds know that their Sunni Arab neighbors, even though they all share the same faith, will never let bygones be bygones. Just as the Muslims in general are relentless in pursuing Israel, they would never accept any solution where they do not eventually take over the entire area.
Therefore, if there is ever to be some sort of peace-like arrangement – albeit temporary – in what is Syria today, there is no way that Syria can remain a centralized state, with new rulers, whoever they might be, who would continue to oppress other Syrians . Of all the ethnic and religious groups in Syria, the Alawites have the most to lose, which they undoubtedly know and which is why they must have control over their own destiny. They would have no alternative other than to remain well-armed; if not, the Sunnis would again take them over and subject them to the slave-like status they had in the past.
Assad, therefore, cannot give in. He and the Alawites – whether they support or oppose Assad – are fighting for their very existence. They only way to end this civil war is to let them have control over their destiny – either as an autonomous region in Syria, or as an independent entity. Whatever happens, they will insist that they remain well-armed. They – like other minorities in the Middle East – will continue to live in eternal fear of the Arab Sunnis. As the concept of overlooking past grievances is alien to the culture of that region, true peace between the Alawites and the Arab Sunnis – or, for that matter, Arab Sunnis and non-Arab Sunnis – is sadly out of the question.