Among the many noteworthy aspects of President Barack Obama's recent tour of the Middle East was a comment on March 22, during a press conference with Jordanian King Abdullah II. Obama said, "Something has been broken in Syria, and it's not going to be put back together perfectly, immediately, anytime soon – even after Assad leaves."
Although the characterization of Syria's condition was accurate, Syria has been "broken" for a longer time than most Westerners seem to think. A religious fissure in Syrian society – a tear that has now widened into a civil war and filled up with blood, bodies, and ruins – dates at least to 1970. That year Hafez Al-Assad (1930-2000), father of the current dictator, Bashar Al-Assad, who are both members of the Alawite religious minority, seized power within the Syrian wing of the Ba'ath party, which had ruled the country since a coup in 1963.
Supporting both Al-Assads, and serving as their main subordinates and followers, were – and are – other members of the Alawite denomination, which some consider Muslim, and others do not. The world was slow to recognize in the Syrian civil conflict, commencing in 2011, a sectarian confrontation. The Syrian war pits the Alawites, who are typically counted as about 11% of the country's population of 22.5 million, against the Sunni Muslims, who total around 75%. There is also a small Alawite presence in Lebanon, which is vulnerable to involvement in the Syrian contest.
When Hafez Al-Assad became dictator of Syria, Alawites had already infiltrated the Syrian army on a wide scale, a pattern that began under the French mandate controlling Syria from 1920 to 1946. Hafez Al-Assad installed still more Alawites as Ba'athist leaders, at the summits of military elite and state administration in Syria – an Alawite ascendancy maintained by Bashar Al-Assad. Between the Alawites and the Sunni Arabs stand small communities of Sunni Kurds and Turkmens, Christians, Druzes (an esoteric faith derived from Shia Islam), other variants of traditional Shi'ism, and even a microscopic Jewish contingent. While favoring the Alawite minority, the Al-Assad regime pursued, under both father and son, a policy of public secularism. This included protection of the marginal creeds, as a bulwark against the overwhelming Sunni multitude.
Even though the Alawites are typically described as an "offshoot of Shia Islam," from their emergence in the 9th century until the 20th century, their identification with an Islam of any kind has been denied by Muslim rulers and theologians.
Rejection of their claim as Muslims was, and is, based above all on their worship, as God, of Ali Ibn Abi Talib – the fourth caliph who succeeded Muhammad (and three others from among Muhammad's companions). Ali, assassinated in 661 CE, was a cousin and son-in-law of Muhammad, and is considered by Shias to have possessed divine knowledge – one of the core differences between Shias and Sunnis, who refuse any such an assumption about Ali.
All Muslims, both Sunni and Shia, accept Ali as a righteous leader of the Muslims. The Alawites, however, have taken their devotion to Ali so far as to believe that Ali was the creator of the world, of humanity, of Muhammad, and of a third member of the "Alawite trinity," Salman Al-Farsi, a companion of Muhammad and the first translator of the Koran out of Arabic, into his native Persian. Ali, as the Alawites conceive him, was the final manifestation of God.
The notion that Ali was God, and created Muhammad, has been treated by Sunnis and, until the late 20th century, conventional Shia Muslims, as a departure from Islam, if not a tradition with which Islam was never directly involved. The Alawite sect has been said by foreign scholars to have roots in, and reflections of, ancient Phoenician practices, Persian religious movements derived from Zoroastrianism, and even Christianity.
Through the centuries, several important Sunni fatwas [Islamic clerical judgments] proclaimed that the Alawites were not Muslim. These fatwas include three issued by Ibn Taymiyya (d. 1328), an ultra-fundamentalist Sunni, considered the leading forerunner of Wahhabism, the state religion in Saudi Arabia. Al Qaeda frequently praises Ibn Taymiyya a a source of inspiration. Ibn Taymiyya's knowledge of the Alawites, however, was imperfect, according to Yvette Talhamy of the University of Haifa, who summarized 650 years of fatwas on them in a 2010 article in Middle East Studies, "The Fatwas and the Nusayri/Alawis of Syria." In 1516 and in the 1820s, high Ottoman Sunni clerics issued even more fatwas against the Alawites that justified their repression.
The end of Ottoman authority in Syria, with its conquest by the British and French Allies in 1918, changed the status of the Alawites. Before the Ottoman collapse, and the arrival of the French as rulers under authority of the former League of Nations in 1920, the Alawites were an impoverished mountain people. They lived by raiding Muslim and Christian villages, by banditry against travellers, and by meagerly-rewarded, often-neglected agriculture. The French after 1920 granted the Alawites a separate state at Latakia on the Mediterranean coast, where they remain a considerable community. When the French also made armed Alawites a substantial element of the French occupation forces, some Alawites repaid the favor by declaring themselves separate from Islam.
Under the French, the Alawites received their first fatwa certifying them as Muslims – from none other than Muhammad Haj Amin Al-Husseini (1895-1974), the British-appointed Grand Mufti of Jerusalem and outspoken supporter of Hitler during the Second World War. Attempting to secure Arab unity, according to Talhamy, in 1936 Al-Husseini affirmed that the Alawites were Muslims.
In a process that began in 1952, Al-Husseini's approval of the Alawites was echoed by fatwas issued by Shia clerics in Syria. It culminated in 1972 when Ayatollah Hasan Mahdi al-Shirazi (1935–80), an Iranian-Iraqi Shia exiled to Lebanon and close to Hafez Al-Assad, wrote a fatwa declaring the Alawites to be Muslims.
Similarly associated with Hafez Al-Assad, and issuing a definitive fatwa in 1973 accepting the Alawites as authentic Shia Muslims, was another leading Shia cleric, Musa Al-Sadr. Born in Iran in 1928 of Lebanese extraction, he became a major figure in the Lebanese Shia Amal party, which allied with Ayatollah Khomeini's revolutionary movement even before Khomeini overthrew the Shah in 1979. In 1978 Al-Sadr went to Libya where he disappeared, apparently killed at the order of the late Mu'ammar Al-Qadhdhafi. Hafez Al-Assad was further confirmed as a Muslim believer by the Sunni Grand Mufti of Syria, sheikh Ahmad Kuftaro (1915-2004). Talhamy argues that it was the acceptance of the Alawites as Shia Muslims that led to Syria's alliance with the Iran of Ayatollah Khomeini and his successors.
Following the murder of Ali, the progenitor of Shi'ism, the Islamic branch of Sunnism was born in Damascus 1,350 years ago. The overwhelming mass of the world's Sunnis never accepted the designation of the Alawites as Muslims of any variety. The Syrian Muslim Brotherhood, a Sunni movement, led violent protests against the regime created by the 1963 Ba'athist coup, with its significant Alawite involvement, in command over Damascus.
In 1964, soon after the Alawite-backed Ba'athist takeover of Syria, the Muslim Brotherhood was banned. As described by Talhamy, that year, in the city of Hama, the Muslim Brotherhood, Arab nationalist supporters of the Egyptian leader Gamal Abdel Nasser, socialists, and liberals all rose up against the secular, minority, and peasant nature of the new rulers. The Ba'athists – with Hafez Al-Assad then as minister of defense – responded by bombing the Al-Sultan Mosque in Hama, killing about 100 people. The incident was a harbinger of what was to come, and what continues today in Syria.
Al-Assad established absolute control, using his own Alawite faction, in 1970. Beginning in 1976, the Brotherhood pursued an armed struggle against the Syrian government, bringing in turn more massacres by Hafez Al-Assad's forces. Aleppo was occupied in 1980 by Al-Assad's military and armed party officials, who killed as many as 2,000 people and arrested 8,000 more. Strife returned to Hama in 1981 and 1982, when a Brotherhood uprising in Hama in 1982 was met by Hafez Al-Assad's ordering weeks of firing on the residents by helicopters, rockets, cannon, and tanks. Tens of thousands of Syrians were killed in Hama, many fled, and much of the city was destroyed.
That conflict between the Sunni Muslim Brotherhood and its allies, and the self-described Shi'ia Alawites, is the rupture in "broken" Syria – and it is not new. The massive repression by the Alawite tyranny, now assisted by Iran, has fed the rage of the Sunnis, who are incited by the Muslim Brotherhood and, more recently, by foreign Sunni jihadis. Given their unique theology, unacceptable to the rest of the world's Muslims – except for the radical Shias of Iran and Lebanon – Bashar Al-Assad and his loyalists, following his father's path, believe evidently, as do other totalitarian despots, that they have nothing to gain from accommodating their opponents and nothing to lose by unrestrained atrocities.
Equipped with chemical weapons, Bashar Al-Assad and his Alawite auxiliaries have apocalyptic visions similar to those of Ahmadinejad, Khamenei, and the Iranian builders of a nuclear arsenal, who dream of the coming of an Islamic mahdi, or messiah, and of the End of Days. The leaders of Syria and Iran are united not by Shi'ism, but by homicidal fantasies.