The conflict in Syria has taken a critical turn. Alawites, who have long rallied behind their co-religionist president, now want to execute his cousin for killing an Alawite army officer August 7 in an apparent road rage incident. It is rare for them to speak against the ruling regime publicly, but activists are now voicing their protest.
Since the beginning of the Syrian conflict in 2011, one-third of young Alawite men have died, mothers are hiding their sons and many men are fleeing the country. It seems that solidarity between Bashar Assad and the Alawites is weakening. Although Assad keeps the sectarian threat boiling, his fall would mean a hell for the Alawites by Sunni extremists, and many Alawites no longer doubt they are fighting a losing war. With the Islamic State group advancing closer to the Alawite heartland, the next genocide will be of the Alawites, regardless of whether they stand with Assad. Their faith will bring them a worse nightmare than that of the Yazidis: Alawites are not only considered heretic, but also an enemy on the battlefield.
According to common understanding, Alawites became a Shia offshoot a thousand years ago. However, some scholars find this a problematic claim. A deeper understanding of the nature of this secretive faith will shed light on the complexity of the sectarian insecurity and manipulation that Assad has been using to sustain his power by the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Syrians since 2011.
The sect was originally called Nusayri, named after Muhammad ibn Nusayr (A.D. 859) who, after the death of the 11th Imam Hasan al-Askari, claimed he was the imam’s intimate messenger. The core of Nusayrism is the concept of God in triad, with God himself being manifested through Ali, cousin and son-in-law of the Prophet Muhammad. Nusayris believe that God is Ali in the flesh, who created Muhammad from his spirit, who in turn created Salman al-Farisi, a Persian companion and evangelist. These three form a triad — Mana (Meaning), Ism (Name/Veil) and Bab (Gate).
Nusayrism is also cyclical. Nusayris believe that there have been seven times that God manifested in seven different trinities. The first was of Abel, Adam and Gabriel; the last in Ali, Muhammad and Salman. In all, the meanings, or manifestations, of God seem to be subordinate figures while the name/veil appear to be superior ones: Jesus is the name but God manifestation is actually Simon Peter; Muhammad is the name but God is manifested through Ali.
With this trinity concept, it is tempting to conclude that Nusayrism derives from Christianity. Nusayriyya is similar to Nasara, which means “Christian” in Arabic. Some scholars and observers have even accused Alawism of being a secret Christian proclivity because Alawites celebrate some Christian holidays and honor many Christian saints. In 1903, Jesuit scholar Henri Lammens believed that Nusayris were actually lost Christians.
For Nusayris, salvation goes through a succession of divine emanations. This shows its root in Gnosticism’s cosmogonies, which pre-date Islam. The concepts of transmigration of the soul and reincarnation after death were most likely borrowed from Hinduism through Manichaeism. Greek influences can be seen in the way Nusayris believe each soul is a star, the sinful will be reincarnated as inferior beings through nine levels of human existence and nobility. This mysterious religious cocktail then added elements from Zoroastrianism, Phoenician paganism and Mazdakism, thrown in for good measure.
Nusayris’ religious duties are also interpreted on the basis of gnostic cosmogony. Because people sin, they are no longer splendid stars and must redeem themselves by knowing God through ma’rifa — inner knowledge from one’s own direct experience of reality, something not possible through books. Consequently, traditional ritual and literal reading of scripture are not essential and can even lead to perdition.
With “inner knowledge” as a goal, the pillars of Islam are radically reinterpreted with “inner meaning.” For example, the five daily prayers are understood to be five members of the holy family, including Fatima (Muhammad’s daughter), despite the paradox that Nusayris regard women to be inferior and therefore unable to be reincarnated. Ramadan is allegorized and applied to speech, such as taking a vow of silence rather than abstaining from food.
It is very likely that the Shia principle of taqiyya (religious dissimulation) was the base for this interpretation. For Nusayris, revealing religious secrets to outsiders can lead to severe punishment. Their holy books and rituals are restricted to a few people who pledge to keep the secrets of the faith (Kitman); they are called Khassah while the ignorant majority are Ammah. The syncretic and mythical belief is a secret, even to its own believers.
The chameleon Nusayris
Nusayris fled Iraq into the inhospitable coastal mountains of northwestern Syria after being threatened with three fatwas in the 14th century by Ibn Taymiyya, who declared that the “Nusayris are more infidel than many polytheists” and “war and punishment in accordance with Islamic law against them are among the greatest of pious deeds” for a Muslim. Thereafter, Sunnis used the term “Nusayri” to mean “pariah.” During this period, Mamluk authorities killed 20,000 Nusayris. An Ottoman decree in 1571 treated them as non-Muslims and Alawite transgressors were beheaded.
In this hostile environment, Nusayris practiced taqiyya, allowing them to act as if they were Sunnis. For Nusayris, the “body” is not corrupted or affected by putting on the “clothing” of other sects. Jihad then implies a struggle to conceal the secrets of Nusayrism from unbelievers. It is a chameleon-like capacity to flex their practices in a manner that complies with their religion and allows them to survive in the face of oppression. Thus pragmatism became a Nusayri trait as they adapted to changing powers. When Crusaders raged through the region with massacres, Nusayris emphasized their Christian-like aspects and were spared from genocide. Under Sunni Ottomans, Nusayris accepted that mosques would be built with a Sunni Hanafi formula of prayer.
When the Ottoman Empire crumbled and France claimed Syria, Nusayris again stressed affinity with Christianity and achieved an independent state under French mandate in 1922. The French policy was “divide and rule” — they encouraged separatism and set the Nusayris against the Sunnis over fears of Pan-Arabism and Syrian Sunni nationalists fighting for independence. A Nusayri state was thus a perfect solution. The French also decided that the name of the sect should be changed to Alawite (followers of Ali). With a new name indicating Shia Islam, Alawites acquired equal standing with Sunnis, and thus deserving of their own independent state.
By the end of the French mandate, Alawite notables sent a memorandum to the Jewish prime minister of France, Léon Blum, in a final attempt to secure independence. The letter compared the fate of Alawites with that of Jews as a marginalized minority, indicating that identification of Alawites as a mainstream Muslim sect is a product of the modern era.
Despite their efforts, Alawites lost their autonomy and several revolts ended in failure. But a chameleon always blends itself with its changing environment. Seeing that uniting with Syria would be their best option, Alawites gave up their dream of independence. For Sunnis, this was a win-win situation since the Alawite stronghold of Latakia is the only gateway to the sea. Politics then focused on placing Alawites in the Muslim mainstream, and fatwas from Alawite and Sunni leaders confirmed that “just as the Catholic, the Orthodox, and the Protestant are yet Christians, so the Alawi and Sunni are nevertheless Muslims.”
From chameleon to lion
So how did Alawites rise to power? It started when the French gave them open access to the army. With “divide and rule,” the French ensured the army was diverse in an effort to prevent any sect from dominating and endangering French power. They also favored minorities not taking part in mainstream Arab nationalists’ fight for independence. Alawites, being a poor community, happily joined the army. By the end of the French mandate, Alawites formed half of the eight infantry battalions. Since the Sunni majority considered army jobs as reserved for the poor, they made a critical mistake at this point by letting this powerful political vehicle to be occupied by a minority, which later was able to turn the table and take control of the state. Alawite membership to the Baath party quintupled in the year after the party assumed power in 1963, transforming from a “political ideology” to a “sectarian affiliation.”
For ordinary Alawites, it’s not power but equality that they have, albeit with a great amount of what has been their way of life: taqiyya. When Hafez al-Assad came to power in 1970, he pursued a policy of de facto Sunnification. He “forbade Alawite Shaykhs to venerate Ali excessively, and set the example for his people by adhering to Sunni practice. He built mosques in Alawite towns, prayed publicly, fasted and encouraged his people to do the same.” The dictator previously changed his family name from Wahsh (wild beast) to Assad (lion), and had married a Sunni woman. Only a fraction of Alawites transformed from a marginalized backward group into a well-to-do community, though mostly in urban areas. For the most part, ordinary Alawites have sacrificed their religious idiosyncrasy for a share of political power and social security. Nusayrism has Islamized itself, making it possible for a prominent family of its sect to stay in power in a country where the constitution states that the president must be a Muslim.
The trump card of sectarian insecurity: Divide to rule
In the context of the Syrian conflict, however, there is one problem with Alawites’ chameleon strategy. They were never supposed to be linked with the ruling elite and thereby expose themselves. A chameleon is supposed to blend into the background, silent and camouflaged from threat. Its survival depends on its patience and avoidance of a loud, vivid, specific identity. This is impossible in Syria, where no matter how much assimilation ordinary Alawites achieve, there will always be ruling Alawites who stand out as “lions,” for good and bad. Since the chameleon has donned an orange hazard jacket complete with reflective strips, all Alawites — the ruling elite, soldiers, paramilitary thugs (shabiha), and most importantly, commoners — are targets. Islamist rebels are clear on this: “Every Alawite killed is one Alawite killed because of Assad.”
Sectarian insecurity is the norm in the Middle East. In Iraq, where Saddam Hussein himself belonged to a Sunni minority in a Shia country, the unwritten agreement was: “If you don’t interfere with politics, then you can have a good life.” In Egypt, Hosni Mubarak would use both stick and carrot to stoke sectarian tension just enough to subtly signal to the 8 million Coptic Christians what might happen if the political system changed.
Hence, most Alawites do not perceive themselves as being well-connected to the regime, but rather fear for their survival. In fact, they have every reason to feel aggrieved with the regime. While Bashar Assad rules Syria with power and wealth, most rural Alawites are impoverished. People say, “We never asked for anything, we don’t want anything, we just want security.” Periodic sectarian fighting acts as a reminder of what it would be like if Assad was ousted. The ruling family has cut itself off from its Alawite connection and manipulates sectarian fear to silence their voice. The family’s best interest lies in a nation with persistent sectarian tensions, with all minorities living in constant fear of Sunni fundamentalism.
In this politic of sectarian insecurity, Alawites have become a pawn like other minorities, and have even received harsher punishment than non-Alawites. The wholehearted loyalty that Hafez enjoyed in his early stage of rule has switched to another type of connection for Bashar based on sectarian insecurity. That is the case of Loubna Mrie, an Alawite woman whose mother was murdered because Loubna supported the opposition: “[Assad] doesn’t care if you are Alawite, Christian or Shia. If you are against him, he will kill you.”
The recent killing of an Alawite officer by Assad’s cousin is yet another example. However, this time, the crime by Assad’s family provoked an intense protest. Many Alawites say they are being betrayed by a leader who will cling to power until the last drop of Alawite blood is shed and by a regime that is losing the war. Alawites — who in 2011 chanted “Assad! Or we set the country on fire” — now chant a different tune: “God willing, we will witness the funeral of your sons.”
The next genocide
Alawites are in a difficult situation. They are trapped among three forces — Assad’s “If I die, you will die a worse death,” Islamists’ “Freedom! Freedom! Until all Alawites are crushed to the bottom,” and civilians and opposition groups linking all Alawites with the dictator and violent shabiha militia. The most horrific evidence of this animosity aired on Al-Jazeera, which broadcast an extremely hostile debate over why Alawites deserve to die. Hatred runs deep in the next generation, with even children saying, “We will never live together. … After the revolution, we want to kill them.”
Threats to Alawites also come from the influx of 200,000 refugees into Latakia, most of them Sunnis fighting Assad. Many can’t wait for revenge, and there is a high chance that rebels have infiltrated the refugee population and plan to attack from inside. In light of a recent offensive near Idlib, the war will surely reach Latakia at some stage.
A possible solution is for Alawites to apply taqiyya in a brutally practical way, by detaching themselves from the regime. Radical as it may sound, Alawite history proves this is possible. In 1858, when Alawite rebel leader Ismail Khayr Bey refused to surrender, the Ottomans warned they would flatten their territory. To save the community, Ismail was killed and beheaded by his own uncle. Never before has resentment against Assad been so high among Alawites, but how big is the chance that they would overthrow their co-religionist leader to save themselves?
In July, Assad admitted that his troops were losing ground. His staunch ally — Russia — recently intervened, which signals that Assad can no longer protect his Achilles’ heel of Latakia. Russia is the biggest arms supplier for Syria, and port Tartus south of Latakia is its only naval direct access to the Mediterranean. While Russia says it is fighting ISIS, observations on the ground indicate that Russia is targeting Sunni rebels as part of its support of Assad, Iran and Hezbollah. This is similar to the situation in Afghanistan, where Russia protected its ally, which led to a wave of Sunni mujahedeen pouring into Afghanistan, more than 13,000 dead Soviet soldiers, the collapse of Soviet Union, and the creation of extremist groups such as al-Qaida. Russian President Vladimir Putin’s swift military action in Syria may be welcomed by Assad’s army, but it can cause more harm to Alawite civilians. On October 12, Abu Mohamad al-Golani, head of al-Qaida-affiliated Nusra Front, called for attacks on areas controlled by Alawites in retaliation for indiscriminate Russian airstrikes on Sunni targets. “There is no choice but to escalate the battle and to target Alawite towns and villages in Latakia and I call on all factions to … daily hit their villages with hundreds of missiles as they do to Sunni cities and villages,” he said.
This signals a grim situation for Alawites, for they will be in danger regardless of whether they support Assad. If we understand the nature of their faith, then we also understand why they fight: not for Assad but for their own survival. As distrust and despair against Assad becomes increasingly intense, some Alawites realize they are dying for a leader they hate. Many others are fleeing their heartland. This very significant momentum that should not be wasted as it can effectively be mobilized to create new cooperation. Alawites are practical, and once-rare defections have become more common. They can ditch the regime but need to be sure that it is not a suicidal move and there is a guarantee of safety. As soon as their concern of survival is addressed, we may be lucky enough to see some trust building. Alawites are a main actor in Syria, and whatever decision they make could potentially change the landscape of this conflict.