When in early March 2011 the “Arab Spring”—a wave of pro-democracy demonstrations that began in Tunisia in late 2010 and swept across Libya and Egypt—finally reached Syria, people from various religious and ethnic backgrounds (Muslims, non-Muslims, and Alawites; Arabs, Kurds, and Turkmen) rallied together to oppose the regime of Bashar al-Assad, the “elected” president of Syria.

The unrest resulted from a combination of socio-economic and political problems that had been building for years and that affect especially Syria’s large rural population. The drought of 2007-2010, high unemployment rates, inflation, income inequality, and declining oil resources all contributed to profound discontent on the part of the opposition movement. Moreover, harsh and arbitrary political repression had also eroded Bashar al-Assad’s long-cultivated facade as a “reformer.”

In the early days of the rebellion, the frequent protest chant, "Syrians are one!" indicated the determination of the demonstrators to show the unity of the opposition movement, which, according to them, was above any sectarian and ethnic division and dispute. In an unusual show of solidarity, in Latakia, the fifth largest city in Syria and one with a major Alawite population, a Sunni Imam led prayers for Alawites, while the Alawite Shaykh led prayers at a Sunni Mosque.

However, two years after the conflict began in the midst of tremendous hope and optimism, it has degenerated into a civil war with more than 100,000 deaths and 2 million refugees. And it has put Syria at the center of nasty geopolitical struggles involving the United States, Russia, Iran, Lebanon, and Turkey.

The war today has in many ways become a war fought between the majority Sunnis, on one side, and Shi'ites with the support of minority Alawites on the other.

Alawites are adherents of a syncretistic belief with close affinity to Shi'ite Islam and, importantly, the Assad family is Alawite. But despite their crucial role in the unfolding struggles in Syria, they are little known outside the region.

In most discussions of the Syrian civil war, the most neglected question is: How and why did an opposition movement that initially included various religious and ethnic segments of the Syrian society against a dictatorial regime turn into another sectarian war between Sunnis and Shi'ites?

Answering this question requires us to appreciate the peculiar position occupied by Syrian Alawites and the role played by them in the creation of the modern state of Syria.

We also need to understand how sectarian differences have long been used as a political tool by the Assad family—who have ruled Syria since Bashar al-Assad's father Hafez al-Assad took power in the 1970s—and, before them, by the French who controlled Syria for much of the 20th century.

Who are the Alawites?

Today Alawites comprise 12-15% of the Syria’s population, or about 2 million people. They mainly live in the mountainous areas of Latakia on the northwestern coast, where they constitute almost two-thirds of the population.

The Alawites are composed of several main tribes with numerous sub-tribes. Syria’s Alawites are also divided among two distinct groups: more conservative members of the community, who mainly live in rural regions as peasant farmers and value the traditional aspects and rituals of the belief, and the middle-class, educated, urban Alawites who have been assimilated into Twelver Shi'ism aided by Iranian and Lebanese propaganda. [Twelver Shi'ism is the principal and largest branch of Shi’ite Islam.]

Syria’s Alawites are a part of the broader Alawite population who live between northern Lebanon and southern-central Turkey. While not doctrinally Shi'ite, Alawites hold Ali (d. 661), who is considered the first Imam by the Shi'ites (and the fourth caliph by the Sunnis), in special reverence.

The sect is believed to have been founded by Ibn Nusayr (d. ca. 868), who was allegedly a disciple of the tenth and eleventh Shi'ite Imams and declared himself the bab (gateway to truth), a key figure in Shi'ite theology. Alawites were called “Nusayris” until the French, when they seized control of Syria in 1920, imposed the name “Alawite,” meaning the followers of Ali, in order to accentuate the sect's similarities to Shi'ite Islam.

The origins of the Alawite sect, however, still remain obscure.

While some scholars claim that it began as a Shi'ite faction, others argue that early Alawites were pagans who adopted themes and motifs first from Christianity and then from Islam. In essence, Alawism is an antinomian religion with limited religious obligations. Despite similarities to the Shi'ite branch of Islam, some argue that Ibn Nusayr's doctrines made Alawism almost a separate religion.

The Alawites believe in the absolute unity and transcendence of God, who is indefinable and unknowable. God, however, reveals himself periodically to humankind in a Trinitarian form. This, according to the Alawite theology, has happened seven times in history, the last and final being in Ali, Muhammad, and Salman al-Farisi, who was a Persian disciple and close companion of Muhammad.

The Alawites hold Ali to be the (Jesus-like) incarnation of divinity. While mainstream Muslims (both Sunni and Shi'ite) proclaim their faith with the phrase “There is no deity but God and Muhammad is His prophet,” Alawites assert, “There is no deity but Ali, no veil but Muhammad, and no bab but Salman.”

Alawites, furthermore, ignore Islamic sanitary practices, dietary restrictions, and religious rituals. The syncretistic nature of the Alawite belief is further evident in its calendar, which is replete with festivals of Christian, Persian, and Muslim origin.

Giving Ali primacy over the Muhammad, a feature shared by various ghulāt (Shi’ite extremist) sects, permitting wine drinking, not requiring women to be veiled, holding ceremonies at night, and several pagan practices have led mainstream Muslims to label Alawites to be often singled out as heretics or extremists.

In Syria, ethnically and linguistically Arab, the Alawites developed certain characteristics that isolated them from the Sunni Syrian population.

Alawites before the 20th Century

Uncertainty about Alawites’ religious identity confused observers and produced suspicion among political and religious authorities that often resulted in persecution over the centuries.

The first proponents of the Alawite faith fled to Syria from Iraq in the 10th century. In the 11th century they were forced out of the Levantine cities and into the inhospitable coastal mountains of northwestern Syria, which has remained the heartland of the Alawites ever since.

In the 14th century, Alawite marginalization was perpetuated by the first anti-Alawite fatwa (legal decision) by a Sunni scholar, Ibn Taymiyyah (d. 1328), which essentially proclaimed Alawite belief as heresy. Thereafter Alawites suffered major repression by the Mamluks (r. 1250-1517) who ruled the region. Geographically isolated, Alawites maintained their religious integrity in the face of continuous attacks and invasions.

In the Ottoman era (1517-1918), ill treatment continued as Alawites were considered neither Muslim nor dhimmi (a religious group with certain autonomy with regard to communal practices such as Christians and Jews) by the Ottoman government in Istanbul. On the other hand, during much of Ottoman rule, Alawites could practice their religion and a few enjoyed official positions.

The main reason for tension between central Ottoman authority and the Alawite community stemmed from Ottoman efforts to impose its authority by collecting revenue from their local regions. Alawites, who acquired a reputation as “fierce and unruly mountain people,” frequently resisted paying taxes and plundered the Sunni villages.

Attempts by later Ottoman governments to enroll Alawites in the army served as another reason for the Alawite uprisings and perpetuated the strong resentment towards Sunnis, who had so often been seen as their oppressors.

At the end of the 19th century, Alawites rose up against the Ottoman government demanding more autonomy. The rule of Ottoman sultan Abdulhamid II (r. 1876-1908) did little to diminish these desires, even though he allowed some Alawites to make careers in the Ottoman army and bureaucracy.

The Alawites enjoyed little benefit from the centralized Ottoman government and its largely Sunni-based policies that attempted to convert locals to Sunni Islam through building of mosques in Alawite villages and Sunni training of Alawite children.

The “Turkification” policies pursued by the Young Turks—a group of secularist and nationalist activists who organized a revolution against the Ottoman monarchy in 1908 and ruled the empire until 1918—accelerated the cooperation of the Alawites with new actors in the region: the French.

Alawites during the French Mandate and the Alawite State of 1922

The Alawite region became a part of Syria as a byproduct of the notoriously secret 1916 Sykes-Picot Agreement between France and Britain. It was placed under the French mandate after the end of World War I.

After defeating and evicting the British-backed Syrian King Faysal in 1920, France, in a divide-and-rule strategy, partitioned Syrian territories into four parts, one of which was Latakia, where most of the population was Alawite.

By promoting separate identities and creating autonomous zones in Syria along the lines of ethnic and sectarian differences, the French mandate aimed to maximize French control and influence in Syria. Muslim and Christian minorities were the main allies of the French against the Arab nationalism rooted among the urban Sunni elite.

Furthermore, Alawite territory was geographically crucial because French forces could use it to control the whole Levant coast.

During the mandate era, many local leaders supported the creation of a separate Alawite nation. Alawite cooperation with French authorities culminated on July 1, 1922 when Alawite territory became an independent state. The new state had low taxation and a sizeable French subsidy.

This independence did not last long. Although Latakia lost its autonomous status in December 1936, the province continued to benefit from a “special administrative and financial regime.”

In return, Alawites helped maintain French rule in the region. For instance, they provided a disproportionate number of soldiers to the French mandate government, forming about half of the troupes spéciales du Levant.

Alawitepeasants, who were not only religiously repressed and socially isolated by mainstream Sunni Muslims but also economically exploited by their fellow Alawite landowners, rushed to enlist their sons for the mandate army. As a result, a large number of Alawites from mountain and rural areas became officers and they formed the backbone of the political apparatus that would emerge in the 1960s.

French policy ultimately served its purpose to increase the sense of separateness between the political center and the autonomous states in Syria's outlying areas.

In Paris in 1936, when France entered into negotiations with Syrian nationalists about Syrian independence, some Alawites sent memoranda written by community leaders emphasizing “the profoundness of the abyss” between Alawites and Sunni Syrians. Alawite leaders, such as Sulayman Ali al-Assad, the grandfather of Hafez al-Assad, rejected any type of attachment to an independent Syria and wished to stay autonomous under French protection.

Yet the Alawite community remained divided over the future of the community. Despite a deep sense of religious difference, an increasing number of Alawites and Sunni Arabs were coming to believe that the inclusion of Alawites in a unified Syria was inevitable. People both within and without Syria worked toward a rapprochement between the predominant Muslims and minority Alawites.

For instance, Muhammad Amin al-Husseini, the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, who was the Sunni Muslim cleric in charge of Jerusalem's Islamic holy places from 1921 to 1938 and known as a leading Arab nationalist, issued a fatwa declaring Syrian Alawites to be known as Muslim. With this fatwa, al-Husseini aimed to unite the Syrian people against the Western occupation.