Following in his footsteps, several Alawite sheikhs made further statements emphasizing their adherence to the Muslim community (albeit Shi'ite) and to Arab nationalism. Also, a group of Alawite students were sent to the Najaf province of Iraq to be trained on the Shi'ite doctrines of Islam.

For all the benefits of French rule for the Alawites, the French Mandate ultimately did little to improve the economic conditions of the Alawite population as a whole. Newly-emerged ideologist parties such as the Syrian Social Nationalist Party (SSNP) utilized this fact to turn Alawites against the French and toward Arab nationalism.

Alawites after World War II

It was during the Second World War that the future of the Syrian state and its constituent parts were shaped. When war broke out in 1939, a new generation of Alawites proved more flexible in cooperating with Syrian nationalists, most of whom were Sunni urban elites.

With the formation of Vichy France in mid-1940, ultimate power and authority in Syria rested with the British, who favored the creation of a unified independent Syria under the leadership of urban Sunni elite. Even though the Alawite territories belonged to independent Syria, historical mistrust between the Alawites and Sunnis made the transformation a lengthy and painful process.

After the war, Syria obtained independence in 1946, but entered into a period of political instability, unrest, and experimentation with pan-Arab connections to Egypt.

Once they recognized that their future lay within independent Syria, Alawites started to play an active role in two key institutions: the armed forces and political parties.

The Ba'ath party, founded in 1947 by several Muslim and Christian Arab politicians and intellectuals to integrate the ideologies of Arab nationalism, socialism, secularism, and anti-imperialism, was more attractive to Alawites than the Muslim Brotherhood, a Sunni conservative religious organization headquartered in Egypt with a large urban Sunni base in Syria.

Alawites and other minorities continued to be over-represented in the army due to two main factors. Middle-class Sunni families tended to despise the army as a profession, which, according to them, was the place for “the lazy, the rebellious, and the academically backward.” Alawites, on the other hand, saw the military as the main opportunity for a better life.

Second, many Alawites, who had been coping with dire economic circumstances, could not afford to pay the fee to exempt their children from military service.

The Alawite presence in the military culminated in a set of coups in the 1960s. The final coup was carried out by General Hafez al-Assad, himself an Alawite, and brought the Alawite minority to power in Syria in November 1970. In February 1971, Hafez al-Assad became the first Alawite President of Syria.

Alawites and the Assad Dynasty

Born to a relatively well-off Alawite family in a remote village located in northwestern Syria, Hafez al-Assad joined the Ba'ath Party in 1946 and rose to the rank of de facto commander of the Syrian army by 1969. Sectarian solidarity has been a crucial component of Assad family rule from the beginning. He relied on the Alawite community to consolidate his power and to establish his dynasty.

In the early stages of his rule, Hafez al-Assad emphasized Syria's pan-Arab orientation that required him to embrace the majority Sunni population. In 1971, he reinstated the old presidential Islamic oath, lifted restrictions on Muslim institutions, and encouraged the construction of new mosques.

At the same time, however, Assad not only placed trusted Alawites in key positions of the regime's security apparatus, but he also improved their living conditions, long among the most degraded in the Arab world. While rural Alawites benefitted from infrastructure improvements such as electricity, water, new roads, and agricultural subsidies, a group of urban Alawites enjoyed employment opportunities in the army and the state bureaucracy.

Overall, Alawites felt a sense of pride that "one of their own" had raised himself to such a high position.

In the end, Assad was unable to win the allegiance of large sections of Sunni Muslim urban society, particularly the conservatives with connections to the Muslim Brotherhood. His failure to fully bridge the divide was not only related to the heterodox character of his faith and certain anti-Islamic policies he adopted, but also to policies that favored his co-sectarians over the rest of the Syrian population.

The clashes between the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood and the president, who symbolized the Alawite minority, culminated in rebellions against the regime in late 1970s and early 1980s.

Simultaneously, language used by the Muslim Brotherhood and its supporters only served to magnify Alawite insecurity, lead Alawites to back the Assad regime, and exacerbate ongoing tension. For them, Alawites were kuffars (disbelievers).

The peak of this struggle was the battle in Hama in early February 1982, where Alawite (but also some Kurdish) troops killed around 30,000 Sunni civilians, effectively tying the fate of the Alawites to the Assad regime.

From that moment, politics in Syria have been dominated by sectarian divisions.

Sectarian insecurity among the Alawites—who believed that the fall of the regime could lead to revenge against their community following the events in Hama—led to a firm support for hereditary succession in Syrian government. An Alawite attendant at Hafiz al-Assad's funeral in 2000, therefore, did not hesitate to utter, “for us the most important [thing] is that the president should come from the Assad family.”

The Rule of Bashar al-Assad

Even though Bashar al-Assad’s inaugural slogan, “change through continuity,” was reassuring for Alawites, the same slogan was interpreted by the Sunni Syrian majority as an invitation to push for political change.

Bashar al-Assad's initial policies conveyed a message of economic and political reform, but his main strategy was redistributing the spoils of power among the loyal supporters of the regime and his family. These actions, rightfully called the "corporatization of corruption" by former Syrian vice president Abd al-Halim Khaddam, worked against not only the Sunni majority, but also many Alawites, who were left out of the small inner core that includes Bashar al-Assad, his brother, sister, brother-in-law, and cousins.

While the regime and its clients enjoyed unchecked power and wealth at the expense of the majority of Syrians, several instances of sectarian violence between Alawites and Sunnis erupted in Syria. The most recent of these outbreaks occurred in the summer of 2008. Bashar al-Assad used this violence as evidence to argue to Alawites that his authoritarian regime was the only protection for them from what he called Sunni fundamentalism and intolerance.

Moderate Alawites have challenged Assad’s fear-based justifications for his rule and many more liberal Alawites later joined the early protests against the Assad regime. They were much more concerned with Assad’s political oppression, corruption, nepotism, and economic troubles than with sectarian bonds.

The prospect of shattering the historical alliance between the Assad regime and Syria’s Alawites was a tantalizing opportunity for Sunni oppositional leaders.

With this goal in mind, former Syrian Muslim Brotherhood leader Ali Bayanouni reached out to the Alawites in 2006, stating: “The Alawites in Syria are part of the Syrian people and comprise many national factions … [The] present regime has tried to hide behind this community and mobilize it against Syrian society. But I believe that many Alawite elements oppose the regime, and there are Alawites who are being repressed. Therefore, I believe that all national forces and all components of the Syrian society, including the sons of the Alawite community, must participate in any future change operation in Syria.”

This statement differed dramatically from the antagonistic tone of previous Muslim Brotherhood statements about the heretical nature of the Alawite sect.

Bashar al-Assad, as a keen politician and skilled strategist, would not allow any type of rapprochement between his co-sectarians and the Sunni majority, which has been against the Assad regime for decades.

Beginning early in his reign, Bashar al-Assad not only began actively to emphasize his Alawite roots but also manipulated to his benefit an increasing trend among the Alawites of Syria: conversion to mainstream Shi'ite Islam. He followed policies of forging ties both with Alawites and Shi'ites in Syria as a conscious effort to transform the nature of the opposition, from a united front against his anti-democratic rule to sectarian conflict between the Sunnis and Shi'ites.

From Arab Spring to Civil War

The events of the Arab Spring destabilized Bashar al-Assad’s complicated efforts to balance and contain the forces opposed to his regime and emboldened these diverse challengers to stand together against him.

After protests began in Syria in January 2011, he quickly came to realize that the opposition movement was too powerful to control by turning yet again to the entrenched dependency between the Assad family and the Alawite minority.

As the regime used ever-increasing violence as its only recourse to suppress the opposition, Bashar al-Assad began to develop a new state policy to attract foreign support (especially from Iran and Hezbollah in Lebanon) to secure his regime not just as another authoritarian government whose popularity was in decline, but rather as a Shi'ite state entrenched in the region against neighboring Sunni states, such as Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and Turkey.

Al-Assad began to position himself as a pious Shi'ite through public events, appearances, and organizations. And the main Shi’ite political and military organizations in the region, Hezbollah and Iran, decided to back up the Assad regime in very concrete ways. They sent much needed financial and military support and ideologically bolstered Bashar al-Assad's fight against the Sunni “terrorists.”

The past eighteen months have proved that Bashar al-Assad’s strategy is serving its purpose as the nature of the conflict has transitioned into sectarian violence between Iran- and Hezbollah-backed Shi'ites and Sunnis, some of whom are backed by al-Qaida.

As has occurred repeatedly in its history, religious affiliations matter more than any other allegiance in the Syrian political arena and, after an initial burst of opposition to the Assad government, Syria’s Alawites have remained generally supportive (if wary) of his regime.

Despite a general feeling emerging in many Alawite villages that the Assad regime no longer represents them—particularly after affiliating itself with orthodox Shi'ite actors of the region, who have been known for their hostility against heterodox branches of Shi'ite Islam, including the Alawites—there is still a great deal of political power to gain for Bashar al-Assad from exploiting the deep-seated Alawite insecurity against the Sunni majority.

The Assad regime has already proved its willingness to drag Alawites, the Syrian state, and even the region, down with it into a violent sectarian chaos if it continues to be challenged.

Nevertheless, there remains an opportunity—perhaps now only a hope—for Alawites and Sunnis to break free from this political deadlock and form a supra-sectarian opposition that triggered the movement two years ago.