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The Alawites and the Future of Syria

This is because Syrian Sunnis have historically referred to individual Alawites as "abid" (slave), and treated the Alawites as such.

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Alawites Dance, circa 1880.

Alawites Dance, circa 1880.



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.

Originally published by the Gatestone Institute.

Harold Rhode

About the Author: Harold Rhode, Ph.D., served from 1982-2010 as an Adviser on Islamic Affairs in the Office of the Secretary of Defense. He is now a distinguished Senior Fellow at the Gatestone Institute. He is fluent in English, Hebrew, Arabic, Farsi and Turkish.


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