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 travelers 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.