Israeli journalist and political analyst Jonathan Spyer noticed a similar phenomenon when he traveled from Israel to Lebanon after the war against Hezbollah in 2006. “People have an acute sense of this unseen power which is both nowhere and everywhere,” he told me...
Bashar Assad and his Alawite community have some things in common with Druze. They, too, are religious minorities who emerged long ago from Islam and became something else. They, too, have to be sensitive to the majority where they live. If Syria’s Alawite rulers made peace with Israel, they may well face a Sunni insurgency as Jumblatt suggested—and it would not be the first time.
The Alawi, or Alawite, sect is a peculiar religious community that makes up around ten percent of Syria’s population and a tiny percentage of Lebanon’s. Most Alawites live along the Mediterranean coast in Syria and Northern Lebanon, but a few live as far south as the Golan Heights area. They are descendants of the followers of Muhammad ibn Nusayr, who took them out of mainstream Twelver Shia Islam in the 10th century. Their religion has as much in common with Christianity and Gnosticism as it does with Islam, and both Sunnis and Shias have long considered them “infidels.”
The strangest thing about the Alawites is that they have made themselves rulers of Syria. It’s as unlikely as the Druze lording it over Lebanon, or the Kurds seizing control of Iraq, or Coptic Christians mounting a successful coup against Mubarak in Egypt, but it happened. As the Assad clan is Alawite, most of the elites in the Baath Party, the bureaucracy, and the military are Alawites, too.
Imam Musa Sadr, founder of the Shia movement Amal in Lebanon, struck a deal with Hafez Assad in 1974 and issued a fatwa, or religious ruling, somewhat implausibly declaring Alawites part of the Shia community.
Yet the Alawites are not Shias. They’re Alawites. The two communities need religious cover for their political alliance, however, and Sadr’s fatwa gives it to them. The relationship between Hezbollah and Damascus’ Alawite regime, though, is strictly one of convenience. The two feel little or no warmth for each other.
While Hezbollah and Amal are politically aligned with the Alawite government, the Sunnis are not, and Sunnis make up around 70 percent of Syria’s population. The fundamentalists among them have long detested Assad’s Baath Party regime, not only because it is secular and oppressive, but because its leaders are “heretics.”
So the Assad family ended up supporting terrorist groups in Syria’s war against Israel for some of the same reasons the Khomeinists do in Iran. As minorities in the region, neither can be rulers of or hegemons over Sunnis without street cred.
Tuesday, October 5, 2010
Michael Totten on the Druze of the Golan Heights which he uses as a jumping off point for a great overview on the politics of the Druze, the Allawites, Shi'a, Sunni and Christians in Syria, Lebanon and Israel.