An Arab country that’s pro-Western and has a non-Muslim majority? Though it sounds like something that could exist only in an alternate universe, there’s a chance that such a state could emerge from the ongoing conflict in Syria. Alawites make up only 12 percent of the Syrian population, but they overwhelmingly dominate the regime: the family of the tyrant-ruler Bashar al-Assad is Alawite, as are the elite members of the military, the bureaucracy, and the intelligence agencies. The majority of Syria’s population, by contrast, is Sunni Muslim, and the opposition to Alawite rule is overwhelmingly Sunni. When the dust clears in Syria, the Alawites could conceivably beat a retreat to their historic heartland in the northwestern mountains along the Mediterranean. “It is now clear that this is where the Syrian conflict is headed,” writes Syrian expert Tony Badran in Foreign Policy. “Sooner or later, Assad will abandon Damascus. . . . Reports are emerging of internal population migration as Alawites begin moving back to the ancestral mountains.”
Alawites are sometimes inaccurately described as Muslims. In fact, their religion has as much in common with Christianity and Gnosticism as with Islam. They splintered from Shia Islam more than 1,000 years ago and have been going their own way ever since. They venerate Ali, the cousin of the prophet Mohammed, but they also believe that human beings used to be stars. They don’t pray five times a day as Muslims do. Much of their religion is secret. No one can convert to Alawism: you’re either born an Alawite or forever frozen out of the fold.
Sunni and Shia Muslims have always considered the Alawites infidels. It hardly occurred to anyone that they might be Muslims until the late Lebanese imam Musa Sadr issued a fatwa declaring them Shias in 1974. His ruling had nothing to do with Alawite theology and everything to do with his own political interests and the fact that Syria’s new Alawite ruler, Hafez al-Assad, needed a veneer of Islamic legitimacy. The fiction that Alawites were Muslims later helped cement the Syrian government’s alliance with the Shia theocracy in Iran.
The noxious ideology of Assad’s Alawite regime has nothing to do with Alawism as a religion; it is strictly practical. Its Baathist variety of secular Arab nationalism papers over the deep divisions in Syrian society by subordinating religion and sectarian identity to ethnicity: being an Arab trumps being a Sunni, an Alawite, a Christian, or a Druze. (The Kurds in the northeast are the losers in this equation, and they’re treated accordingly.) Assad’s hostility toward Israel and his alliance with Iran likewise make strategic sense. By championing the Sunni community’s anti-Zionist cause, he has been able to purchase some legitimacy from his cowering subjects. Also, Assad’s sponsorship of terrorism and his status as Iran’s sidekick give Syria much more geopolitical clout than it would otherwise have as a ramshackle, Soviet-style, resource-poor backwater.
Now that the Sunnis have turned against Assad, however, it’s all crashing down, as it was doomed to do sooner or later.