A small, marginalized people, kicked around the Middle East for centuries by Muslim empires, finally carves out an independent home for itself on the eastern shores of the Mediterranean. But life remains precarious: Islamists seek to delegitimize the newly established homeland, declaiming the ruling sect as a gang of infidel occupiers. Now, the simmering hatred of the occupied people finally has transformed into an unstoppable political and military intifada — cheered on by Western human-rights advocates.
The country I have just described is Syria. For all the pathological hatred that President Bashar Assad and his father Hafez have focused on Israel, the histories of the two countries betray some striking similarities. And those similarities help explain why the Assad clan and its hangers-on refuse to be dislodged from Damascus.
Like Israel’s Jews, members of the Alawi sect in Syria regard their control of the nation as an existential issue. There is only one Alawi state, just as there is only one Jewish state, and its destruction would mean the end of the Alawis as a political entity on the world stage — probably forever. With the passage of generations, it might even mean their gradual assimilation into other nations, as with Zoroastrians, Samaritans and a hundred other now-obscure Middle Eastern peoples.
For purposes of journalistic similitude, I am skating over huge and uncountable differences between the Syrian and Israeli origin stories. The Alawis never suffered a holocaust. And they comprise just an eighth of the Syrian population — as opposed to Jews, who comprise a majority within Israel. But I raise the broader parallel to explain why Bashar Assad seems willing to kill thousands, and even tens of thousands, of Syrians to protect his regime. He doesn’t see himself as the rest of the world does — as a power-mad monster in the twilight of his power. In his mind, he is a champion of a long-oppressed people who are one step away from history’s dustbin.
For insight into Assad’s perspective, a useful resource is Fouad Ajami’s newly published book, The Syrian Rebellion. The Lebanese-born American knows the region as well as any popular Western author writing today, and his scholarship does a fine job explaining how ancient history has led Syria to modern bloodshed.
The Alawi sect, he explains, first appeared in the late ninth century, as part of the general crisis in mainstream Shia Islam caused by the death of the eleventh imam and the disappearance of his infant son (the so-called mahdi, or “redeemer,” who still plays the starring role in ongoing end-times Shia mythology). The Alawis originally called themselves Nusayris, and settled in the eponymous mountain range that forms the spine of northwestern Syria.
Like many Shiites, the Alawis (as they came to be called by the French in the early 20th century) emphasized the role of Imam Ali, the Prophet Mohammed’s cousin and son-in-law. But they took the veneration of Ali to a new level. “For both Sunni and Shia Muslims alike,” Ajami writes, “the Nusayris were ghulat (extremist) exaggerators who carried the veneration of Ali beyond the bounds of Islam.” The influential fundamentalist theologian Ibn Taymiyyah (1263-1328), who died in Damascus, described the Alawis as enemies of Islam who embraced “pure unbelief.”
This label would persist for centuries. When the Ottomans stumbled on the Alawis in their mountain redoubts in the 16th century, they branded them al-milla-al-dhalla — “the lost nation,” a label many Jews may find evocative — and promptly forgot about them.
The Alawis’ fortunes began to change when they came down from the mountains to till the farms of absentee Sunni landlords. (“Always go down, never go up,” went the Alawis’ self-improvement mantra, Ajami reports.) Then came the collapse of the Ottoman empire. During the interwar years, under France, Greater Syria was chopped up into political units, with the Alawis assigned their own autonomous zone, dubbed Jebel Ansariyah, with the capital of Latakia.
The Alawis, fearful that they would be victimized within a larger Sunni-dominated Syrian entity, began agitating for the outright independence of an Alawi mini-state. In an extraordinary June 11, 1936 letter to the French government, the Alawi leaders described a “spirit of hatred and fanaticism imbedded in the hearts of the [Sunni] Arab Muslims” who surrounded them. An independent Alawi state, they reasoned, would help protect their group from “annihilation.”
And here is where history becomes surreal (at least in retrospect): In making their case for a safe and independent Alawi homeland, the community’s leaders held up the example of … the Jews.
The “good Jews” in Palestine had “contributed to the Arabs with civilization and peace, scattered gold, and established prosperity in Palestine without harming anyone or taking anything by force,” the Alawis wrote in their letter to the French government. “Yet the Muslims declared holy war against them and never hesitated in killing their women and children, despite the presence of England in Palestine and France in Syria. Therefore, a dark fate awaits the Jews and other minorities in case the Mandate is abolished, and Muslim Syria is united with Muslim Palestine.”
It is notable that in this letter, as in other documents, the Alawis refer to themselves as separate from “Muslims” — i.e., as “minorities,” like the Jews. Equally notable is the second signatory on that 1936 Alawi petition: Sulayman al-Assad, father to former Syrian dictator Hafez Assad, and grandfather to incumbent dictator Bashar Assad. I wonder: What would this apparently Jew-loving Alawi have thought of his anti-Semitic grandson’s 2001 speech to Pope John Paul II, in which the Syrian President claimed that Jews “tried to kill the principles of all religions with the same mentality in which they betrayed Jesus Christ and the same way they tried to betray and kill the Prophet Muhammad”?
In any event, the Alawi petition failed: The independent Syrian state that emerged in 1946 would subsume the Alawis into a Sunni-dominated nation. Yet in the end, the Alawis found a way to seize control of their destiny, anyway.
Seeking a path out of poverty, many Alawis had enlisted in France’s Troupes Speciales de Levant, while the Sunnis disdained this foreign corps. Two decades later, one of those impoverished Alawi enlistees — air force commander Hafez Assad — seized power under cover of a Baathist revolution. Since then, the country has been ruled by an Assad-run Alawi elite, co-operating, where necessary, with useful allies within the Sunni commercial class.
As this Alawi dynasty crumbles — to be replaced by who knows what sort of cobbled together Sunni-dominated autocracy or theocracy — it is worth pausing to consider its historical significance. For the Alawis, Assad-led Syria has been nothing less than an Israel of their own — a promised land for a lonely, persecuted people. No one can defend the barbaric means that Bashar Assad has used to try to protect this status quo. But you can understand why his fellow Alawis are so anxious and fearful as their moment in history slips away.
— Jonathan Kay is Managing Editor for Comment at the National Post, and a fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.