Alawis of Syria

Location: Latakia province, north-western Syria
Population: 800,000 (est.)
% of population: 11%
Religion: heterodox branch of Shi’a Islam
Language: Arabic

The Alawis are a religious sect inhabiting the underdeveloped and densely settled mountainous region of Jabal Alawi of Latakia province in Syria. Their origins are unclear but they are a splinter group of the Shi’a branch of Islam who view themselves as Shi’ite Muslims, although the majority Sunni population consider them to be religious heretics. Like the Druzes, they believe in the transmigration of the soul and they also follow several eclectic practices which place them at the fringes of Islam.

Since the traditional Islamic state was theocratic, the Alawis were thought of as political as well as religious dissidents and were pronounced in the fourteenth century to be “more infidel than the Jews or Christians”. In order to protect itself from discrimination by other Syrians the Alawi community sought refuge in a remote mountainous region where they remained fiercely independent from central government until well into the twentieth century despite administrative reforms introduced during the nineteenth century.

French rule was extended to the region between World Wars I and II and the Alawis were granted a degree of autonomy, but little was done to alleviate the cumulative effects of discrimination. Approximately 61% of Alawis were reported to have trachoma, a much higher percentage than among other Syrian communities. Malnutrition and high infant mortality rates were accompanied by poor educational facilities. As a result of poverty and poor opportunities many Alawis emigrated, most to the cities of Lebanon where they took the lowest paid and least desirable jobs and were subject to further discrimination.

In post-independent Syria the lowly position of the Alawis caused them to be attracted by the socialist secularist Ba’ath party. Over the past forty years they have become increasingly involved in the party and by the early 1960s some had taken leading positions within both the Ba’ath party and the armed forces, and when in 1963 a military coup brought the Ba’athists to power the Alawis were suddenly playing a leading role in national politics.

Between 1966 and 1976, 27% of all members of the Regional Command of the party and 21% of all cabinet ministers were Alawis, and ministers from Latakia province held 35 of the 59 portfolios. It was estimated that 18 of the top 25 command positions in the armed forces were held by Alawis. President Assad is himself an Alawi. Clearly in view of the general attitude towards the Alawis this situation is potentially explosive, and several prominent Alawis were assassinated in the late 1970s. Attempts by the Ba’athist regime to convince the Sunni majority that Alawi doctrine and practices are fully Islamic have not been entirely successful.

The 1980s have seen several attempts to overthrow Alawi dominance, principally by Sunnis from such groups as the Muslim Brotherhood. In 1979 over 50 military cadets, mainly Alawis, were killed, there were riots in Aleppo in 1980 and an attempted military coup in 1982 was led by the air force, the branch of the military where the officers are principally Sunni Muslims. The Assad regime is highly repressive and thousands of people have been jailed, including some Alawis. It has been reported that despite Alawi dominance in the army and security forces, those who have remained in the villages of Latakia have been economically neglected.