If you are trying to follow what’s happening in Syria, you’ve inevitably heard of the Alawites / the Alawis. Bashar al-Assad is one of them, as is the rest of his family. They are a religious group virtually unique to Syria, isolated to a few tribes along the Syrian coastline, living in the mountains. They might number 2 million, but that’s only a fragment of Syria’s 22 million people. It’s not quite the equivalent of a Jew becoming President of the United States in terms of numbers, but the chances of that happening you’d might have thought would have been a thousand times better after you hear their background.
There’s a lot of baggage that comes from their experience under the Ottoman Empire, but as of the 1920s they were living under French occupation. They’d always had a tense time with their Muslim neighbors, but that didn’t make them automatic allies with the French. They might have been the most anti-French of all the groups in the country, and the reasons are sort of complicated. But as as the 20s and 30s rolled on, the community’s experience became interwoven with the rise of Arab nationalism. The ideology promised equality among Arabs no matter their religious and no matter their tribe. It had a massive appeal to Alawites, Druze and Shiite Muslims in Syria and Iraq, drawing a lot of minorities toward politics.
In Syria, the ideology was vibrant, and helped military recruitment. Throughout the 40s and 50s, Alawites, Druze and Ismailis all disproportionately represented their groups in the army. By the 1960s, these minorities were disproportionately powerful in the officers’ corps. This was important politically, because Syria was going through a stream of military takeovers. As governments fell, newer and newer leaders took control. By 1970, Air Force Colonel Hafez al-Assad had enough support to make the effort himself. He succeeded and named himself president of the country, eliminating rivals (even among his own Alawi kin) very quickly. Until 2000, he ruled the country with an iron fist, leaving the country to his son Bashar when he died. Things had been much less ruthless up until 2011, but that’s merely in body count. Syrian human rights violations have been extremely prevalent. Politically, he has also eliminated competition and allocated money and resources to Hezbollah and Hamas.
Today, the Syrian military is overepresented by the Alawite minority, but also has other minorities heavily involved. Some estimates dare to guess as much as 70% of the military is Alawite, remarkable in a country where they are 12% of the population. Their being the military elite is tremendously significant.
The ethnic tension between Alawites and Sunni Muslims (the majority), is absurdly high. Most of the defections from the military have not been Alawite, but Sunni and maybe a few Shiites. The opposition, specifically the “Free Syrian Army,” claims there are Alawite defections, but the evidence has been little and the speculation more prevalent.
Protesters, fugitives and the organized rebels have been fighting a PR war with the government in Damascus. While Assad has made an effort to keep the wedge between his community and Sunnis alive, others have been trying to minimize it. In the words of one protester, “It is a Syrian uprising against a dictator’s regime, and for that reason there are protesters from Alawite, Christian, Druze, Ismaili and other sects.” So far, minority groups have not invested highly in the rebellion, so the most powerful men of Syria are still all in with the government. As general a statement as that is, it is a fair intro or summary of the situation.
Just how many Alawites – or other minority Syrians for that matter – are defecting from the Syrian army? There are ways of analyzing it, but for now I’ll leave you with that.