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The Dangerous Illusion of an Alawite Regime

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June 13, 2013

This article originally appeared on BostonReview.net on June 11, 2013.

By Elizabeth Shakman Hurd

Reports from Syria often casually refer to Bashar al-Assad's government as an Alawite regime. Though the phrase seems harmless enough, it isn't. Calling it an Alawite regime not only bolsters Assad but also creates the conditions for more sectarian violence in the future.

The Alawites are followers of a branch of Shi'a Islam, and represent about 12 percent of the Syrian population. The name Alawite (Arabic: Alawīyyah) refers to Ali ibn Abi Talib, cousin of the Prophet Muhammad and considered the first Shi'a imam and the fourth "Rightly Guided Caliph" of Sunni Islam. Historically subject to social and religious discrimination, the Alawites lived before 1970 principally along the coastal and mountainous regions of northwestern Syria, where under the French they briefly had their own state. Many Alawites retain close ties to that region, although today Alawites live in all of Syria's major cities and some rural areas.

Since the rise of the Hafez al-Assad in 1970, the Syrian government has been dominated by a political regime composed of Syrians of different backgrounds that is overseen by an Alawite family. While reference to an "Alawite regime" may seem like innocent shorthand for this state of affairs, it quietly perpetuates three unfounded and dangerous illusions about the regime, the people of Syria, and the war itself.

1. All Alawites support Assad. This is not the case. Many Alawite villages have been miserable under Assad, and countless Alawites are poor and disenfranchised. Even before the revolt began in 2011, those who know Syria spoke of strong Alawite opposition to the Assad dynasty. As Leon Goldsmith explained last year in Foreign Affairs, "despite popular notions of a rich, privileged Alawite class dominating Syria, the country’s current regime provides little tangible benefit to most Alawite citizens…. [M]ost Alawite villages—with the exception of Qardaha, the home of Assad’s tribe, the Kalbiyya—have developed little." In fact, after two years of war, Alawites’ lives are even more difficult. Many Alawites who oppose the regime have died fighting with the rebels. Calling this an Alawite regime writes their sacrifices out of history.

2. No Sunnis support Assad. This is also untrue. Many Arab Sunni Syrians have died fighting for the Assad regime; they, too, are written out of history when we talk about an Alawite regime. Both economically and politically, a significant part of Syria's Sunnis have benefitted from the Assad regime. Many are still fighting tooth and nail for the regime's survival. The Assads could not have maintained their formidable grip on power for so many decades without support from a substantial part of the Sunni population. Bashar cultivated excellent ties with influential sectors of the Sunni Arab majority, and much of the Syrian economic elite is comprised of urban Sunnis.

3. Alawites are a simple sect, tied by blood and loyalty. Because of the Assads, this heterodox Muslim sect has too simplistically come to be equated with support for his regime. But like people everywhere, Alawites hold multiple, complex, and often conflicting affiliations and allegiances. Individuals who identify as Alawite have differing levels of attachment to Alawite history and tradition—as all of us do to our religious and ethnic identities. Some may identify strongly as Alawite, but as Aziz Nakkash observes, "others consider themselves trapped in the 'Alawite box' as a result of the current crisis." The myth of an Alawite regime turns this identity into an iron cage.

In fact, the Alawites have a complex story. Though well absorbed into Assad's authoritarian state project, they were never particularly well integrated into Syrian society. Clinging to the state in a desperate attempt to hold onto their modest gains in social and economic standing, many built their identities under Assad by playing down their origins, even changing their accents. Syrian authorities will have to grapple with the aftershocks of the Assad regime's use and abuse of this community for decades to come.

Which makes this the most dangerous falsehood in the bunch. To refer to an Alawite regime is to reinforce the lie that Alawites are separate from other Syrians. It transforms Alawites from complex and motley human individuals into easy targets of anti-regime violence, segregation, and discrimination. Naming this an Alawite government, in other words, is an oversimplification that can lead to sectarian violence.

What will happen after the war? The regime has taken full advantage of the Alawites' alienation and insecurity. Whoever assumes power will be forced to confront the legacy of Assad's co-optation of the Alawites. Suspended between a difficult and discriminatory past, a frightening and violent present, and an uncertain future, the Alawites have been held ransom by an authoritarian state. It is wrong that the Alawite community as a whole should be associated with the horrors perpetrated by this regime on the Syrian people.

Assad’s is not an Alawite regime. It is an embattled and desperate dictatorship. The Syrian war is an existential battle between this dictatorship and a fractured yet determined opposition. It is not a war between the Alawites (and, more broadly, Shi'a Muslims) and their Sunni enemies. It is, rather, a war over who will govern Syria, how, and under whose auspices. Russian economic interests, Iranian foreign policy, Turkish security, Iraqi politics and a host of other factors are at play in the conflict. This cannot be reduced to religion.

Powerful forces are arrayed against this reading of the conflict. Iran is deeply invested in the notion of an embattled Alawite regime battling a radicalized Sunni opposition because this legitimizes Iranian intervention on behalf of its ally, the Syrian regime, and allows Iran to secure its own interest in maintaining access to Hezbollah. Turkey's government stands accused of adding fuel to the sectarian fire, as rumors circulate that the Turkish government is pressing for a Sunni majority Syrian government after Assad falls. Opposition from Turkish citizens to this perceived sectarian agenda at home and in foreign policy is among the factors fueling current anti-government protests across Turkey.

The Syrian revolt did not start out as a sectarian conflict. It began as a fight between the regime and the people of Syria—of all backgrounds—who were oppressed by the state. Now it's a proxy battle to control the heart of the Middle East. It is not a religious conflict. There is no single Alawite position on the war. There is no united Sunni Muslim front. Yet the myth of an Alawite regime remains powerful: it makes the violence seem inevitable, it allows the lives and hopes of real Syrians to recede into the distance, and it makes the notion of a peaceful transition appear farfetched and dreamy.

The regime has a lot riding on this sectarian gamble. They are hoping we fall for it. To the extent we do, it is Assad and his supporters who win the war.

- Elizabeth Shakman Hurd is an associate professor of political science at Northwestern University.

Topics: Opinion