Alawites are the ethnic and religious minority in Syria which comprise 12-15 percent about 2 million of the Syrian population. As far as the twentieth century, Alawites consisted of four main tribes in relative confinement mostly. They lived in the mountainous region of Hama, Latakia, and Homs while the Sunni majority lived mostly in the densely populated areas of Damascus and Aleppo. The Alawite community faced subjugation and marginalization based on geographic separation and economic disparities and this extended until the French came into power. Before the French control of Syria in 1920, the Alawaites were known as “Nusayris”. After the French control, they started to be known as Alawite which means the followers of Ali. It was under the French that the Alawites emerged from the rural highlands and enjoyed a certain type of autonomy. The French set up a separate state for the Alawites known as the Latakia state in July 1922. The French also recruited the Alawites into the Troupes Speciales du levant, which later evolved into the Lebanese and Syrian Defense Forces in 1921. Sunnis who were in the majority were against the French as they wanted to create an autonomous Greater Syria which was a term mostly used by the pan-arab nationalists. This further led to a distinct Alawite identity fostering the rifts between the Sunni community and Alawites in Syria.
The Alawites gained prominence in Syria and were provided with the chance of upward mobility during the rule of the Assad family who belongs to the Alawite community. In 1970, Hafiz- Al Assad by a military coup came into power establishing a regime that favored the Alawite community in Syria. From 1966 to 1970 more than 65 percent of the entire military of Syria constituted Alawites and even today Alawites hold key positions in the army. Since that moment, the conflicts within Syria have been dominated by religious, cultural, and sectarian divisions. Moreover, the Alawite community fatalities have sparked over the years, either fighting to shield the Assad regime or because they are indicted of supporting or assisting his regime. In the 1970s, A Sunni Organization named Muslim Brotherhood targeted the Alawite community for violence but the regime suppressed the group in a genocide in 1982.
Religious practices and beliefs:
In the modern Syrian context, the Alawites are classified as Muslims but their practices often tend to deviate from Muslim orthodoxy in various arenas. The Alawites are an ethnoreligious group that follows a branch of Shia Islam. They claim that “there is no deity but Ali, no viel but Muhammad, and no Bab but Salman”. The Islam of the Sunni sect under the scholar Ibn Taymiyaa issued several fatwas against Alawites claiming that they are greater disbelievers than Jews and Christians and authorized jihad against them. and The Alawites believe in the idea of the Divine Trinity constituting Muhammad, Ali, and Salman, which is revealed in the seven derivations of the Godhead, each incorporated into three persons. The Alawites believe in reincarnation but the Muslims of other sects oppose this belief saying that it is contrary to Islam.
In addition, other elements such as the acceptability of alcohol, Christmas celebrations, and the new year of Zoroastrians make them highly suspicious in front of the orthodox Muslims. The distinct beliefs and practices of Alawites have played a crucial role in shaping the ethnic conflicts within Syria. Historically, the Alawite community has faced discrimination and marginalization within Syria which has led to the creation of a sense of otherness among them due to their own unique set of rituals, practices, and beliefs that differ from those of the Sunni majority of Syria.
Cultural and Religious Differences as contributing factors of Conflict:
The ethnic conflict in Syria is entrenched in cultural and religious differences between the Sunnis and Alawites. Throughout the 20th century, religion has been rendered as a main source of conflict between the Alawites and Sunni ethnic groups in Syria. It is because Alawites and Sunnis adhere to different branches of Islam having distinct religious practices and beliefs. This further leads to religious tensions and ideological differences between the two groups fueling sectarian violence and discrimination. The cultural and religious differences between the Sunnis and Alawites also develop a sense of different identities. Alawites being a minority feel a threat to their identity from the majority of Sunnis whereas on the other hand, Sunni groups view the dominance of minority Alawites as a threat to their own cultural and religious identity and they seek to resist it. Moreover, stereotyping one another based on hate speech, religious intolerance, and demonization has been instrumental in deepening divisions and fueling conflicts between the different ethnic groups.
If we analyze the impacts of religious and cultural differences throughout the recorded history of Syria, we see that during colonial rule, the manipulation of various sects to entrench French rule through discrimination in the structure of the emerging military and the partition of the state into different sects have resulted in long-standing ethnic conflicts. Moreover from 1961 to 1970 religion was further used to strengthen the Alawite influence in the armed forces. The decades-long repression of the majority population of the Sunni community of Syria by the Alawites-led government based on religious and cultural differences and the elevation of Alawites in the private and government sectors led to the creation of sectarian strife among them. All of this was carried out to solidify the Assad regime based on sectarian bonds of the Alawite minority seizing control of the state and pursuing discriminatory policies towards the Sunni majority.
The struggles between the two groups over the years have fed a civil war in Syria that can transform the map of the Middle East. The Syrian war is considered to be a sectarian conflict between the minority Shite with the support of Alawites and the majority Sunni population on the other. The resistance action of the opposition at the start involved many ethnic and religious groups of Syria against the authoritarian regime of Assad turned into another sectarian war between Shi’ites and Sunnis. This Syrian insurgency started for the same reasons as that of revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt but now it has turned into a sectarian civil war which has no resemblance to what happened in those countries.
Assad Regime Utilization of Sectarianism
During the forty years, the authoritarian Assad regime in Syria has created the conditions for the conflict and its sectarian components. Assad regime highlighted the use of the sectarian nature of the Syrian conflict and by doing that it was somehow successful in motivating the shite Alawite minority to support it. Over the years, the Assad regime has portrayed the opposition forces and in particular the Sunni Muslims as a threat to the very existence of the Alawite community in Syria. The regime has intensified the sectarian nature of the conflict between the Alawites and the Sunni majority as this conflict adopted the shape of the struggle for life for the Alawites in Syria. The Alawites had been a major support base for both Hafiz and Bashar al-Assad. Over the years Assad regime has used the sectarian identity of Alawites for their political objectives to consolidate their power by ensuring the support of primary institutions such as military and security forces.
Moreover, it is also said that the regime has used various sectarian militias dominated by the Alawite community. These militias include the National Defense Forces (NDF) and Shabiha which have been empowered and supported by the Assad regime against the opposition groups such as the rebel fighters comprised of Sunni Muslims. The main strategic objective of such militias was to increase sectarianism in Syria and stop the Alawite community from joining the opposition forces. The regime has portrayed the conflict as a sectarian conflict where the survival of Alawites is at stake while demonizing other ethnic groups, particularly the Sunnis. The result of such utilization of sectarianism that we witness today is that the minority Alawites are entangled in this conflict with the Sunnis due to their historical association with the Assad rule in Syria.
Role of external actors in exacerbating sectarian strife:
The Syrian conflict is a complex one and multiple actors are involved in it with various vested interests. The conflict is often characterized by a multitude of ethnic, ideological, and sectarian divisions with the minority Alawite community in Syria being one of them. Several external actors such as Hizbollah, Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards (IRGC), and Shite fighters from Syria have bolstered their financial and political support to the Assad regime backed by Iran and Russia. Over the years, Iran has remained the steadfast supporter of the Alawite community in Syria, which includes Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Iran has provided relentless aid to the Assad regime and has declared the resistance forces in Syria as extremists or terrorists which are supported by Gulf Arab states, the United States, and Israel. The supreme leader of Iran Ayatullah Khomeini once said that Syria is Iran’s thirty-fifth province, and if we fail Syria we won’t be able to hold Tehran as well. This statement highlights the strategic significance of Syria for Iran as it is critical for providing the geographical thoroughfare to the Lebanese Shia militia group Hizbollah. Another reason for Iran supporting the Assad regime is that Iran is fearful of Syria’s Sunni majority and the fact that it may rule Syria supported by Saudi Arabia and the United States and then it would be hostile towards Shite Iran. Moreover, the use of foreign Shia militias in Syria against Sunni majority groups further exacerbates the sectarian divisions. So, here in this scenario, religion is playing a key role which further classifies into different sects supporting each other fueling ethnic conflict.
Moreover, various other external actors support different factions within the Syrian conflict involving the Alawites based on their vested interests. The opposition to the Syrian regime comprised of Alawites by the Sunni majority groups has gained support over the years from various external actors including the US, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar. However, not all these actors have been supporting the Sunni majority, particularly against the Alawites.
The Gulf countries particularly Saudi Arabia and Qatar have long supported the Sunni rebels in Syria both financially and militarily. The main purpose behind this support is to weaken the influence of their regional rival Iran in Syria and support Sunni rebel groups fighting against the Alawite-led Assad regime. Turkey has been a long-standing supporter of the Sunni rebel groups in the Syrian conflict as it assists the Sunni majority groups both militarily and logistically. The purpose of Turkish support is to prevent the emergence of Kurdish forces along its border. In addition, the United States and the Western allies are supporting the Sunni majority groups to weaken the Assad-led Alawite regime and to counter the extremist threats from ISIS in Syria. It is significant to note that all the external actors involved in the Syrian conflict have their agendas and interest in Syria and their involvement has further complicated the dynamics of the ethnic conflict between the minority Alawites and the majority Sunni groups in Syria.
Efforts needed to address the conflict:
The efforts to address the conflict between the Alawites and Sunnis majority will require an inclusive approach that takes into account all the factors such as historical, cultural, religious, social, political, and economic that are contributing to the long-lasting tensions between the two groups. Healing the sectarian divisions of a diverse nation like Syria is not only necessary, but it has become a significant point for a more secure and stable Syria. To address the long-standing conflict in Syria it is essential to foster dialogue and negotiations between the Alawites and other ethnic groups in Syria. It is also necessary to promote inclusive governance and power-sharing structures within Syria that would provide participation and representation for all other ethnic groups as it would help in addressing the deep-rooted tensions between these groups in Syria. Moreover, engaging neighboring states and regional actors to address the concerns and aspirations of all communities including the Alawites and international support for mediation in the conflict is vital for ensuring the peaceful resolution of this conflict between the Alawites and the predominantly Sunni Muslim community in Syria.
To conclude, we can say that the Alawite-Sunni conflict in Syria is a complex and multi-faceted one. This conflict is a vicious cycle of violence with both sides committing violence against each other. The conflict involves ethnic dimensions with the Alawite minority supporting the Assad regime, while Sunnis oppose it as they see Alawites as an illegitimate ruling class. The Assad regime portrays itself as the protector of the Alawite community against Sunni extremism. Moreover, the conflict has attracted fighters from both sides who are motivated by religious and sectarian considerations. This further polarizes the conflict along the cultural and religious lines making it more difficult to find a peaceful solution. In addition, the external actors’ involvement based on their vested interests has further fueled the conflict along the cultural and religious lines making it more difficult to find a peaceful solution deepening the divisions and prolonging the conflict. However, by addressing the root causes of conflict and engaging in peacebuilding initiatives there is still hope for a more peaceful, inclusive, and prosperous Syria.