Minority Alawites Like Assad Dominate In Syria

Throughout the uprising in Syria, President Bashar Assad has been able to count on strong support in own sect, the Alawites. But recent reports suggest that a small but growing number of Alawites are abandoning Assad. Melissa Block speaks with Steven Heydemann, senior adviser for Middle East Initiatives at the United States Institute of Peace, about who the Alawites are and how they came to rule Syria.

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MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

Sectarian divisions are said to be the main factors in recent massacres inside Syria. Alawite attackers descended on Sunni Muslim towns, killing up to 200 people, according to activists. The Alawites are a Shiite sect and are a small minority in Syria but they hold outsized power. President Bashar al-Assad is an Alawite.

To find out more about the Alawites and their control, we turned to Steven Heydemann, Middle East specialist at the United States Institute of Peace.

STEVEN HEYDEMANN: The Alawites represent about 10 percent of Syrian society overall. But over the course of the past 40 years, a segment of the Alawite community has managed to secure an extensive grip on political power in Syria. Critical decision-making bodies tend to be dominated by Alawites.

BLOCK: It's fascinating to think about how the Alawites got that much control, because for a long time they were a persecuted minority, a peasant class within Syria. What happened? How did they get such power?

HEYDEMANN: It's true that they were marginal up until about the 1960s. It was under the French that Alawites began to move into the military. And once there, they also became very interested in the ideas being promoted by the Baath Party, ideas that rested on an ideology of Arab nationalism.

And as Alawites military officers became members of the Baath, they engineered themselves into a position that gave them the basis for seizing power when the Baath took over Syria in 1963. And from there, it was very, very rapid ascent of Alawite military officers that left Alawites in an almost near monopoly position in terms of their control of key positions of power.

BLOCK: As you think about the Alawite population in Syria, how prominent are the fissures in that community, how strong is the loyalty to President Assad?

HEYDEMANN: I would say that the uprising has tended to cement solidarity within the Alawite community up until now. If you go back to the period before this uprising began, the Alawite community itself was quite divided. There were areas of the Alawite population that had not benefited from economic development; that had not seen the inflow of public resources. So it's very important to understand that the Alawite community is not monolithic. And that their experiences under the Assads have varied quite a bit.

But as this revolution began, we did see something of a circling of the wagons within the Alawite community and a sense of sectarian solidarity developed because the Alawite committee felt threatened by an uprising that it tended to associate very heavily with not just Sunni Muslims, but with Islamists.

What I think we've seen in the last couple of months, though, is the erosion of that communal solidarity. We've begun to see increasing signs that Alawites recognize that as sectarian violence escalates, they're putting themselves even more deeply at risk. There's a growing awareness of how vulnerable that community is becoming, because of the likelihood that the Alawite community itself is subject to reprisals and revenge and retribution from a majority that outnumbers the Alawites, perhaps seven or eight to one, in the future.

And so, as the revolution, as the uprising has continued, I think it's caused an increasing sense of frustration and tension and disagreement among Alawites, about the wisdom of the path that the Assad regime has chosen to defend itself.

BLOCK: Steven Heydemann is senior adviser for Middle East Initiatives at the U.S. Institute of Peace here in Washington. Steven, thanks so much.

HEYDEMANN: Thank you.

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