In Syria's Sectarian Battle, Who Are The Alawites?

Renee Montagne talks with Professor Joshua Landis about the Alawite sect in Syria. The minority group is the power base for President Bashar Assad's government. Landis is director of the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma.

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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

It's MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. Good morning. I'm David Greene.

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

And I'm Renee Montagne.

Syria is in a state of civil war. That was the assessment of the U.N.'s head of peacekeeping yesterday, noting the Syrian government has lost control of large chunks of the cities there. We're going to take a look now at the Alawite community at the core of that government. The Alawites are the religious sect of President Bashar al-Assad. To understand this minority group and how it rose to power, we turned to Joshua Landis. He's Director of the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma.

Welcome to the program.

JOSHUA LANDIS: It's a pleasure being here.

MONTAGNE: Would you please sketch out for us exactly who the Alawites are and what is their history? How do they fit into Islam?

LANDIS: Well, the Alawites are an offshoot of Shia Islam. They believe, for example, in the transmigration of souls. They don't observe the five pillars of Islam. Their women don't wear head scarves and are quite brash by Sunni standards. And they're not considered Muslims traditionally. For that reason, they have been ostracized for most of Islamic history.

Until the French arrived in Syria in 1920, the Alawites were locked in the coastal mountains of Syria. And the Alawites used to be the lowest of the low. They were the poorest Syrians, uneducated. The Sunnis thought of them as bandits. They weren't allowed to give testimony in a court of law, for example, because they weren't considered people of the book - unlike Jews and Christians, which could. So Alawites have had to overcome this history of really severe discrimination. And they found their way up through the military.

MONTAGNE: And let's talk about that. When you say found their way up, when did they rise to power and how did they do it?

LANDIS: Well, the reason that Alawites have come to power in Syria is quite simply because of the French occupation between the First and Second World War. The French faced an Islamic insurgency, a nationalist insurgency in Syria. The Sunni urban notables led an uprising. And in order to put them down, the French built a local army and they recruited minorities, largely. And the Alawites were heavily recruited into this army.

And within 10 years - by 1955 it's estimated that Alawites made up almost 60 percent of the noncommissioned officers. By the mid-60s, Alawites took over the military and with the military they took over the country. So by 1970, Hafez Assad takes over, consolidates Alawite power in his own family, and we've had a very stable Syria since then.

MONTAGNE: So the Assad family has managed to keep itself in power by keeping the support of not just the Alawites but other minorities. But in this last year and a half, during this terrible conflict there, has it gotten down to just the Alawites that are behind the Assad family and are they united? Are the Alawites united in supporting this government?

LANDIS: Well, increasingly it is getting down to the Alawites. The Assads figured out the key to ruling Syria, which was to rely on traditional loyalties. They patched together all these other alliances, particularly the rural poor Sunnis and the minorities. That is fraying now. And we are seeing it falling apart very rapidly. Others are hiving off and beginning to defect from the regime.

MONTAGNE: And is that the reason that we're seeing in recent weeks what feels like the thugs being brought in?

LANDIS: The Shabiha?

MONTAGNE: The Shabiha, this militia, which is also from the coast and also functionally Alawite.

LANDIS: Absolutely. What's happened since the beginning of this uprising, Sunnis, and particularly the enlisted soldiers, have been defecting. So the army is not reliable. In order to make up for that, the regime has been cycling in the Shabiha, who are smugglers and related to the president's family, but strongmen who aren't in the system, the military system. So increasingly, over the year this has evolved into a much more sectarian division of labor here.

MONTAGNE: If Assad doesn't prevail and stay in power, where will the Alawites go?

LANDIS: Very good question. That's, you know, in the last few days I can't tell you how many people have emailed and said are the Alawites preparing to make a state of their own on the coast of Syria? Is that why they're ethnically cleansing these Sunni villages in order to create this sort of pure Alawite state? I don't think that's what's going on. But there will be very likely revenge killings, particularly down in where these villages - have been so much fighting amongst the villages.

It's very hard to know what the future is for the Alawites. And that's why they're fighting. They've got their backs to the walls and they're sticking together. And they're unlikely to splinter into a bunch of groups.

MONTAGNE: Joshua Landis is Director of the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma.

Thank you for joining us.

LANDIS: Thank you for having me.

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