Once they recognized that their future lay within Syria, the ‘Alawis began a rapid rise to power. Two key institutions, the armed forces and the Ba’th Party, had special importance in their transformation.
Even though the special circumstances which had brought them into the military lapsed with the French departure, ‘Alawis and other minorities continued after independence to be over-represented in the army. Old soldiers remained in service and new ones kept coming in. Given the Sunni attitude toward ‘Alawis, the persistence of large numbers of ‘Alawis in the armed forces is surprising. This anomaly resulted from several factors. First, the military retained its reputation as a place for the minorities. Patrick Seale observed that Sunni landed families, «being predominantly of nationalist sentiment, despised the army as a profession: to join it between the wars was to serve the French. Homs [Military Academy] to them was a place for the lazy, the rebellious, the academically backward, or the socially undistinguished.» For the non-Sunnis, however, Homs was a place of opportunity for the ambitious and talented.
Second, the Sunni rulers virtually ignored the army as a tool of state; fearing its power in domestic politics, they begrudged it funds, kept it small, and rendered military careers unattractive. Third, the dire economic predicament of the ‘Alawis and other rural peoples meant that they could not pay the fee to exempt their children from military service. More positively, those children saw military service as a means to make a decent living.
Accordingly, although the proportion of ‘Alawis entering the Homs Military Academy declined after 1946, ‘Alawis remained over-represented in the officer corps. A report from 1949 stated that «persons originating from the minorities» commanded «all units of any importance» in the Syrian military. (This did not mean just ‘Alawis; for example, the bodyguard of President Husni az-Za’im in 1949 was entirely Circassian.) ‘Alawis formed a plurality among the soldiers and some two-thirds of the non-commissioned officers.
Sunni leaders apparently believed that reserving the top positions for themselves would suffice to control the military forces. Accordingly, minorities filled the lower ranks and for some years found it difficult to rise above the company level. Ironically, this discrimination actually served them well; as senior officers engaged in innumerable military coups d’état between 1949 and 1963, each change of government was accompanied by ruinous power struggles among the Sunnis, leading to resignations and the depletion of Sunni ranks. Wags claimed, with some justice, that there were more officers outside the Syrian army than inside it. Standing apart from these conflicts, the non-Sunnis, and ‘Alawis especially, benefited from the repeated purges. As Sunni officers eliminated each other, ‘Alawis inherited their positions. With time, ‘Alawis became increasingly senior; and, as one ‘Alawi rose through the ranks, he brought his kinsmen along.
Purges and counter-purges during the 1946-63 period bred a deep mistrust between the officers. Never knowing who might be plotting against whom, superior officers frequently bypassed the normal hierarchy of command in favor of kinship bonds. As fear of betrayal came to dominate relations between military men, having reliable ethnic ties gave minority officers great advantage. In circumstances of almost universal suspicion, those officers within reliable networks could act far more effectively than those without. Sunnis entered the military as individuals, while ‘Alawis entered as members of a sect; the latter, therefore, prospered. ‘Alawi ethnic solidarity offered a far more enduring basis of cooperation than the shifting alliances formed by Sunni officers.
In addition to the military, ‘Alawis also acquired power through the Ba’th Party. From its earliest years, the Ba’th held special attraction for Syrians of rural and minority backgrounds, including the ‘Alawis, who joined in disproportionately large numbers (especially at the Ba’th Party’s Latakia branch ). Rural migrants who went to Damascus for educational purposes constituted a majority of the membership in the Ba’th Party. They tended to be students of lower middle-class origins, the sons of ex-peasants newly arrived in the towns. In Aleppo, for example, the Ba’th claimed as members as many as three-quarters of the high school students in some schools. One of the founders of the party was an ‘Alawi, Zaki al-Arsuzi, and he brought along many of his (rural) coreligionists to the Ba’th.
In particular, two doctrines appealed to the ‘Alawis: socialism and secularism. Socialism offered economic opportunities to the country’s poorest community. (The Ba’th’s socialism was unclear, however, until the 1960s; only when the minorities took over did this feature became prominent ). Secularism – the withdrawal of religion from public life – offered the promise of less prejudice to a despised minority. What could be more attractive to members of a downtrodden religious community than a combination of these two ideologies? Indeed, these aspects drew ‘Alawis (and other poor rural minorities) to the Ba’th more than its Pan-Arab nationalism.
The only rival to the Ba’th was the SSNP, which offered roughly the same attractions. The two competed rather evenly for a decade, until the Ba’th eliminated the SSNP through the Maliki affair in 1955. From then on, especially in Syria, ‘Alawis were associated predominantly with the Ba’th.
Three changes in regime marked the ‘Alawi consolidation of power: the Ba’th coup d’état of March 1963, the ‘Alawi coup of February 1966, and the Asad coup of November 1970.
‘Alawis had a major role in the coup of 8 March 1963 and took many of the key government positions in the Ba’th regime that followed. Between 1963 and 1966, sectarian battles pitting minorities against Sunnis took place within the military and the Ba’th Party.
First the military: to resist President Amin al-Hafiz, a Sunni, and to consolidate their new position, ‘Alawi leaders flooded the military with cosectarians. In this way, minority officers came to dominate the Syrian military establishment. When seven hundred vacancies opened in the army soon after the March 1963 coup, ‘Alawis filled half the positions. So restricted were Sunnis, some graduating cadets were denied their commissions to the officer corps. While ‘Alawis, Druze, and Isma’ilis held politically sensitive positions in the Damascus region, Sunnis were sent to regions distant from the capital. Although communal affiliation did not drive every alliance, it provided the basis for most enduring relationships. ‘Alawi leaders such as Muhammad ‘Umran built key units of members from their own religious community. Sunni officers often became figureheads, holding high positions but disposing of little power. In retaliation, Hafiz came to see nearly every ‘Alawi as an enemy and pursued blatant sectarian policies, for example, excluding ‘Alawis from some positions solely on the basis of communal affiliation.
Even ‘Alawi officers who resisted confessionalism eventually succumbed to it. Political events solidified ties between ‘Alawis, reducing the tribal, social, and sectarian differences that historically had split them. Itamar Rabinovich, a foremost student of this period, explains how confessionalism acquired a dynamic of its own:
J’did [Salah Jadid, ruler of Syria 1966-70] was among those who (for political reasons) denounced ‘Umran for promoting «sectarianism» (ta’ifiyya) but ironically he inherited the support of many ‘Alawi officers who had been advanced by ‘Umran…. The ‘Alawi officers promoted by ‘Umran realized that their overrepresentation in the upper echelons of the army was resented by the majority, and they seem to have rallied around J’did, by then the most prominent ‘Alawi officer in the Syrian army and the person deemed most likely to preserve their high but precarious position. It was also quite natural for [Amin al-] Hafiz… to try to gather Sunni officers around himself by accusing J’did of engaging in «sectarian» politics…. The solidarity of [Jadid’s] ‘Alawi supporters seems to have been further cemented by the feeling that the issue had assumed a confessional character and that their collective and personal positions were at stake.
The same factors caused Druze officers – also overrepresented in high military offices – to throw in their lot with the ‘Alawis in 1965.
A similar dynamic occurred in the Ba’th Party. Just as ‘Alawis filled more than half of seven hundred military vacancies, so they moved in numbers into the party. To make their recruitment possible, ideological requirements for admission were relaxed for two years after March 1963. Many party officials brought in members of their family, tribe, village, or sect. As an internal Ba’th Party document of 1966 explained the problem, «friendship, family relationship and sometimes mere personal acquaintance were the basis» of admission to the party, leading «to the infiltration of elements alien to the party’s logic and points of departure.» While ‘Alawis brought in other ‘Alawis, many Sunnis were purged. Membership quintupled in the year after its accession to power, transforming the party from an ideological to a sectarian affiliation. The Ba’th became an entirely different institution during its first two and half years in power (March 1963 to late 1965 ).
These changes culminated in Hafiz’ decision in February 1966 to purge 30 officers of minority background from the army. Hearing of his plan, a group of mainly ‘Alawi Ba’thist officers pre-empted Hafiz and took power on 23 February in Syria’s bloodiest-ever change of government. Once in office, they purged rival officers belonging to other religious groups – first the Sunnis and Druze, then the Isma’ilis – further exacerbating communal tensions. ‘Alawi officers received the most important postings, and acquired unprecedented power. The Regional Command of the Ba’th Party, a key decisionmaking center, included no representatives at all during the 1966-70 period from the Sunni urban areas of Damascus, Aleppo, and Hama. Two-thirds of its members, however, were recruited from the rural and minority populations in Latakia, the Hawran, and Dayr az-Zur. The skewing was even more apparent among military officers on the Regional Command; during 1966-70, 63 percent came from Latakia alone.
The ‘Alawi hold on power provoked bitter complaints from other communities. A Druze military leader, Salim Hatum, told the press after he fled Syria that ‘Alawis in the army outnumbered the other religious communities by a ratio of 5-to-1. He noted that «the situation in Syria was being threatened by a civil war as a result of the growth of the sectarian and tribal spirit.» He also observed that «whenever a Syrian military man is questioned about his free officers, his answer will be that they have been dismissed and driven away, and that only ‘Alawi officers have remained.» Playing on the Ba’th slogan, «One Arab nation with an eternal mission,» Hatum mocked the rulers in Damascus, saying that they believe in «One ‘Alawi state with an eternal mission.»
‘Alawi domination did not assure stability. Two ‘Alawi leaders, Salah Jadid and Hafiz al-Asad, fought each other for supremacy in Syria through the late 1960s, a rivalry that ended only when Asad prevailed in November 1970. In addition to differences in outlook – Jadid was more the ideologue and Asad more the pragmatist – they represented diverse ‘Alawi sects. The September 1970 war between the PLO and the Jordanian government was the decisive event in Asad’s rise to power. Jadid sent Syrian ground forces to help the Palestinians but Asad refused to send air cover. The defeat of Syrian armor precipitated Asad’s bloodless coup d’état two months later. This, Syria’s tenth military coup d’état in seventeen years, was to be the last for a long time to come. It also virtually ended intra-‘Alawi fighting.
The man who won the long contest for control of Syria, Hafiz ibn ‘Ali ibn Sulayman al-Asad, was born on 6 October 1930 in Qardaha, a village not far from the Turkish border and the seat of the ‘Alawi religious leader. Hafiz was the second of five children (Bayat, Hafiz, Jamil, Rif’at, Bahija); in addition, his father had an older son by another wife. The family belongs to the Numaylatiya branch of the Matawira tribe. (This means Asad’s ancestors came from Iraq in the 1120s.)
Accounts differ whether his father was a poor peasant, a fairly well off farmer, or a notable. Chances are, the family was well off, for while Qardaha consisted mostly of dried mud houses, the Asads lived in a stone house. In later years, however, Asad cultivated a story of poverty, recounting to visitors, for example, about having to drop out of school until his father found the 16 Syrian pounds to pay for his tuition.
True or not, Hafiz was a superior student and, on the strength of his academic record, he moved to the nearby town of Latakia in 1940, where he attended a leading high school, the Collège de Lattaquié. Then, sometime after 1944, it appears that he changed his name from Wahsh, meaning «wild beast» or «monster» to Asad, meaning «lion.» In 1948, when only 17 years old, he went to Damascus and volunteered in the Syrian army to help destroy the nascent state of Israel, only to be rejected as under age. Nonetheless, at least according to his own testimony, Asad did fight. He enrolled at the Homs Military Academy in 1950, graduated in 1952, and began attending the Aleppo Air School in 1952. He became a combat pilot in 1954 and distinguished himself in this capacity. (He shot down a British plane during the Suez operation.) Asad studied in Egypt and then, for eleven months in 1958, in the Soviet Union, where he learned how to fly MiG 15s and 17s and picked up a bit of the Russian language. During the UAR years, he commanded a night-fighter squadron near Cairo.
Asad was active in politics as early as 1945, serving first as president of the Students’ Committee at the Collège de Lattaquié, then as president of the National Union of Students. While still a student, Asad was jailed by the French authorities for political activities. He joined the Ba’th Party soon after its creation in 1947 (making him one of the party’s earliest members). Even as he rose through the military ranks, he remained active in the Ba’th Party. In 1959, during his exile in Egypt, Asad helped found the Military Committee and organize its activities. By that time, he had also begun the decade-long process of consolidating his position within the Syrian armed forces.
Asad was a powerful figure in 1961, so the conservative leaders who took power in Damascus late that year (after the dissolution of the UAR) forced him to resign his commission as captain and take up a minor position in the Ministry of Transportation. But Asad continued to participate in Military Committee activities, joining in a failed putsch on 29 March 1962, after which he fled to Tripoli, Lebanon, where he was apprehended by the authorities and jailed for nine days, then extradited back to Syria. This misadventure notwithstanding, he played an important role in the 1963 coup and was rewarded with a recall to the army and a meteoric rise through the ranks, going from major in early 1963 to major-general in late 1964 and field marshal in 1968. (He resigned from the military in 1970 or 1971.) Asad took command of the air force in 1963 and made this his power base to take control of the entire armed forces during the subsequent years of turmoil.
Asad’s support for the rebellion in February 1966 proved decisive in the coup that brought the ‘Alawis to power; his reward was to be appointed defense minister just twenty minutes after the new regime had been proclaimed. This new position gave Asad an opportunity to extend his authority beyond the air force, especially to the combat forces of the army. Then Asad’s coup of November 1970 was the culmination of the ‘Alawi rise to power in Syria.
The manner of the ‘Alawi ascent reveals much about Syria’s political culture, pointing to complex connections between the army, the political parties, and the ethnic community. The Ba’th Party, the army, and the ‘Alawis rose in tandem; but which of these three had the most importance? Were the new rulers Ba’thists who just happened to be ‘Alawi soldiers, or were they soldiers who happened to be ‘Alawi Ba’thists? Actually, a third formulation is most accurate: these were ‘Alawis who happened to be Ba’thists and soldiers.
True, the party and the military were critical, but in the end it was the transfer of authority from Sunnis to ‘Alawis that counted most. Without deprecating the critical roles of Party and army, the ‘Alawi affiliation ultimately defined the rulers of Syria. Party and career mattered, but, as is so often the case in Syria, ethnic and religious affiliation ultimately define identity. To see the Asad regime primarily in terms of its Ba’thist or military nature is to ignore the key to Syrian politics. Confessional affiliation remains vitally important; as through the centuries, a person’s sect matters more than any other attribute.
The Sunni response to the new rulers, which has taken a predominantly communal form, bears out this view. The widespread opposition of Sunnis – who make up about 69 percent of the Syrian population – to an ‘Alawi ruler has inspired the Muslim Brethren organization to challenge the government in violent, even terroristic ways. Although unsuccessful until now, the Brethren have on several occasions come near to toppling the regime.
It appears inevitable that the ‘Alawis – still a small and despised minority, for all their present power – will eventually lose their control over Syria. When this happens, it is likely that conflicts along communal lines will bring them down, with the critical battle taking place between the ‘Alawi rulers and the Sunni majority. In this sense, the ‘Alawis’ fall – be it through assassinations of top figures, a palace coup, or a regional revolt – is likely to resemble their rise.
June 15, 2000 update: Pace the last paragraph above: The fall of the ‘Alawis is indeed inevitable, but the succession of his Bashshar al-Asad on the death of hs father Hafiz al-Asad on June 10, ‘Alawi rule in Syria continues.
March 1, 2010 update: «Today, the Alawis of Syria are the only ruling religious minority in the Muslim world.» With that striking statement, Yvette Talhamy, formerly of Haifa University, opens her important article, «The Fatwas and the Nusayri/Alawis of Syria» in Middle Eastern Studies.. She reviews fatwas hostile to the ‘Alawis from before the twentieth century and three friendly ones from the twentieth century, arguing that «these fatwas shaped the history of the Nusayris.» It’s one of the few pieces of research to build on the subject of the article above.
June 21, 2012 update: As sectarian strife picks up, expect to see more analyses of this topic. Here’s one: Ayse Tekdal Fildis, «Roots of Alawite-Sunni Rivalry in Syria,» Middle East Policy, Summer 2012, pp. 148–156.