Perspectives Papers on Current Affairs
May 4, 2011
The Alawites and Israel
Prof. John Myhill
EXECUTIVE SUMMARY: The current uprising in Syria is challenging the regime which has held power in the country since the 1960s. While it is impossible not to feel both sympathy for the protesters and distress at the tactics employed by the government to keep its hold on power, it is important to keep in mind the bigger picture: The fall of the current regime would greatly increase the likelihood that Syria will precipitate a war against Israel. While similar arguments have been made about other recent uprisings in the Middle East, the ethnic composition of Syria and the history of the ruling regime there exacerbate this possibility.
It is generally believed that among the Arab regimes Syria is the most implacable enemy of Israel. This is a misperception. In fact, the Syrian regime is the only one which actually prefers – both practically and ideologically – that there be a Jewish state in the Middle East, both now and in the future.
Since the 1960s, Syria has been controlled by the Alawites, under the leadership of the Assad family. In order to understand the workings of the Syrian regime, therefore, it is necessary to better understand the Alawites – a highly distinctive non-Muslim sect with no theological or territorial objections to a Jewish state.
The Alawites’ religious beliefs suggest that they are pro-Jewish and anti-Sunni. They believe that two of God’s incarnations were Joshua Ben-Nun, the original Jewish conqueror of the Land of Israel, and the fourth Caliph, Ali, who was murdered by the Sunnis. They believe in reincarnation, regard the Pillars of Islam as purely symbolic, do not fast during Ramadan or make pilgrimage to Mecca, have no mosques or indeed any public worship, celebrate Christmas, Easter and Epiphany, and traditionally wear crosses like Christians. In all of these respects they differ not only from Sunnis but also from Shiites.
Persecuted as heretics by the dominant Muslims, the Alawites took refuge in the mountains of northwestern Syria, where they maintained a precarious autonomy. Following the establishment of the French Mandate after the First World War, the French set up an autonomous region for the Alawites in their homeland. The Alawites petitioned the French for an independent state, but their petitions were rejected and the territory was added to the Sunni-dominated state of Syria. The Alawites attempted to rebel against the Sunnis in 1946 and again in 1952, but they were put down. Undaunted, they established footholds in the officers’ corps of the Syrian army and the Ba’ath Party. They took advantage of the confusion following the collapse of the United Arab Republic to seize power in the 1960s, and they have controlled Syria ever since.
The Alawites are outnumbered in Syria by their traditional and theological enemies, the Sunnis, by a margin of 70 to 12 percent. Thus, in order to legitimize their rule among the Sunni majority, they must publicly project an image of championing Arabism by unrelentingly rejecting Israel and flirting with Israel's avowed enemies. Consequently, when the Arab states actually had some hope of defeating Israel militarily, before the Egyptian government entered into peace negotiations with Israel in the second half of the 1970s, the Alawites had to actually go to war with Israel in 1973 to 'keep up appearances'. However, for the last 30 years they have adopted a much safer strategy of demonstrative public rhetoric against Israel and any Arab regimes which have signed peace treaties with Israel, combined with broadly-publicized support for non-governmental Muslim groups that resist Israel.
Nonetheless, this is all just a show. Aside from the 1973 war, they have almost completely avoided any direct clashes with Israel. When confronted with a serious threat from their real enemies, the Sunnis, the Alawites have shown their true colors: In 1976, at the beginning of the Lebanese Civil War, when it looked as though the Palestinian-led coalition might take control of Lebanon, Syria’s army went into Lebanon to save the Maronite Christians from defeat. Also, in February 1982, in response to a series of terrorist attacks by the Muslim Brotherhood, the Syrian army invaded the city of Hama, the stronghold of the Brotherhood, killing roughly 30,000 people and cowing the Sunnis into submission.
The Alawites are a purely ancestral religious group and like other groups of this type – Jews, Maronites, Armenians and Druze – their basic loyalty is to their own particular group rather than any larger unit they may seem to be part of. Even if members of these groups happen to speak Arabic, they do not necessarily understand or publicly present themselves as being 'Arabs', doing so only when it seems to be politically expedient. Thus Arabic-speaking Jews, Maronites, and Armenians almost never present themselves as being 'Arabs', while Druze judiciously do this in Syria and Lebanon but not in Israel. Similarly, Alawites, overwhelmingly concentrated in Syria, naturally find it convenient and in fact indispensable to publicly claim to be Arabs, but this does not reflect their real loyalties.
Isolated by their idiosyncratic religion, the Alawites have, since the Iranian Revolution, turned to the most reliable allies they could find – the Shiites of Iran and Lebanon. These groups could be convinced that the Alawite religion was relatively similar to their own, and were also generally isolated and desperately in need of allies. The defiant attitude which these allies have shown toward Israel and the United States is of incalculable benefit, as well, to the image of the Syrian regime in the eyes of the Sunni masses in Syria. Nonetheless, it must be emphasized that the Alawites themselves are not theologically anti-Israel and have no interest in imperialistic religion.
A number of points emerge from this understanding of the Syrian Alawite regime. Israeli policymakers would be well-advised to take heed and plan their strategies accordingly:
(1) From Israel’s perspective, it is far better for the Alawites to maintain power in Syria than for a Sunni regime to take control there. The Alawites are currently governing and politically stifling a population of 14 million Arabic-speaking Levantine Muslims. These Muslims are particularly dangerous to Israel because they are of the same ethnicity as the Palestinians — this is not just a matter of modern pan-Arab ideology. If a Sunni regime were to rule Syria, any wide-scale Israeli-Palestinian clash, such as Operation Cast Lead, would likely trigger an emotional response, pulling Syria into an international war with Israel, regardless of the consequences. This represents a much more serious danger to Israel than the fall of the Mubarak regime in Egypt, where popular attachment to the Palestinians is much more superficial.
(2) While an open alliance between Israel and the Alawite regime is impossible, it is possible for the leaders of the two countries to develop tacit understandings, whereby they would essentially coordinate actions to support their countries' common goal of combating Sunni hegemony and radicalism.
(3) Syria will not accept a peace treaty with Israel, no matter what the conditions are, because it would delegitimize the regime. The Sunni regimes of Egypt and Jordan, on the other hand, could accept such treaties because there is a well-established tradition within Sunni Islam of religious thinking being subordinate to the political decisions of its leaders. The Alawites do not have this luxury.
(4) It is currently impossible to remove Syria from its alliance with Iran and Hizballah. The Alawites cannot openly ally with Israel and they are not foolish enough to switch to a partnership with the Americans, who have repeatedly demonstrated themselves to be unreliable allies.
(5) The stronger the Alawites are, relative to their Shiite allies, the more they will be able to dictate the terms of the alliance, which will inevitably have a moderating influence because they do not have the same apocalyptic worldview as the radical Shiites. For example, the situation in Lebanon from 1976 until 2005, when Syrian occupying forces were able to keep the situation there under control, was preferable from Israel’s standpoint to the current situation, as there are no longer internal checks on Hizballah. It is no accident, then, that war broke out between Hizballah and Israel in 2006, just one year after Syria ended its 29-year occupation of Lebanon.
(6) The Alawite regime is immeasurably strengthened on the Sunni street by Israeli and American accusations that it is part of the 'Axis of Evil', that it supports Hizballah and Hamas, etc. It is therefore in Israel’s interest to publicly make such accusations (whether or not they happen to be true).
John Myhill is a linguist at the University of Haifa. He is the author of
Language, Religion, and National Identity in Europe and the Middle East (John
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