How Syria’s religious contours explain battle lines

Big news out of Syria today. Here’s the top of a Reuters report:

Syria’s defense minister and President Bashar al-Assad’s brother-in-law were killed in a Damascus suicide bomb attack carried out by a bodyguard on Wednesday, the most serious blow to Assad’s high command in the country’s 16-month-old rebellion.

The bomber, said by a security source to be a bodyguard assigned to Assad’s inner circle, struck a meeting attended by ministers and senior security officials in the Syrian capital as battles raged within sight of the presidential palace.

State television said Defence Minister Daoud Rajha and Assad’s brother-in-law Assef Shawkat, the deputy defence minister, had been killed in a “terrorist bombing” and pledged to wipe out “criminal gangs”.

A Syrian security source confirmed Shawkat, 62, was killed and said intelligence chief Hisham Bekhtyar was wounded. State television said Interior Minister Mohammad Ibrahim al-Shaar had also been wounded in the blast.

The men form the core of a military crisis unit led by Assad to take charge of crushing the revolt.

I know I say this all the time, but I really appreciate how Reuters explains the significance of a given news event. Like most non-Syrians, I understand very little about the individuals involved or the context to a given bombing. Reuters, with an economy of words, explains those things.

But does religion play a role in this story? Further down in the report we learn:

Fighting also erupted overnight in the southern neighborhoods of Asali and Qadam, and Hajar al-Aswad and Tadamun – mainly Sunni Muslim districts housing Damascenes and Palestinian refugees.

Five explosion were later heard in the capital on Wednesday, close to the base of the 4th armored division, led by Assad’s brother Maher, residents said.

Assad and the ruling elite belong to the minority Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shi’ite Islam that has held power in Syria since a 1963 coup. …

In Damascus, government troops used heavy machine guns and anti-aircraft guns against rebels moving deep in residential neighborhoods, armed mostly with small arms and rocket-propelled grenades.

Rebels directed their fire overnight at a large state facility turned headquarters for pro-Assad militia, known as shabbiha, drawn mainly from Alawite enclaves in nearby hills.

Yes, it would be helpful to know precisely what makes the Alawites the Alawites, but isn’t that helpful to know that the ruling elites are part of it? For more on that divide, there is this NPR story, “A Syrian Defector Confronts A Sectarian Divide.” But it doesn’t explain the religious differences at all. Last month, however, NPR had a helpful story on the matter with Professor Joshua Landis. Host Renee Montagne began by asking Landis to sketch out the Alawites and their history:

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.

Helpful! Thank you, NPR and Reuters.

Damascus photo via Shutterstock.

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  • John Thacker

    And in order to put them down, the French built a local army and they recruited minorities, largely.

    This was a common colonial tactic everywhere, even when religion was not the dividing line. See for example the Tutsis in Rwanda. Colonial powers and minority groups could often ally usefully. The colonial powers would get a local army that was dependent on it (since the minority could be overwhelmed if the colonial power left), and the minority would get more money and power that the majority might otherwise shut them out of and oppress them.

  • Jerry

    Such background is especially important in the Middle East which is on fire currently. Knowing religious, ethnic and tribal affiliations along with colonial influences are critical to understand the day-to-day stories.

  • Julia

    This also explains what happened with the Muslims in Spain. I have no link to offer, but it’s my understanding that the minority Jews made common cause of sorts with the colonizing Muslims – becoming very important in governing. Which in turn explains why Isabella and Ferdinand wanted them out of Spain when they defeated the Muslims. Like Northern Ireland, religion itself isn’t so much the determining factor as it is the marker of political positions and alliances.

  • Julia

    Second observation.

    I have seen absolutely no mention in the media of the reason why Russia is supporting Assad, in addition to access to a warm water port, etc. The Russian Orthodox Church is really concerned about the future of their Orthodox brethren in Syria, also a true minority, where they have been safe under Assad. Additionally, this has been the one safe refuge for Christians in whole area. Putin has been most concerned to keep the Orthodox as allies in Russia.

    I had a long conversation with a Catholic Chaldean from Iraq who is nervously watching all of this. She is worried that her relatives in Iraq will no longer have Syria as a refuge if needed. First they had to flee North to Kurd territory and now they will be land-locked.

    The Near East ancient Christians are truly invisible and ignored in all of this.

  • John M.

    The British called it “Divide and Rule”. Its repercussions live with us today in the subcontinent.


  • asshur

    Re. The article
    The article misses a second minority (as power broker). The syrian regime is/was not simply a military/family dictatorship. The military were -so to say- the “strong arm” of a faction of the arab-nationalist “Baath Movement”, where other non sunni minorites where also signficatively overrepresented. I don’t know if in the last decades it has changed seriously

    Julia, Re Spain.
    You are collapsing about 700 years of history in one sentence! Jews were in fact seriously attacked -at least by the written law- in the last few decades of wisigotic rule and no doubt got a better status as “dhimmis” -for some time, only- and, in the myth of “La perdida de España” were cast as part of the traitors, but it is doubtful how old the core of the myth is and if it reflects any reality.
    Otherwise iberian jews fared during most the Middle Ages, notoriously better than in other parts of Europe. It happened both under muslim AND christian rule. There were some troubles (one of the first attested progroms in the XI century, happened in moslem Granada) but only after the 1.391 progroms a “Jewish problem” appeared. It should be called rather “CriptoJudaism Scare (cf. the “Red Scare”). The expulsion of the Jews in 1492, was the last attempt to solve it. See for instance H. Kamen’s Spanish Inquisition for a very readable, and relatively modern, scholary background.

  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    There used to be a large Christian presence in Syria (comparatively speaking). But I have seen close to nothing in the mainstream media about how Christians are faring in the cross-fire there.
    And Julia’s observation about Putin being concerned about what is happening to Orthodox Christians in Syria makes sense based on Russian and Middle Eastern historical precedents.
    The government that seems to have shown the least concern about the fate of Christians in the Middle East has been the United States government.

  • G.K. Thursday

    Well, you could find out all those things independently of Reuters and NPR by checking other more balanced news websites as well (you can discover these easily on your own). Reuters and NPR have shown quite a lack of balance when reporting on the welfare of Christian minorities around the globe.

  • David Van Biema

    What dos the sentence

    “And they’re not considered Muslims traditionally.”

    mean? By either Shia or Sunni majorities?

    No real criticism of anyone intended here; even the most informative interview can have holes in it. Just curious.

  • sk

    @Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    The United States having no jurisdiction over the Middle east Christians has no need to interfere. Just as other religious, tribal and ethnic minorities have been persecuted or ignored, as have Christians. Simply because it is a Christian minority being persecuted is not a reason for the U.S to intervene.