To partially understand the problems in Syria–and why these problems are spreading this morning into Lebanon, you first have to understand that Bashir Assad is an Alawi.
The Alawis are a mystical and syncretic sect of Shi’ite Islam that take their name from Ali ibn Abi Talib, a cousin and son-in-law of Mohammed. One thousand years ago, followers of Ali converted the rural population of the Syrian Coastal Mountains from paganism to the Alawi faith–but in doing so allowed them to keep many of their non-Muslim beliefs.
Through the following centuries, the Alawis absorbed elements of other religions–even coming to have their own idiosyncratic celebrations of Christmas, Easter, and the Persian religious feast of Naw Ruz. In terms of religious doctrine, the Alawis believe in a trinity of Ali, Mohammed, and Salman Al-Farsi, the Persian companion of Mohammed. Of these three incarnations of God, Ali is considered the most important. For these reasons, the Alawis have been viewed from their inception as apostates by the Sunnis, and there have been continual, unsuccessful attempts to convert them to Sunni Islam.
Under the French mandate (1920), the territory of the Alawites was essentially divided among Syria, Lebanon, and Turkey. Today the Alawis constitute approximately 10% of the population of Syria (about 1.5 million people)–centered in Latakia, Hama, and Homs; there are another 100,000 Alawis in northern Lebanon; 350,000 in southern Turkey; and 2,000 in Israel on the Golan Heights.
So, in a country in which 80% of the population is Sunni, you can understand how Hafez Al-Assad’s Alawi takeover of the Syrian government in 1971 came as a shock. Assad immediately instituted an “emergency decree” that enabled him to round up Sunni dissidents. Forty years later his son Bashir still rules, and Alawis still dominate Syrian military, intelligence, and police institutions (though the lower level soldiers and police are Sunnis)-while Sunnis dominate the largely powerless civilian government.
The next time you see reports of Syrian tanks in the streets, think about how Alawi generals are commanding Sunni troops to attack largely Sunni demonstrators.