Are Syria's Alawites turning their backs on Assad?

Some Alawite leaders are challenging the intent and legitimacy of a document leaked to Western media, presumably issued by Alawite notables, that proclaims an independent Alawite identity and breaking all ties with the Assad regime.

al-monitor A billboard sponsored by Latakia's Chamber of Commerce shows pictures of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad (R) and his late father, former President Hafez al-Assad, in the coastal city of Latakia, the provincial capital of the heartland of the Alawite sect, March 17, 2016. Photo by LOUAI BESHARA/AFP/Getty Images.

Topics covered

western media, syrian regime, sunnis, shiites, islam, bashar al-assad, alawites

Apr 25, 2016

Earlier this month, The Telegraph news daily and the BBC website published excerpts from a document they said was prepared by religious Alawite leaders claiming the sect is dissociating itself from the Syrian regime and from President Bashar al-Assad, himself an Alawite. Al-Monitor perused the main text of the document, “The Alawites in Syrian Society: Loud Silence in a Declaration of Identity Reform,” which is thought to have been issued by undisclosed Alawite notables.

The 12-page document consists of an introduction and three chapters: The Alawites, The Alawites and Syria, and The Alawites and God. It is written in Arabic as a religious philosophical abstract, using complicated language including terms referring to advanced modernism concepts.

The document was criticized, especially by opponents of the Syrian regime, for not being signed and dated and for including several grammatical and spelling mistakes, all of which challenges its credibility, they said. Nevertheless, the Western media gave it political dimensions that it did not initially have regarding the Alawite sect’s disassociation from the regime and the Assad family.

According to The Telegraph article, the document “was smuggled out of the country amid extreme secrecy and shown to The Sunday Telegraph and a handful of other European journalists.”

“The authors, acting anonymously out of fear for their security once back in the country, said they had been forced to act because of the extreme danger the sect was now facing," the newspaper said.

BBC News religious affairs correspondent Caroline Wyatt wrote that the authors of the document claim it is supported by 25% of those representing Alawites.

However, Sheikh Ahmad Bilal, an official representative of the clergy of Syrian Alawites and director of the Syrian Institute of Theology, denied in an exclusive statement April 6 to Sputnik News that the document was issued on the part of Alawite clerics. He suggested the document was falsified and part of a “media war on Syria.”

Perhaps what provoked the Alawite supporters of the Syrian regime is what Wyatt reported in her article. “Those behind the document said that they hoped it would ‘liberate’ the Alawite community, who made up around 12% of Syria's pre-war population of 24 million, and that their declaration of identity would cut the link or ‘umbilical cord’ between the Alawites and the Assad regime.”

She also stated, “The Alawites, they pointed out, existed before the Assad regime ‘and will exist after it.’”

Bilal said, “This is completely untrue. We view the state as an institution that embraces all spectra of this people. We see President Bashar al-Assad as a symbol of Arab nationalism.”

However, according to the Telegraph article, the Alawite sheikhs from among the authors of the document said they are not calling on Assad to step down, and some favor him staying.

The article also indicated that the sheikhs said they wanted to "forge a new relationship with Syria's Sunni majority and had reached out to its religious representatives — though they would not identify who.”

Syrian religious researcher Ahmad Adib Ahmad, an Alawite professor at Damascus University, told Al-Monitor, “Any real document must be attributed to a real, known person, not an anonymous one.”

The document indicates that Alawi Islam is not a branch of Shiism but a third model of Islam, within the Irfan order. It added that the Alawite school had emerged in the tenth century and its name is contemporary. But Ahmad said, “This information is unfounded because Alawites are Muslims who are truly committed to Islam and who have acknowledged the Wilayat of Imam Ali, the Commander of the Faithful.”

“This document is a farce and does not represent the Alawites who are defenders of Syria and the righteous issues in the country. Our approach is that of the eternal leader [former President] Hafez al-Assad and that of the steadfast leader Bashar al-Assad,” he added. The late Hafez al-Assad was Bashar al-Assad's father.

A US-based academic who specializes in Syrian affairs told Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity, “The document is real, and there are secular elites and Alawite clerics behind it. They confirm the independence of their sect by declaring it with transparency. They are calling for a mutual forgiveness with the Sunnis. They have forgiven the fatwas — issued by Ibn Taymiyyah and his successors [in 1263-1328] in Damascus, which viewed the Alawites as infidels and persecuted them — provided that the Sunnis forgive the Alawite authority’s violence over the past four decades. These Alawites are distinguishing themselves from the regime, without opposing it.”

A Syrian Alawite journalist residing in Latakia told Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity that he does not know who is behind the document and that the signatories’ names were not leaked. He explained that the document does not reflect a particular inclination within the Alawite community. “Due to the repercussions of the war, no one needs to be involved in doctrinal debates,” he said.

“Since the issuers of the document did not reveal their identities, they have no power to determine a sect’s identity," he added. "Yet the document may as well be a dream of a person or a group of persons who intended to leak it to feel the pulse of the Alawite public. The public turned out to be preoccupied and made no reaction to the document, which has only reached the elite.”

On whether the Alawite community feels it is different from Shiites at the religious level or resents being viewed as Shiites, the Syrian journalist said that ties between the Alawites and the Shiites were mended in the 1950s by prominent Alawite religious authority Allamah Suleiman Al-Ahmad. Ahmad made great strides in bringing the two parties closer together, although he could not reconcile all their differences, and so some "contradiction remained and is reflected in the doctrinal and political relations.”

The Syrian journalist added, “If the document aimed to cause a rift between the Syrian regime, Hezbollah and Iran, it would be a naive attempt, since on the ground these parties face a common existential challenge. They are fighting by each other’s side, setting aside their ideological differences. This confirms that the relation between them is purely political and that ideology has nothing to do with it. Otherwise, the ideological differences between the Shiites and Alawites are not less important than the ideological differences between the Shiites and the Sunnis.”

Yet does the document address the Alawite masses, since it is announcing on their behalf an identity reform and declaring them as an independent sect, which has historically been mysterious? Does it call for stopping all manifestations of religious prudence imposed by the historical persecution they had faced, abandoning their inclination to isolate themselves and invoke with exaggeration the affliction they had endured? Does it address the Sunnis, who make up the majority of the Syrian people, and the greater part of the opposition against whom they are fighting a fierce civil war? Does it address the West and the international community sponsoring a political settlement in the Geneva talks?

Indeed, it does not appear to be addressing the Alawite or Sunni masses; otherwise, it would have been drafted in a simple political and religious language. It seems to be addressed to the West in particular, since it was leaked first to two British media outlets and included political concepts that were very liberal and progressive, acknowledges the values ​​of democracy and secularism, confirms the Alawite community’s independence from Shiism and political Islam, and calls for a regime based on the principles of citizenship, equality, freedom and religious tolerance. It rejects Islam as the state religion and source of legislation, instead acknowledging Islam, as well as Christianity, to be a source of values ​​and principles.

What remains to be seen is why this document was issued now, at the moment when the Syrian state is being restructured, amid calls for a federal regime and concerns of division into several small states. Does this document reveal the desire of an elite group to form an independent region, like the Kurds, or to have an independent state, as was the case during the Alawite State between 1920 and 1936?

Editor's note: This article has been updated since its initial publication.

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