It has been over a decade since a civil uprising began induring the height of the Arab Spring. What started in March 2011 soon developed into a civil war between the government of and the , made up of various factions with different ideologies. Throughout the ongoing conflict, the opposition have been supported by international actors with interests not only in , but in the wider region too.
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After years of conflict that have caused one of the biggest migration crises since World War II, it is clear that the Assad government, with the support of Russia and Iran, will maintain its grip on power. The question now is what a post-warwill look like with President Assad and his regime still in office.
In order to understand what may lie ahead, it is necessary to understand the origins of the, their background and their influence on Syrian identity over the past 50 years.
The Alawite Community
The two largest sects in Islam are Sunni and Shia. Both sects overlap in most fundamental beliefs and practices, but their main difference centers on the dispute over who should have succeeded the Prophet Muhammad as leader after his death in 632. Today, between 85% to 90% of Muslims are Sunni and around 10% are Shia. Sunnis live in countries like Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Morocco, Indonesia and Pakistan. Shias are largely located in Iran, Iraq, Bahrain and Azerbaijan, with significant minorities in Lebanon, and Yemen.
considered themselves to be . The French “imposed the name ‘ ,’ meaning the followers of Ali,” to emphasize the sect’s similarities with Shia Islam., although not doctrinally Shia, especially venerate Ali ibn Abi Talib, one of the earliest Muslims and the cousin and son-in-law of the prophet. Shias consider Ali to be the first imam and rightful successor to Prophet Muhammad, while Sunnis see him as the fourth rightly-guided caliph who made up the Rashidun Caliphate. Before the French took control of in 1920, members of the community
population. Sunnis account for the majority of the country.is ruled by , but the community itself is a minority making up around 12% to 15% of the pre-war Syrian
The Rise of the Alawites
After was “more attractive to than the Muslim Brotherhood, a Sunni religious organization” founded in Egypt with a large base in .attained independence in 1946, the community began to play an active role in two key areas: political parties and the armed forces. On the one hand, the , founded in 1947 by Arab politicians and intellectuals to integrate Arab nationalism, socialism, secularism and anti-imperialism,
Furthermore, overrepresented in the military due to two main factors. First, middle-class Sunni families tended to despise the military as a profession. , on the other hand, saw the army as an opportunity for a better life. Second, many , due to their difficult economic situation, could not afford to pay the fee to exempt their children from military service.and other minorities continued to be
The explains, the regime embarked on a course of “rigorous state-nationalist indoctrination to consolidate rule and establish” its popular legitimacy. Among other efforts, “the Baathists sought to manipulate tribal and sectarian identities, seeking patronage by” upgrading the status of previously marginalized groups. This included the community.presence in the army culminated in a series of coups in the 1960s. Supporters of the rising were a minority in at the time. As scholar Rahaf Aldoughli
The last coup d’état inwas carried out by General Hafez al-Assad, who had been serving as defense minister and was an . His actions brought the minority to power in November 1970. Three months later, Assad became the first president of .
Once in office, “his project centered on homogenizing these diverse [marginalized] into a single imagined identity.” More broadly, Aldoughli adds, the overall aim of “nationalist construction was to subsume local identities into a broader concept of the ‘ ,’ defined according to the state’s territorial” boundaries.
The Sectarianism of the Syrian Civil War
Shortly before the outset of the US-led war on terror, Hafez al-Assad died in 2000. His son, Bashar, took over the reins and continued in his father’s footsteps. This included policies of coopting the religious space and portraying a moderate Islam under the guise of a secular state that sought to curb Islamism and blur religious differences. Despite these efforts, the confessional fragmentation of Syrian society provided a factor of tension and instability for a state that ultimately never succeeded in addressing these differences in the political arena.
The Arab Spring consequently arrived in legitimacy of secular ruling parties such as the Baath. The crisis of governability meant the secular balance imposed by the regime in society began to crack, exposing anger around the minority’s overrepresentation in the state apparatus and the Sunni majority’s underrepresentation. The result was anti-government protests that began in March 2011.at a time marked by a crisis of
Ultimately, the ensuing sectarianism of the Syrian conflict only makes sense if we also incorporate the geopolitical rivalries affecting the region. On the one hand, Lebanon’s Hezbollah and Iran are the Assad government’s main supporters and are interested in propping it up. On the other hand, Sunni actors such as the Islamic State group, the al-Nusra Front and Saudi Arabia want the government to fall.
That has failed. After 10 years of war, military forces loyal tohave retaken the vast majority of Syrian territory with the support of Iran and Hezbollah. As a result, both repression of the Sunni-dominated opposition and the strengthening of the community in the state apparatus are likely to remain part of a post-war . How the Sunni majority reacts to the fact that Assad and the remain at the center of Syrian politics is unknown.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.
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