Last evening on NBC Nightly News, Richard Engel reported that the Assad regime in Syria is "wobbling." The network's chief foreign correspondent implied that "regular" gun battles close to the presidential palace suggest "command and control problems" as the country descends into a full-blown "civil war breaking out between Sunnis and Shi'ites."
Granted, Engel was probably hampered by time constraints and unable to scratch the surface of societal fracture, but it's misleading to conjure up a religious conflict between "Sunnis and Shi'ites" where there isn't one. Hostilities in Syria are gradually dissolving into a sectarian clash between Sunnis and Alawites -- a confrontation that's inescapably political in nature.
So what's an "Alawite"? Well, a quick wiki search will tell you that the Alawite sect was born of the schism between Sunni and Shi'a Islam, rooted in the disagreement over the succession of the caliphate after the Prophet Muhammad's death. Much like the titular "Shi'a" is condensed from "Shi'atu Ali" (literally, "the followers/faction of Ali"), the name Alawite is derived from Ali, the cousin and son-in-law of Muhammad, revered by Shi'a and Alawite, alike.
(Up until rather recently, the Alawites were know as "Nusayri" [or, Nusairyoon] in recognition of a nominal founder of the sect, Muhammad ibn Nusayr. This small and mysterious faction was christened Alawite [instead of Nusayri] by the French early in the Mandate period [1920-46].)
So why is this important? To quote the Bard, "What's in a name?" Well, despite Richard Engel's pronouncement that tensions in Syria boil down to a conflict between Shi'a and Sunni, Alawites aren't strictly Shi'a. Rather, they're termed "ghulat," or "exaggerators," and considered extreme in their veneration of Ali.
The Alawites split from mainstream Shi'a Islam in the 9th century. How come? Well, they consider Ali divine -- as Leon Goldstein writes in Foreign Affairs, this is a position that would be considered radical by most Shi'a and downright heretical by most Sunnis.
But despite outward appearance, the power struggle between Arab Sunnis and Alawi in present day Syria doesn't exist upon the fault line of some ancient religious schism. Rather, the violence is caused by a struggle over the right to control the substance of Syrian nationalism. It's important that we remember this.
The determination of Sunni insurgency is the product of political provocation decades in the making. The fundamental dispute between Sunni and Alawi sects is indicative of a historically decisive conflict. A minority Alawi population (approximately 2.5 million, or 13% of the population) has ruled Syria's Sunni majority (closer to 75% of 20.5 million Syrians population), and has discriminated against it with all the tools of political privilege and patronage.
At present, the Alawites enjoy the command of Syrian intelligence, elite military units, and the shadowy shabiha (literally, Arabic for "ghosts") militias that have reportedly perpetrated the most savage atrocities witnessed, to date. The Sunni have never enjoyed the opportunity to play a role proportional to their numbers and have been confined to the standing of an underprivileged majority. Demoralization breeds discontent, and political opposition to Assad's secular (even socialist) Ba'athism was often nurtured in the mosque.
Despite our tendencies to shrug off sectarian conflict as distinctly intra-Islamic ethnic hostility, the partition is political -- as it relates to the Sunni majority's "minority" standing, Assad's relationship with Tehran, and the conveyor belt of terror he provides Shi'a Hizbullah in southern Lebanon.
So where does this leave us?
Well, hopefully not entangled in another bewildering, post-colonial conflict contested by an anti-American, anti-Israeli regime complicit in the slaughter of its own people (albeit a de facto adversary of radical Islam) and a prismatic opposition that includes members of the Muslim Brotherhood, al Qaeda in Iraq vets, liberal activists, and renegade officers who couldn't stomach the atrocities they were ordered to commit.
For the record, I'd note the conspicuous absence of a number of groups in this conversation: namely, Assyrian and Maronite Christians, Greek Orthodox, and the millions of Arab Muslims who are similarly unenthused by both the regime and opposition.
Consider closely this last point before heeding calls to arm an opposition we don't understand against a regime we cannot tolerate -- particularly upon a Levantine fault-line bordering Jordan, Iraq, Israel, Lebanon, and Turkey.
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