The Difference Between Alawites and Sunnis in Syria

Why is there Sunni-Alawite tension in Syria?

The differences between Alawites and Sunnis in Syria have sharpened dangerously since the beginning of the uprising against President Bashar al-Assad, whose family is Alawite. The reason for tension is primarily political, rather than religious: top position in Assad’s army are held by Alawite officers, while most of the rebels from the Free Syrian Army come from Syria’s Sunni majority.

Who Are the Alawites in Syria?

An Alawite family stand on the balcony of their residence behind a banner
Kaveh Kazemi/Getty Images News/Getty Images
  • Geographical Presence: Alawites are a Muslim minority group that accounts for around 12% of Syria’s population, with a few small pockets in Lebanon and Turkey (though not to be confused with Alevis, a Turkish Muslim minority). Around 70% of Syrians belongs to Sunni Islam, as does almost 90% of all Muslims in the world).

    Historical Alawite heartlands lie in the mountainous hinterland of Syria’s Mediterranean coast in the country’s west, next to the coastal city of Latakia. Alawites form the majority in Latakia province, although the city itself is mixed between Sunnis, Alawites and Christians. Alawites also have a sizeable presence in the central province of Homs and in the capital Damascus.

  • Doctrinal Differences: Alawites practice a unique but little known form of Islam that dates back to the 9th and 10th century. Its secretive nature is an outcome of centuries of isolation from the mainstream society and periodical persecution by the Sunni majority.

    Sunnis believe that succession to prophet Mohammed (d. 632) rightly followed through the line of his most able and pious companions. Alawites follow the Shiite interpretation, claiming that succession should have been based on bloodlines. According to Shiite Islam, Mohammed’s only true heir, imam, was his son-in-law Ali bin Abu Talib.

    But Alawites take a step further in the veneration of Imam Ali, allegedly investing him with divine attributes. Other specific elements such as the belief in divine incarnation, permissibility of alcohol, celebration of Christmas and Zoroastrian new year makes Alawite Islam highly suspect in the eyes of many orthodox Sunnis and Shiites. Agnosticim/Atheism Guide Austin Cline has more on Alawi beliefs.

Are Alawites Related to Shiites in Iran?

Iran's supreme religious leader Ayatollah Sayed Ali Khamenei arrives to vote at a polling station, during the second round of parliamentary elections on April 25, 2008 in Tehran, Iran. Getty Images

Alawites are often portrayed as religious brethren of Iranian Shiites, a misconception that stems from the close strategic alliance between the Assad family and the Iranian regime (which developed after the Iranian revolution in 1979).

But this is all politics. Alawites have no historical links or any traditional religious affinity to Iranian Shiites, who belong to the Twelver school, the main Shiite branch. Alawites were never part of the mainstream Shiite structures. It wasn’t until 1974 that the Alawites were officially recognized for the first time as Shiite Muslims, by Musa Sadr, a Lebanese (Twelver) Shiite cleric.

Moreover, Alawites are ethnic Arabs, while Iranians are Persians. And although attached to their unique cultural traditions, most Alawites are staunch Syrian nationalists.

Is Syria Ruled By an Alawite Regime?

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and his wife Asma al-Assad. Salah Malkawi/Getty Images

You’ll often read in the media reports about an “Alawite regime” in Syria, with the inevitable implication that this minority group rules over a Sunni majority. But that means brushing over a much more complex society.

Syrian regime was built by Hafez al-Assad (ruled 1970-2000), who reserved top positions in the military and intelligence services to the people he most trusted: Alawite officers from his native area. However, Assad also drew in the support of the powerful Sunni business families. Sunnis constitute the majority of the ruling Baath Party, rank-and-file army, and have held the highest government positions.

Nevertheless, Alawite families over time cemented their hold on the security apparatus, securing privileged access to state power. This has generated resentment among many Sunnis, especially religious fundamentalists who regard Alawites as non-Muslims, but also among the Alawite dissidents critical of Assad family.

Alawites and the Syrian Uprising

Fighters from the Free Syrian Army, the main coalition of armed groups fighting the regime of Bashar al-Assad.

When the uprising against Bashar al-Assad kicked off, most Alawites rallied behind the regime (as did many Sunnis). Some out of loyalty to the Assad family, some out of fear that an elected government, inevitably dominated by politicians from the Sunni majority, would take revenge for the abuse of power committed by Alawite officers, and once again discriminate against the community as a whole. Many Alawites joined the feared pro-government militias, known as the Shabiha.

As the uprising escalated into a civil war, so did the sectarian tension in mixed Sunni-Alawite areas. There is growing resentment among many Sunnis over Alawite support for the regime, and deep conviction among the Alawites that they face a wholesale massacre if Assad is removed. This bodes ill for the resolution to the conflict, and any chance of national reconciliation once the violence ends.

Read more: Religion and Conflict in Syria

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