Assad’s is a dying regime, the War Nerd says — and you don’t want to be the one to send it into extinction:
Why not, you ask? Isn’t Assad a bad guy? Isn’t his regime evil? I don’t really understand those questions as well as everybody else seems to. The Alawites have reason to expect the worst, to stick together, and to fear Sunni domination. Those fears go way back to Ottoman rule.
Under the Ottomans, Alawites were kaffir, “heretics.” That meant, basically, “fair game.” At the moment, there’s a lot of nonsense going around about how sweet and tolerant the Ottoman Empire was from people who read Said’s Orientalism, or at least got the gist from the back cover, and went from the old European cliché “Ottomans — evil” to a new one, “Ottomans — good.” It makes me tired, this binary crap. If you can’t handle anything more modulated than that, stick to tweeting “Miley Cyrus: Saint or Sinner?”
Yeah, the Ottomans were occasionally considerate of minorities who had powerful connections abroad, like Western Christians (not Armenian, of course) or who performed useful state functions, like some Jews (not all) — but groups like the Alawites, without powerful foreign connections, huddled in the coastal hills hoping not to be noticed, were prey in the Ottoman view. The Alawites only survived by sticking together, fighting the Sunni when attacked, and above all, hoping not to be noticed. If the local authorities were kindly, they’d just be taxed to death for their heresy. If the Pashas were in a bad mood, troops would descend on Alawite villages and carry off all likely-looking women and children to be sold as slaves.
Like a lot of weak tribes, the Alawites were in a better position to benefit from a new set of masters than the formerly strong tribe, the Sunni. The French came in 1920 and saw the usefulness of a tightly-organized, warlike group like the Alawites. The fact that these coastal minority people were despised by the Sunni majority just made them less likely to conspire with the Sunni against the French, more loyal to their new masters.
The Alawites, ruled for the first time in their history by people who didn’t despise them, took to modern military service eagerly, like hundreds of other minority tribes all over the French and British empires. The Army was their way out of those miserable paranoid villages in the hills. They outperformed other groups and filled the officer corps by the time Syria got its independence from France in 1946.
The post-war years were full of wild experiments in the Arab world. The only constant was that military coups were the rule. Leaders came from the army — Nasser, Ghadafi, Saddam. So when an officer with coup-making skills happened to come from a tightly-knit community, he was almost sure to end up in charge. Saddam had his Tikrit clan in Iraq; Ghadafi had his academy buddies in Libya; Hafez Assad had his Alawite kin in Syria. The Alawites were perfectly placed to take advantage of this coup-centered polity. T. E. Lawrence said about them, “One Nusairi [Alawite] would not betray another, and would hardly not betray an unbeliever.” With Alawite officers filling the armed services in Syria, it was inevitable that an Alawite would come to power, as Hafez Assad did in 1970. From that point, they did what they had to do to remain in power. When killing was necessary, they killed. And in Syria, it was necessary fairly often. But I don’t know of any records showing that the Alawites were particularly cruel by the standards of the time and place. In fact, from the start of their rule in Syria, the Alawites have tried, via Ba’ath Party secularism and a long-term attempt to make Alawite ritual and doctrine closer to Sunni norms, to integrate with their neighbors.
I don’t see simple evil in that story. Good luck, historically, turning suddenly into precarious luck, then, maybe, very bad luck. That’s all I get from that, or from most tribes’ stories. No good, and very little you’d call “evil,” though a lot of suffering and blood.
Maybe I’m missing something. But what I think a lot of people like John Kerry are missing is what drove the Alawites’ grimmer measures: the simple fear of extinction. It’s a risk to go, as they did, from total obscurity to power in a place as fierce as Syria. Because when you fall, it won’t be to go back to Texas to paint puppies like Dubya. You and your whole tribe can reasonably expect massacres, mass rapes, ethnic cleansing, the works. When the Sunni revolted against Alawite domination in Hama in 1982, one of the slogans of the Syrian Ikhwan or Muslim Brotherhood was “Christians to Beirut, Alawites to the graveyard.” The SAA dealt with the revolt by blasting rebellious neighborhoods with artillery, killing thousands.