Journal Essay

Roots of Alawite-Sunni Rivalry in Syria

Ayse Tekdal Fildis

Summer 2012, Volume XIX, Number 2

Dr. Fildis is assistant professor in the Department of Political Sciences at Halic University in Istanbul.

After World War I, the victorious allies, Britain and France, divided the Arab provinces of the Ottoman Empire to suit their particular interests. The south, Palestine, was assigned to Great Britain; the north, Syria and Lebanon, was assigned to France. Syria was subdivided into five parts: Lebanon, including its principal towns of Tripoli, Beirut, Sidon and Tyre; Syria, with the main towns of Aleppo, Hama, Homs and Damascus; the mountainous region of Jabal al-Druze, with the principal town of Suaida; the Sanjak of Latakia, with Latakia, its principal town; and the Sanjak of Alexandretta, in theory part of Syria, but subject to a special autonomous form of government.1 During the period of the French mandate (1920-46), sectarian divisions were deliberately incited in order to suppress Arab nationalism and stifle the national independence movement. Separatism and the particularism of religious and national minorities — politique minoritaire — were encouraged by the granting of autonomous status to areas where such minorities formed a majority.

Arab nationalism, developed mainly by the Sunni Muslim community, was perceived as a threat by the French as well as by the Christians and the heterodox Muslim communities (Druzes, Ismailis and Alawites).2 Therefore, the French mandate administration cultivated a friendly relationship with the Druze, Alawites and some smaller communities. The mandate administration thus granted autonomy to Syria's two regionally compact minority groups, the Druze and the Alawites, and to the multicommunal regions of Alexandretta and the Jazirah.3

In 1922, the Jabal al-Druze region, located in an area of Druze concentration south of Damascus, was proclaimed a separate unit under French protection, with its own governor and elected congress. The mountain district behind Latakia, with its large Alawite population, became a special administrative regime under heavy French protection and was proclaimed a separate state. Later, in 1922, all but the Jabal al-Druze were united in a Syrian Federation that was dissolved at the end of 1924 and replaced by a Syrian state comprising the states of Aleppo and Damascus and a separate Sanjak of Alexandretta. The Alawite state was, however, excluded from this new arrangement. Except for a brief period, from 1936 to 1939, Alawite and Druze states were administratively separate from Syria until 1942.

During much of the Mandate era, France's divide-and-rule strategy helped to define the extent of the nationalist movement and prevent it from infecting minority-inhabited areas. The French also cut the ties between the urban nationalist opposition and the peripheral regions. Due to this strategy, the Syrian nationalist movement encountered great difficulty in expanding its activities beyond Damascus, Aleppo, Hama and Homs.

Arab nationalists did regard France as a friendly nation — as defined by the mandate, to help and guide them towards independence and statehood4 — but as a colonial, Christian, Western and anti-Muslim power that denied their national aspirations and threatened their religion, culture and language.5 The French administration consciously neglected to train an efficient and dedicated administrative elite and quietly aggravated relations between the Sunni Arab majority and minorities. The numerous divisions and re-divisions of Syria during the mandate6 obstructed the development of such an elite. When the last French troops withdrew in April 1946, one of the greatest obstacles to political integration after independence was regionalism.

The French policy of divide and rule eroded the ties among Syria's religious and ethnic groups, forging factions within each group and against the others. The French balanced ethnic representation by placing separate ethnicities at the head of different institutional branches of government, allowing one ethnic or religious group to be strongly represented in an institution. As a consequence, the Sunni Arabs were dominant in politics, the officer corps, the gendarmerie and the police, but underrepresented in the military's rank and file. By contrast, the Circassians were overrepresented in the army, but poorly represented in parliament and the police. The Alawites were overrepresented among the soldiers, but poorly represented in politics, the officer corps, the gendarmerie and the police.7

The pattern set during the French mandate and carried over into the independence era was the Syrian nationalist leadership's rejection of Arab unity as its principal political goal. Nationalists faced an awkward contradiction between pan-Arab unity and local self-interest.8 Arab nationalism's highest ideal — the creation of a single independent political unit including all who shared the Arabic language and cultural heritage — was pitted against a tendency to focus on local ambitions and concerns.

Most nationalist leaders failed to transcend their narrow town-based ideologies and did not share a broad vision of the future. Political life in Syria was characterized by chaotic rivalries within the political elite itself, in single towns or between leaders in rival towns, or between the urban-nationalist elite and the rural-based leadership of the compact minorities. The Alawites and Druze had enjoyed a certain degree of autonomy during the French mandate. Following independence in 1946, the Syrian nationalist leadership had the tremendous task of integrating the compact minorities and the scattered minorities (such as Kurds, Circassians and Armenians).

After independence, pan-Arab, Baathist, Greater Syrian and Palestinian slogans were the main rallying points for many political movements, but local and regional loyalties still influenced political and social commitments. French mandate policies prevented the development of any cohesive or definable loyalty to a Syrian nation-state. Arab identity was stronger than Syrian identity, and borders were only technically respected. Moreover, the lack of any shared loyalty meant that regional political conflicts were projected into the national political arena.9 As Maoz points out, "When Syria became independent in 1946, she was then by no means a nation-state nor had she a coherent political community to rely upon."10 Habib Kahalah, a member of the Syrian parliament in 1947, describes the characteristics of the parliament: "I look around me and see only a bundle of contradictions.... Men whom nothing united, sharing no principles . . . ; some were illiterate, others distinguished men of letters; some spoke only Kurdish or Armenian, others only Turkish; some wore a tarbush, others a kafiyeh...."11

Before independence, Syrian nationalists were represented in the National Bloc (al-Kutla al-Wataniya), a confederation of veterans of various backgrounds and interests who were united in the struggle for independence. When the mandate ended, the urban Sunni elite inherited the Syrian government. After independence, the Syrian government's major goal was to reduce, and gradually to abolish, regional and communal representation in the parliament, where those who had benefited from French rule were mainly the compact minorities. A major step in this direction was to abolish certain jurisdictional rights that were granted to the Alawites and the Druze by the French mandate. The abolition of jurisdictional rights in order to establish a centralized rule in Damascus ignited confrontation among the minorities. The Sunni rulers in Damascus integrated Latakia into Syria and abolished the Alawite state. The Alawite seats in parliament and the courts that applied Alawite laws of personal status also were abolished. The Alawites became reconciled to common Syrian citizenship and gave up the dream of a separate Alawite state. This change of outlook, which seemed to be of minor importance at the time, actually led to a new era in Syrian politics: the political rise of the Alawites.12


Until 1920, the Alawites were known to the outside world as the Nusayris or Ansaris. The name change was imposed by the French when they seized control in Syria. "Nusayri" emphasizes the group's different approach to mainstream Islam, whereas "Alawi" suggests an adherent of Ali (the son-in-law of the Prophet Muhammad) and accentuates the religion's similarities to Shii Islam.13 The Alawites benefited from the mandate more than any other minority group, gaining political autonomy and escaping Sunni control. The French set up an Alawite state, "the state of Latakia," on July 1, 1922. The Alawites also gained legal autonomy: in Arrete no. 623, September 15, 1922, a decision was handed down that ended Sunni control of court cases involving Alawites, transferring them to Alawite jurists.14

Another major instrument of French influence on the Alawites was their recruitment into the Troupes Spéciales du Levant, a local military force formed in 1921 and later developed into the Syrian and Lebanese armed forces. The French employed the principle of divide and rule in the Troupes recruitment too. The aim was to prevent any of the communities from obtaining a position so powerful as to be able to endanger the French administration.

Based on the French design, the army developed a strong rural and minority representation, with special detachments of Alawites, Druze, Kurds and Circassians. Alawites served under French officers along with the other "reliable" minorities15 in local forces. The French favored recruiting rural minorities because they were far from the urban-dominant political ideology, Arab nationalism. The French policy of military recruitment involved weakening the forces of nationalism that Arab Sunnis used to challenge the French over the future of Syria. As a result, in the mid-1940s, when that struggle was at its height, Arab Sunni representation in the army was much lower than their numbers in the population.16

The Troupes Spéciales du Levant were used to maintain order and suppress local rebellions. Largely composed of minorities, their activities generated resentment among Sunnis. By the end of the mandate, several infantry battalions were composed almost entirely of Alawites. Not one battalion was composed entirely of Sunni Arabs. Even those few battalions with significant Sunni Arab components were filled mostly with men from rural areas and far-off towns. The wealthy Sunni Arab landowning and commercial families, who led the Arab nationalist movement during the mandate, indirectly reinforced the trend towards strong representation of minorities in the Troupes by refusing to send their sons for military training, even as officers, in a force which they viewed as serving France's imperial interests.17 The Alawites formed about half of the eight infantry battalions of the Troupes, serving as police and supplying intelligence.18 The French made every effort to keep the Troupes immune from the Syrian ferment in the towns by using the Alawites and other minorities to suppress urban nationalist disorder.

The Alawites constituted some 12 percent of the Syrian population. From the Ottoman period, they were the most numerous and the poorest peasants in Syria, working for Sunni and Christian landlords in the mountain regions and in Latakia, at the foot of the Alawite mountains. The political effects of poverty were worsened by the geographic and communal divisions. The Sunnis who lived in towns enjoyed much greater wealth and dominated the Alawite peasants. According to Jacques Weulersse, the Alawites were "a numerical majority but a political minority."19 Their condition was scarcely improved under the mandate. The average daily income of a peasant in 1938 was only about 22 piastres, while the cost of living was approximately 50 piastres. This drove great numbers of Alawites to enrol in the Troupes.20

Depressed economic conditions made the army a vehicle for social mobility. For the first time, Alawite youth benefited from a small, but secure, income and became disciplined, trained and exposed to new ideas. As Seale states, "Service with the French established the beginning of an Alawi military tradition central to the community's later ascent."21 Socioeconomic factors heightened the strong representation of Alawites in the army. This incentive was less significant for people from the larger cities, mainly Sunnis. Urban dwellers frequently found it easier than their rural counterparts to avoid military service by paying a redemption fee.22

It is understandable that many members of Alawite communities were among the military and that, especially after 1949, when the first of a long series of military coups took place, they started to dominate Syrian political life. A military report describing the situation of the Syrian Army in 1949 stated that "all units of any importance as well as the important parts stood under the command of persons originating from religious minorities."23 However, Batatu notes,

...on the level of the officer corps the Alawis, contrary to a widespread impression, were not as important numerically as the Sunnis prior to 1963. They derived much of their real strength from the lower ranks of the army. In an arithmetical sense, they had a plurality among the common soldiers and a clear preponderance among the non-commissioned officers. As early as 1955... Colonel Abd al-Hamid al- Sarraj, Chief of the Intelligence Bureau, discovered to his surprise that no fewer than 65 percent or so of the non-commissioned officers belonged to the Alawi sect.24

As opposed to the Alawites, who saw the Military Academy of Homs as a place for the ambitious and talented, the wealthy Sunni Arab families often despised the army as a profession: They regarded the Academy as "a place for the lazy, the rebellious, the academically backward, or the socially undistinguished."25 As Seale states, "this was the historic mistake of the leading families and of the mercantile and landowning class to which they belonged: scorning the army as a profession, they allowed it to be captured by their class enemies, who then went on to capture the state itself."26

The Alawites, although excessively represented in the army, were just the corporals, sergeants and junior officers before the takeover by the Baath party in 1963. On the other hand, the most important group, which undertook politically and strategically important military functions, was the senior Sunni officer corps. Sunni leaders apparently believed that reserving the top positions for themselves would suffice to control the military. The leaders of the first three military coups between 1949 and 1954 were all Sunnis. In the period between 1954 and 1958, when the Syrian-Egyptian union (the United Arab Republic) was established, the officer corps was strongly divided into rival factions. The "union pledge," which was made in January 1958, was led mainly by Sunni officers; in September 1961, another coup, which separated Syria from the union, was also led by Sunni officers.27 The struggle among the senior Sunni officers greatly weakened Sunni representation in the officer corps and strengthened the minorities, mainly the Alawite officer corps. "As Sunni officers eliminated each other, Alawites inherited their positions and became increasingly senior; as one Alawi rose through the ranks, he brought his kinsmen along."28 The two national institutions that played major roles in the Alawites' rise to power and eventual control of political life in Syria were the military and the Baath party.


Pan-Arabism aimed at the political resurrection of the Arabs as one nation. In contrast to the nationalist movements in neighboring countries like Turkey and Iran, pan-Arab nationalists were not working within the boundaries of an internationally recognized country. Arab nationalists had to struggle against the artificial political divisions imposed by France and Britain. Pan-Arabism had to compete with "a deep-rooted and almost instinctive commitment to Islam."29 In the past, Arab nationalism had been associated with Sunni Islamism, and it continued to be so. All non-Sunni Arabs, heterodox Muslims and Christians were allotted a secondary place and seen as "imperfect Arabs." The religious minorities also "tended to suspect Arab nationalism as a disguise for unrestrained Sunni ascendancy."30 Baath nationalism was different from Sunni Arab nationalism in that Baathis wanted a united secular Arab society. Although pan-Arab nationalists made an effort to amalgamate Islam into their ideology by stressing its central role in Arab culture and history, for too many Sunni Muslims it was not a solution; pan-Arabism placed Islam in a less important position. The religious minorities supported the Baath's nationalistic ideology, in which all Arabs were equal, whether Sunni Muslims, Alawites or members of other heterodox Muslim communities or Christians.

The Baath (Resurrection) party was founded in 1940 in Syria by two Paris-educated intellectuals: Michel Aflaq, an Orthodox Christian, and Salah al-Din Bitar, a Sunni Muslim. The Baath party was the product of the growth of secular ideas and of pan-Arab nationalist sentiment. Aflaq and Bitar had supported this pan-Arab nationalist ideology since their school days. In 1942, they devoted themselves to the creation of a movement dedicated "to achieving freedom (hurriyah) from foreign control and the unity (wihdah) of all Arabs in a single state. To these goals, the Baathists added socialism (ishtirakiyah), which they interpreted as social justice for the poor and underprivileged."31

In July 1946, shortly after French troops left Syria, Aflaq and Bitar published the journal Al-Baath; and, in April 1947, the founding Baath Congress was held in Damascus. During the congress, a different group emerged: some were from Latakia, and the majority of them were Alawites. They shared the Baath goals of Arab independence and unity but differed in their approach to social issues. They were the followers of Zaki Arsuzi, an influential Alawite intellectual, himself a follower of another Alawite, Dr. Wahib al-Ghanim, a socialist who blamed the ruling elite for the miserable conditions of the rural population. While Aflaq's main concerns were unity and nationalism, Ghanim's was social justice. In 1947, he insisted on the inclusion of "the limitation of agricultural holdings, worker participation in management, and state ownership of heavy industry, natural resources, and public utilities"32 to the party's constitution. Although Aflaq refused to accept Ghanim's insistence on including a socialist approach or social justice goals, Bitar agreed to unite the Baath with Akram al-Hawrani's (also transcribed as Hourani) Arab Socialist Party, which shared Ghanim's concerns. Hawrani built a strong populist movement in the Hama region among the landless peasants, the most exploited rural population in Syria. Hawrani became a major influence among the rural religious-minority cadets and young officers, mainly the members of the Alawite community. They saw him as a leader of the peasant movement. As Hawrani and the Baath leaders grew closer and eventually merged their organizations in September 1953 to form the Arab Baath Socialist Party, the Baath gained a large following among the officers.33 Baath ideology had an obvious appeal for them because of its secularist, populist and socialist components.

After the unification of the two parties, original Baath doctrine "sought to combine a secular formulation of pan-Arab nationalism and a non-Marxist approach to socialism and social reform."34 The large, mainly Sunni, urban petty bourgeoisie considered the Baath ideology suspect for its secularism and advocacy of socialism. However, the religious minorities found it strongly appealing. They hoped the party "would help them to free themselves of their minority status and the narrow social frame of their sectarian, regional and tribal ties."35 Baath ideology promised minority communities equality on the basis of being an Arab, not on being a Sunni. There would be no political and socioeconomic discrimination against non-Sunnis. It also promised other aspects of social reform in the needy rural areas. The overrepresentation of heterodox Muslims and Christians in the ranks of the Baath party contributed to the resentment between the Baath regime and the urban Sunni population.

During the Syrian-Egyptian union (1958-61), all political parties, including the Baath, were dissolved. But some Alawite groups remained organized secretly and maintained a measure of control in the Latakia region. Following the secession of Syria from the union in 1961, the earlier dissolution of the Baath party proved to be a major political gain for the Alawites. They now were the strongest and most organized force in the much-weakened national organization.36

The dominance of a military faction within the Baath party has its roots in the period of Egyptian-Syrian unity. The pro-Baath officers stationed in Egypt formed a secret organization in 1959. The leaders of the group — Salah Jadid, Hafez al-Assad, Muhammad Umran — were Alawites, and Hamad Ubayd was a Druze. The goal of the organization was to restore the Syrian army to Syrian control. The members of this secret military organization, eventually known as the military committee, were not involved in the Baath's traditional leadership or party structure. They operated as one of several politically active groups of officers involved in the dissolution of the union in 1961 and in the fight for political control of Syria during the subsequent year and a half.37

On March 8, 1963, a coup by a group of officers, including the Military Committee, brought down the "separatist regime." Five of the 14 members of the Baathist military committee were Alawites. After the coup, the gaps in the army resulting from purges of political opponents were filled by Alawites. Even the graduating Sunnis cadets were denied their commissions: "The representation of Alewis [sic] among the newly appointed officers was as high as 90 percent."38 As Batatu points out, many Sunnis are still in the officer corps, but, if they are important, they are important not as a group but as individuals, and more in the professional than in the political sense.39

On July 18, 1963, the power struggle between Sunni Baath officers and minority officers ended in a bloody takeover by the minority officers. Control of the army and political life passed to the heterodox Muslim minority led by the Alawites. The Sunni majority was put in a subordinate position. Other heterodox Muslim groups were eliminated as well: "In 1966 and 1968, the Alawi faction terminated the other two minoritarian-sectarian factions (the Druze and the Ismailis), and became the masters of Syria."40


The emergence of the Alawite Baathist regime in the mid-1960s marked a crucial turning point in Syria's modern political history. As a result, it engendered distrust among many of the Sunni population of the Alawites and the Baath party. Many Sunnis regarded the Alawite Baathist regime as illegitimate, oppressive and anti-Islamic. According to Sunni Muslims, the Alawite minority had seized power by armed force, imposing harsh measures, such as restricting religious education and ulema (Muslim scholars). This severely injured Sunnis' religious feelings and their socioeconomic interests. In a country where two-thirds of the population are Sunni, these facts severely alienated the Alawite regime from its subjects. Weulersse's argument that "a minority can dominate a majority if it has political, military or economic superiority"41 became the reality in Syria.


1 George Antonius, "Syria and the French Mandate," International Affairs 13, no. 4 (July-August, 1934): 525.

2 The Alawites were members of the Nusayri sect, which had a strong Shi'a doctrinal strain, inhabited the mountainous areas of northwest Syria even before the Ottomans took over. The Druze were an entirely endogamous community, probably starting in Egypt, whose religion was an eclectic mix of Islamic, Christian, Greek and pagan concepts. They were another tough mountain group, which survived four centuries of Turkish rule and were more or less left to themselves. See Albert H. Hourani, Minorities in the Arab World (Oxford Univeristy Press, 1947).

3 On the French and the minorities, see Itamar Rabinovich, "The Compact Minorities and the Syrian State, 1918-45," Journal of Contemporary History 14, no. 4 (1979). See also Itamar Rabinovich, The View from Damascus: State, Political Community and Foreign Relations in Twentieth-Century Syria (Valentine Mitchell Press, 2008), 95-109.

4 League of Nations Official Journal, August 1922, 1013-17.

5 Youssef Chaitani, Post-Colonial Syria and Lebanon (London: I.B. Tauris, 2007), 8.

6 For the mandate and partition, see Ayse Tekdal Fildis, "The Troubles in Syria: Spawned by French Divide and Rule," Middle East Policy 18, no. 4 (Winter 2011): 129-39.

7 Philips S. Khoury, Syria and the French Mandate: The Politics of Arab Nationalism, 1920-1945 (I. B. Tauris, 1987), 622.

8 N. E. Bou-Nacklie, "Les Troupes Speciales: Religious and Ethnic Recruitment, 1916-46," International Journal of Middle East Studies 25, no. 4 (November, 1993): 656.

9 Michael H. Van Dusen, "Political Integration and Regionalism in Syria," Middle East Journal 26, no. 2 (Spring, 1972): 125.

10 Moshe Ma'oz, " Attempts at Creating a Political Community in Modern Syria," Middle East Journal 26, no. 4 (Autumn, 1972): 398.

11 Patrick Seale, The Struggle for Syria: A Study of Post-war Arab Politics (Oxford University Press, 1965), 32.

12 Daniel Pipes, "The Alawi Capture of Power in Syria," Middle Eastern Studies 25, no. 4 (Oct., 1989): 440.

13 Ibid., 430.

14 E. Rabbath, L'Évolution politique de la Syrie sous mandat (Paris: Marcel Riviere, 1928), 185.

15 Patrick Seale, Asad of Syria: The Struggle for the Middle East (University of California Press, 1989), 18.

16 Bou-Nacklie, Les Troupes, 655-56.

17 J.C. Hurewitz, Middle East Politics: The Military Dimension (Frederick A. Praeger, 1969), 153.

18 Pipes, "The Alawi," 438.

19 Jaques Weulersse, Le Pays des Alaouites (Tours: Arrault, 1940), 199.

20 Hanna Batatu, "Some Observations on the Social Roots of Syria's Ruling, Military Group and the Causes for Its Dominance," Middle East Journal 35, no. 3 (Summer, 1981): 334.

21 Seale, Asad of Syria, 18.

22 Be'eri Eliezer, Army Officers in Arab Politics and Society (Fredrick A. Praegar, 1970), 336-7.

23 Nikolas Van Dam, The Struggle for Power in Syria: Politics and Society under Asad and the Baath Party, 4th ed. (I.B. Tauris, 2011), 28.

24 Batatu, "Some Observations on the Social Roots of Syria's Ruling": 340-41.

25 Seale, The Struggle for Syria, 37.

26 Seale, Asad of Syria, 39.

27 Van Dam, The Struggle for Power in Syria, 29.

28 Daniel Pipes, "The Alawi Capture of Power in Syria," Middle Eastern Studies 25, no. 4 (Oct., 1989): 441.

29 Stephen Humphreys, "The Strange Career of Pan-Arabism," in The Modern Middle East, 2nd ed., ed. A. Hourani, P. Khoury and M.C. Wilson (I.B. Tauris, 2009), 581.

30 Van Dam, The Struggle for Power in Syria, 17.

31 John F. Devlin, "The Baath Party: Rise and Metamorphosis," The American Historical Review 96, no. 5 (December, 1991): 1397.

32 Ibid., 1398.

33 John Galvani, "Syria and the Baath Party," Pages 3-16 in MERIP Reports, no. 25 (February, 1974): 6.

34 Itamar Rabinovich, "Arab Political Parties: Ideology and Ethnicity," in The View from Damascus: State, Political Community and Foreign Relations in Twentieth-Century Syria (Vallentine Mitchell Press, 2008), 127.

35 Van Dam, The Struggle for Power in Syria, 17.

36 Avraham Ben-Tzur, "The Neo-Baath Party in Syria," New Outlook 12, no. 103 (Jan. 1969): 27.

37 Galvani, "Syria and the Baath Party," 6.

38 Van Dam, The Struggle for Power in Syria, 32.

39 Batatu, "Some Observations on the Social Roots of Syria's Ruling," 343.

40 Mahmud A. Faksh, "The Alawi Community of Syria: A New Dominant Political Force," Middle Eastern Studies 20, no. 2 (April, 1984): 144.

41 Weulersse, Le Pays, 77.