Alawites, who constitute much of the officer corps and control the government of Syria, make up only 12% of the population of that country. Ominously, they are regarded by true-blue Sunni Arabs (who make up 70% of the population of Syria) as not-real-Muslims, in something like the way that Ahmadis (Qadianis) in Pakistan are regarded. This bodes ill for their future, should their grip ever slip. And it could slip.
The Syrian regime has chosen to rely for its survival on an alliance with Shi’a Iran. It was Iranian muftis who issued a ruling a few years ago declaring that the Alawites were, indeed, Muslim. The Sunni Muslims, by contrast, wiped out an entire graduating class of Alawites from the Syrian military academy. They also threatened the power of Hafez al-Assad until finally he levelled Hama, with the Alawite-led army instructed to shoot down anyone who shouted “Allahu Akbar.”
When “real” Muslims massacred 82 Alawite miltary cadets at a graduation ceremony, as part of an anti-regime, anti-Alawite campaign, Hafez al-Assad surrounded Hama, an Ikhwan center, and told his troops to kill anyone who moved. Twenty thousand were killed. And in Haleb, or Aleppo, the second city of Syria, corpses were dragged through the streets, and everyone had to come out — Armenians, Sunni Muslims, everyone — from their houses, or stand on their balconies, and applaud the spectacle.
Qualis pater, talis filius? Not quite. Bashir the son is a most myopic ophthalmologist. He may think that he is safe as long as he lets Sunnis use Syria as a point of entry into Iraq to fight the good fight (and any fight that directs Muslim interest and energies away from the Alawites of Syria, disguised as “Ba’athists,” is a good fight), and simultaneously lets Syria be used the other way, as a place through which Iranian weaponry, money, and agents are delivered to Hizballah in Lebanon. In such a way do the Alawites hope, by giving at the office, to stay in power (and to keep those reliable Armenian drivers and other Christians whom they can trust).
Bashir al-Assad has recently ordered that his picture no longer be omnipresent in every window or on every wall in the country. And for a regime such as his that is an unusual and possibly good sign. But will it be enough to cause the Sunni Muslims, who have been alarmed by the stories (some no doubt exaggerated) of Shi’a missionaries making great inroads among Sunni Muslims in Syria, to be less alarmed? Will the Syrian alliance with Iran make the Sunnis less nervous? And what if Mr. Big, Saudi Arabia, together with other Gulf Arab states, decides to really turn on the Alawites, and blare propaganda against them as…Infidels?
And meanwhile, one waits, and waits, for the American government to understand that the Alawites can be threatened — threatened qua Alawites. They can be told that if they do not back away from Iran, then the Americans will encourage the Sunni Arabs (who fear Iran) to do everything they can to paint the Alawites as Infidels. And if the situation in Syria were to again become as it was in the early 1980s, it is doubtful that Bashir al-Assad will be able to suppress Sunni opponents the way his father did.
So far Bashir al-Assad’s eagerness to assuage Muslims, both Sunni and Shi’a, outside Syria, appears to have worked. He is still in power. Alawite generals still strut about. But for how long? Every Alawite house has a picture of Mary. Every Alawite village is known. Do the Alawites want a bloodbath, or do they want to decide now to retreat into their own Syrian redoubt and no longer do Iran’s bidding, or for that matter the bidding of Sunnis, deciding instead to preserve themselves and save their weaponry, for a war within Syria to preserve themselves from the real Muslims?
Should the Sunnis win, not a single Alawite village will remain unscathed.
It’s the Alawite choice: continued support for, and collaboration with, Iran, or enduring what may happen if the Americans do not try to discourage, but rather to encourage Sunni propaganda to go to work on unsettling the Alawites.