WASHINGTON -- Almost any American, looking at the 18-month civil war in Syria, probably sees a conflict of Muslim fighting Muslim, of local Syrian militias linked to a region or town fighting to overthrow the hated government.
These Americans would not unexpectedly equate the growing terror in a country formerly rich in commerce and in exquisite ancient ruins with the rebellions of the Arab Spring all around it.
They would repeat in knowledgeable dinner conversation that, yes, isn't that Bashar al-Assad a cruel s.o.b. -- "just like his father, who would wipe out 20,000 people at a glance" -- and it is because he is an Alawite. "You know," they would say, "he comes from a minority Islamic tribe, from the mountains, who never liked the Sunni Muslims of the valleys. Yes, indeed, just another repeat of the violence all over the Middle East."
Only this isn't, at its roots, true. Yes, the Alawites were and are a minority, but historians of the region tell the tale of the "Alawi," as they are sometimes called, in startlingly different and surprising ways.
American Middle East specialist Daniel Pipes, discussing the Alawi capture of power in Syria, says that some Alawi doctrines appear to derive from Phoenician paganism, "but by far the greatest affinity is with Christianity." He goes on to say that the Alawi celebrate many Christian festivals, including Christmas, New Year's, Epiphany, Easter, Pentecost and Palm Sunday, and honor the Christian saints. T.E. Lawrence described the Alawi as "drawn at moments to Christianity by common persecution." Moreover, they are seen by students of their faith to have few direct inspirations from Islam at all.
The Alawite faith is one of extreme and exclusive secrecy, with even its adherents not seeing or knowing the secret books of their religion. Women, says Pipes, are seen as retaining "the pagan cult of worshipping trees, meadows and hills, and to have no souls." Alawites have no places of worship, and their prayers take place in private homes. Ibn Battuta, the great Moroccan traveler of the 14th century, was there when the Muslim government decreed the construction of mosques -- and the Alawite villages built mosques, but then sheltered cattle in them.
The Alawites practice "taqiya," or religious dissimulation, lying to the disbeliever in order to protect the faith. Unlike Muslims, they are "great drinkers" and love to drink wine, guarding their secrets all the while.
Many historians over the centuries found them "a fossil country," frozen in the past, or the "men of the mountains." In short, the Sunni Muslims of ancient history, the Turkish Ottoman empire, and just about everybody but the French colonialists, whom the Alawites perversely loved, drove this secretive sect into the mountains of what is today northwest Syria and locked them there for centuries until, as historian Jacques Weulersse put it, the mountains made them savage. "The refuge they had conquered became a prison; though masters of the mountain, they could not leave."
Yet leave they finally did, when the French colonialists established their French mandate between 1920 and 1946. The Alawites were the favorites of the French -- another case of the outsiders within a society linking up with the invading power. Soon the Alawites came to power, employing the new Baath Party and their own "military committee" (some two-thirds of the Syrian officer corps were Alawite, and most of the soldiers) in order to put the present president's father, Hafez al-Assad, in power. Under the Baathists, it was "secularism and socialism." The Alawites, with the same Baath reformist policies that inspired Saddam Hussein in Iraq, wiped out enemies without mercy, and all of Syria discovered what the Alawites had really learned in all those years of forced isolation and humiliation in the mountains.
So when we read the stories about the bitter fighting in Syria, it will seem that the rebels are those having been sinned against -- and they were, and are. It is the al-Assads in power, with their mysterious and secretive religion, who will seem to be the violent oppressors -- and they were, and are, too. But they were not always so. This story weaves in and out and around, until it is a maze with no moral clarity.
If there is any lesson here, it is that colonialists such as the French in Syria and the English in Iraq and Afghanistan should not have cut up pieces of land without respect to tribal rights and beliefs. But that was a long time ago.
There is now reality to deal with. Daniel Pipes believes that "it appears inevitable that the 'Alawis' -- still a small and despised minority, for all their present power -- will eventually lose their control over Syria. When this happens, it is likely that conflicts along communal lines will bring them down, with the critical battle taking place between the Alawi rulers and the Sunni majority. In this sense the Alawis' fall -- be it through assassinations of top figures, a palace coup or a regional revolt -- is likely to resemble their rise."
And if the Sunni rebels win now, will it only start all over again?