A small, marginalized people, kicked around the Middle East for centuries by Muslim empires, finally carves out an independent home for itself on the eastern shores of the Mediterranean. But life remains precarious: Islamists seek to delegitimize the newly established homeland, declaiming the ruling sect as a gang of infidel occupiers. Now, the simmering hatred of the occupied people finally has transformed into an unstoppable political and military intifada — cheered on by Western human-rights advocates.
The country I have just described is Syria. For all the pathological hatred that President Bashar Assad and his father Hafez have focused on Israel, the histories of the two countries betray some striking similarities. And those similarities help explain why the Assad clan and its hangers-on refuse to be dislodged from Damascus.
Like Israel’s Jews, members of the Alawi sect in Syria regard their control of the nation as an existential issue. There is only one Alawi state, just as there is only one Jewish state, and its destruction would mean the end of the Alawis as a political entity on the world stage — probably forever. With the passage of generations, it might even mean their gradual assimilation into other nations, as with Zoroastrians, Samaritans and a hundred other now-obscure Middle Eastern peoples.
For purposes of journalistic similitude, I am skating over huge and uncountable differences between the Syrian and Israeli origin stories. The Alawis never suffered a holocaust. And they comprise just an eighth of the Syrian population — as opposed to Jews, who comprise a majority within Israel. But I raise the broader parallel to explain why Bashar Assad seems willing to kill thousands, and even tens of thousands, of Syrians to protect his regime. He doesn’t see himself as the rest of the world does — as a power-mad monster in the twilight of his power. In his mind, he is a champion of a long-oppressed people who are one step away from history’s dustbin.
For insight into Assad’s perspective, a useful resource is Fouad Ajami’s newly published book, The Syrian Rebellion. The Lebanese-born American knows the region as well as any popular Western author writing today, and his scholarship does a fine job explaining how ancient history has led Syria to modern bloodshed.
The Alawi sect, he explains, first appeared in the late ninth century, as part of the general crisis in mainstream Shia Islam caused by the death of the eleventh imam and the disappearance of his infant son (the so-called mahdi, or “redeemer,” who still plays the starring role in ongoing end-times Shia mythology). The Alawis originally called themselves Nusayris, and settled in the eponymous mountain range that forms the spine of northwestern Syria.
Like many Shiites, the Alawis (as they came to be called by the French in the early 20th century) emphasized the role of Imam Ali, the Prophet Mohammed’s cousin and son-in-law. But they took the veneration of Ali to a new level. “For both Sunni and Shia Muslims alike,” Ajami writes, “the Nusayris were ghulat (extremist) exaggerators who carried the veneration of Ali beyond the bounds of Islam.” The influential fundamentalist theologian Ibn Taymiyyah (1263-1328), who died in Damascus, described the Alawis as enemies of Islam who embraced “pure unbelief.”