Alawite Sect Rises or Falls on Assad Leadership

The secretive faith draws on astrology and Christianity as well as Islam; some Muslims call it a heresy--but not in Syria

BY: Hamza Hendawi


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Hafez Assad was shrewd enough to build a diverse power base, courting other minorities like Shiites, Christians and Druze and never neglecting the Sunni majority, particularly the powerful Sunni merchant class.

Syria's two long-serving vice presidents, Abdul-Halim Khaddam and Mohammed Zoheir Musharaqa, are Sunni Muslims. The speaker of parliament, the prime minister and the foreign minister are Sunnis and so are ruling Baath party stalwarts Abdullah Al-Ahmar and Suleiman Qadaha.

Another Sunni is powerful Defense Minister Mustafa Tlas, long close to the elder Assad and now carefully guiding Bashar Assad.

The beginnings of change for Alawites and other minorities preceded Hafez Assad's presidency, dating to the 1963 rise to power of the Socialist Arab Baath party. Encouraged by the Baath's staunchly anti-sectarian policies and its resolve to dismantle the old class order, minorities began to enroll in schools and colleges in increasing numbers and joined the professional classes.

Many took advantage of relaxed entry requirements and joined the military in a country where the army has played a traditionally strong political role.

Alawites ``were clever and worked hard,'' wrote Patrick Seale, Hafez Assad's British biographer and confidant. ``Having fought and studied their way to the top, they would not easily be dislodged.''

Resentment of the Alawites' improved fortunes is expressed only privately in Sunni-dominated urban centers like Damascus, Homs and Aleppo, where Sunnis complain that Alawites are promoted ahead of them in the civil service or that their migration to the cities to work has created crowding and inflated housing prices.

Such resentment--believed to have been one of the causes of a rebellion by militant Muslims that was crushed by Hafez Assad in the 1980s--is among the challenges the younger Assad will have to deal with in order to stay in power.

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