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

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The secretive faith--the name indicates followers of Ali, son-in-law of Islam's 7th century Prophet Mohammed--draws on astrology and Christianity as well as Islam. It is believed to date to the 9th century.

Early in Hafez Assad's rule, questions were raised about whether an Alawite could rule a Muslim country. Hafez Assad appealed to an influential Shiite cleric who ruled that Alawites are part of the Shiite community.

In a country where security agencies are dreaded and informers are planted virtually everywhere, ordinary Syrians are reluctant to discuss Alawites and how they fared under Hafez Assad. Officially, no group is discriminated against or favored in Syria.

Imad Fawzi Shueibi, a political analyst close to the Syrian government, rejected any notion of ``an Alawite regime.'' Writing in the London-based Arab newspaper Al Hayat in late June, Shueibi said Hafez Assad rose above sectarianism to promote the rights of all Arabs.

But Haitham Manaa, a prominent Syrian dissident who lives in Paris, said in a telephone interview that favoritism shown to Alawites--particularly when government and military posts are being doled out--has sharpened social divisions in Syria.

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"The Assad regime has erased the civil nature of society and replaced it with principles based on clans and sects,'' he said. ``The army is structured on sectarian basis, which means that efficient military men are no longer in positions of power.''

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.

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Hamza Hendawi
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