To understand what is going on in Syria, one has to know at least something about Alawite Islam and the Baathist movement.
The Alawites (which means “the followers of Ali”, a cousin and son-in-law of Mohammed) are a rather liberal — or maybe even corrupt, depending on how one looks at it — offshoot of Shia Islam. Among other things, the Alawites, who mostly lived in NW Syria, northern Lebanon, and SW Turkey, and are often descendents of the ancient non-Arab population, have been notable for ignoring many of the Muslim rules on prayer and fasting, as well as even celebrating Christian feasts such as Christmas and Easter. After 1970, when Hafez al Assad (an Alawite Syrian Air Force officer and the father of the present ruler) seized power in a military coup, he made some attempts to persuade Alawites that they should live and behave more like traditional Muslims. However, on a whole, his political policies followed the Baathist party line, which, while allowing for a wide diversity of religious belief, insists above all on political unity.
The whole Baathist movement, which in 1947 was originally co-founded by a Orthodox Christian from Lebanon and a Alawite Muslim, aimed at the modernization of the Middle East (the Arabic word ba’ath means “renaissance” or “rebirth”) much along the same lines of Gamal Attaturk’s modernization of Turkey. Unfortunately, however, Baathists began to look to Fascist Italy, Nazi Germany, and even the U.S.S.R. as good examples as to how to bring modernization about in short order. Hence, the Baathist tendency to resort to strong-armed dictatorships to get results — much as was the case in Iraq under Saddam Hussein. Just as Saddam brutally murdered Shia Arabs in southeast Iraq and Kurds in the northwest, or whoever else threatened Iraqi unity, so did the elder Assad call in his army against restive Sunni Muslims in Syria who far outnumber (74%) all other groups combined, killing an estimated twenty to thirty thousand. What his son Bashar is doing now is just so far a lesser repeat of his father’s brutal but effective tactics.
So now, what should the rest of the world do? We have seen how, after the “liberation” of Iraq, far more people ended up getting killed in religious-political rivalry than was probably ever the case under Saddam’s rule. Would the same happen in Syria if it were invaded by NATO or an UN “peace-keeping” operation? Would supplying the Syrian rebels and their growing “Free Syrian Army” with more effective weapons only make things worse? There is reason to worry when we hear many of these rebels, most of them Sunni Muslims, shouting “Allah akbar!” (“God is great!”) in the video clips we are seeing on TV and the Internet. Hearing the same war cry up close in their streets can not be very reassuring to those in power, and which explains their claims that the rebels are “terrorists” or even linked to the late Osama bin Ladin’s al Qaeda. If this sounds paranoid, remember that in traditional Islam there can be no separation between religion and politics. For Islamic fundamentalists, Sharia law must apply to everyone. This also explains why Christians in Syria, many of whom are Iraqi Christian refugees, have more fear of a democracy that could too easily turn into a mob rule than they fear a Baathist dictatorship.
R W Kropf 3/20/2012 Baathist Dictatorships.doc 12-03-20.html