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Minorities At Risk Project: Home    

Assessment for Alawi in Syria

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Syria Facts
Area:    185,180 sq. km.
Capital:    Damascus
Total Population:    16,673,000 (source: U.S. Census Bureau, 1998, est.)

Risk Assessment | Analytic Summary | References

Risk Assessment

The future situation for Alawis in Syria appears clearer today than a few years ago after Hafez al-Asad died. The greatest threat to continued Ba'athist rule was the uncertainty of Hafez al-Asad's successor; but after nearly a decade of ruling Bashar al-Asad seems to have made a seamless transition into power. However, the Alawi are still disliked by the Sunni majority because of their religious beliefs, and any sign of internal weakness could bring challenges to Alawi rule. Despite continued tensions with Lebanon, and with nearly four decades of control in their favor ( which includes the suppression of the Muslim Brotherhood through the brutal Hama Massacre in 1982), the Alawi can be reasonably predicted to remain politically advantaged in Syria into the near future. Bashar al-Assad's continuation of his father's targeted economic policies continue to improve the socioeconomic standing of the formerly neglected Alawi.


Analytic Summary

The Alawis in Syria are a politically advantaged minority and practice a form of Islam that started in the 9th century by splintering off from the Shiite branch. Alawi literally means "those who adhere to the teachings of Ali," the son-in-law of the Prophet Muhammad. Syria's three-quarters majority Sunni population consider the Alawi, who are also Arabic speaking (LANG = 0), to be heretical in their rejection of traditional Islamic restrictions, despite a 1936 fatwa recognizing the Alawi as legitimate Muslims. (BELIEF = 1). Yet, the Alawi domination of the government, the Ba'ath party (the only recognized party) and key military positions has preserved their power since 1970 with Hafez al-Asad's successful coup (POLDIS06 = 0). As mentioned above, Alawi control has continued after Hafez al-Asad's death in 2000 with his son, Bashar al Asad, assuming control of the government. Most Alawis live in Latakia, a province in the northwest of Syria, where they make up almost two-thirds of the regional population (GROUPCON = 2). Despite being more empowered politically than they rest of Syrian society, the general Alawi population still faces economic challenges due to years of economic discrimination under Sunni rule prior to 1970 (ECDIS06= 1).

The Alawi power base in Damascus is safeguarded through authoritarian means. The Ba'ath party has consistently allocated many funds for the development of the military. Civil and political rights in Syria are suspended under the 30-year old "State of Emergency Laws." Originally issued to keep order following the coup that brought President Hafez al-Asad and his Alawi-dominated faction of the Ba'ath Party to power, these powers have been retained by Bashar al-Asad's regime, which claims that they are still necessary because of the threat that the country faces from its Israeli enemies. Because of the level of repression used by Hafez al-Asad's regime under these laws, there is little open opposition to Alawi rule. As would be expected of an advantaged minority, there have been no recent protests or rebellions by the Alawi (PROT99-06 = 0; REB99-06 = 0). In general, most Syrian Alawis benefit politically from this control of the government, especially considering that the Alawis are regarded by the majority Sunnis as more heretical than Jews; before the Alawis gained control of the government and the military, they were the victims of economic, social and political discrimination under Sunni rule.



Antoun, Richard T., and Quataert Donald. 1991. Syria: Society, Culture, and Polity. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press.

Lexis/Nexis. Various news reports. 1995-2006.

Syrian Human Rights Commission. 2/15/2006. "Massacre of Hama.", accessed 5/20/2008.

U.S. Department of State. Country Reports on Human Rights Practices: Syria. 1999-2006.

Weismann, Izchak. 1993. "Sa'id Hawwa: The Making of a Radical Muslim Thinker in Modern Syria." Middle Eastern Studies. . 29:4. 601-623.

Worth, Robert F. 3/ 8/2008. "Arab Leaders, Angry at Syrian President, Threaten Boycott of Summit Meeting." The New York Times.


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Information current as of December 31, 2006