How Syria's religious contours explain battle lines

Big news out of Syria today. Here's the top of a Reuters report:

Syria's defense minister and President Bashar al-Assad's brother-in-law were killed in a Damascus suicide bomb attack carried out by a bodyguard on Wednesday, the most serious blow to Assad's high command in the country's 16-month-old rebellion.

The bomber, said by a security source to be a bodyguard assigned to Assad's inner circle, struck a meeting attended by ministers and senior security officials in the Syrian capital as battles raged within sight of the presidential palace.

State television said Defence Minister Daoud Rajha and Assad's brother-in-law Assef Shawkat, the deputy defence minister, had been killed in a "terrorist bombing" and pledged to wipe out "criminal gangs".

A Syrian security source confirmed Shawkat, 62, was killed and said intelligence chief Hisham Bekhtyar was wounded. State television said Interior Minister Mohammad Ibrahim al-Shaar had also been wounded in the blast.

The men form the core of a military crisis unit led by Assad to take charge of crushing the revolt.

I know I say this all the time, but I really appreciate how Reuters explains the significance of a given news event. Like most non-Syrians, I understand very little about the individuals involved or the context to a given bombing. Reuters, with an economy of words, explains those things.

But does religion play a role in this story? Further down in the report we learn:

Fighting also erupted overnight in the southern neighborhoods of Asali and Qadam, and Hajar al-Aswad and Tadamun - mainly Sunni Muslim districts housing Damascenes and Palestinian refugees.

Five explosion were later heard in the capital on Wednesday, close to the base of the 4th armored division, led by Assad's brother Maher, residents said.

Assad and the ruling elite belong to the minority Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shi'ite Islam that has held power in Syria since a 1963 coup. ...

In Damascus, government troops used heavy machine guns and anti-aircraft guns against rebels moving deep in residential neighborhoods, armed mostly with small arms and rocket-propelled grenades.

Rebels directed their fire overnight at a large state facility turned headquarters for pro-Assad militia, known as shabbiha, drawn mainly from Alawite enclaves in nearby hills.

Yes, it would be helpful to know precisely what makes the Alawites the Alawites, but isn't that helpful to know that the ruling elites are part of it? For more on that divide, there is this NPR story, "A Syrian Defector Confronts A Sectarian Divide." But it doesn't explain the religious differences at all. Last month, however, NPR had a helpful story on the matter with Professor Joshua Landis. Host Renee Montagne began by asking Landis to sketch out the Alawites and their history:

LANDIS: Well, the Alawites are an offshoot of Shia Islam. They believe, for example, in the transmigration of souls. They don't observe the five pillars of Islam. Their women don't wear head scarves and are quite brash by Sunni standards. And they're not considered Muslims traditionally. For that reason, they have been ostracized for most of Islamic history.

Until the French arrived in Syria in 1920, the Alawites were locked in the coastal mountains of Syria. And the Alawites used to be the lowest of the low. They were the poorest Syrians, uneducated. The Sunnis thought of them as bandits. They weren't allowed to give testimony in a court of law, for example, because they weren't considered people of the book - unlike Jews and Christians, which could. So Alawites have had to overcome this history of really severe discrimination. And they found their way up through the military.

MONTAGNE: And let's talk about that. When you say found their way up, when did they rise to power and how did they do it?

LANDIS: Well, the reason that Alawites have come to power in Syria is quite simply because of the French occupation between the First and Second World War. The French faced an Islamic insurgency, a nationalist insurgency in Syria. The Sunni urban notables led an uprising. And in order to put them down, the French built a local army and they recruited minorities, largely. And the Alawites were heavily recruited into this army.

And within 10 years - by 1955 it's estimated that Alawites made up almost 60 percent of the noncommissioned officers. By the mid-60s, Alawites took over the military and with the military they took over the country. So by 1970, Hafez Assad takes over, consolidates Alawite power in his own family, and we've had a very stable Syria since then.

Helpful! Thank you, NPR and Reuters.

Damascus photo via Shutterstock.

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