Since the uprisings started in Syria on March 15th, 2011 there has been a debate on emergence of a split in Syrian society into different groups. Ethnical identities, which were covered with secular consensus for so many years, reappeared as a political dynamic. While Nusayri/Alawite identity of Bashar Assad administration has begun to be emphasized, there has been another debate on reasons for Iran’s support to Assad against the opposition, which underlines common interests and sectarian solidarity on the base of Shi’a identity between the two countries. The aim of this article is to shed light to these debates that are on the basis of sectarian issues by understanding the Nusayri/Alawite identity in Syria and to discuss the sectarian factor in Syria’s relations with Iran that has a Shi’a identity. The article argues that religious concerns are inexplicit in Iran’s support to Assad administration. However, strategic concerns are clear and explicit. Therefore, strategic concerns are prior to religious ones in current Iranian policy regarding Syria.
Sectarian History of Nusayris
“Nusayris” take their name from Muhammad Ibn Nusayr al-Namiri al-Bakri al-Abdi (d. 883), who is known as Abu Shu'ayb and assumed to be of Iranian origin. He lived in the same time with the eleventh Twelver Shi'a Imam Hasan al Askari in Samarra, Iraq. As associated to ben-i Namiri, an Arab tribe, he is also known as Namiri. Muhammad Ibn Nusayr is also known as the “door opening to the eleventh Imam Hasan al-Askari” in many works written by Nusayris.
Muhammad Ibn Nusayr proclaimed himself as Imam after the ghayba of the twelfth Imam Muhammad al-Mahdi, and divinized Imams with his love of Ahl al-Bayt. Ibn Jundub, then al-Junbulani and afterwards al-Khasibi came as the “door” opening to Imams after himself. Al-Khasibi (d. 957) has a great importance in the history of Nusayris. Al Khasibi, known as the person who gathered Nusayris around his doctrine, established two religious centers in Baghdad and Aleppo, and wrote many books such as Kitab-al-Hidaya al-Kubra which is the most important of all. Al-Khasibi is believed to have received the “divine knowledge” from a link dating back to the First Imam Ali Ibn Abu Talib. Nusayris were called al-Namiriyya until the 10th century. They were called Khasibiyya or Nusayri in the 10th century. Today the name “Alawi”, which refers to the Syrian Nusayris, is quite recent and dates back to the 1920s.(1)
Becoming the religious leader of Nusayris after al-Khasibi, al-Tabarani (d. 1034) moved his headquarters in 1031 from Aleppo to Latakia. The Nusayri center in Baghdad, on the other hand, was destroyed by the armies of Mongol Hulago in 1258. Al-Tabarani was the last religious leader to keep the whole Nusayri community united. After al-Tabarani's death, the Nusayri community split into different factions factions ruled by independent shaykhs. Nusayris, who has a religious belief that is considered as temporal by Sunnis, differed from the Twelve Imam Shi'a due to the fact that they divinized Ali and Imams. Their extremist beliefs drove them to lead an isolated life in their geography. Nusayris, who escaped to mountains in the northwest of Syria, were attacked by the Kurds who joined their forces with Ismailis in 1220. Nusayris, who asked Prince of Sinjar in northern Iraq Shaykh Hasan al-Makzun for help, got rid of this attack as Ismailis sided with al-Makzun. The people who accompanied al-Makzun became the ancestors of the Nusayri tribes of Haddadiyya, Matawira, Muhaliba, Darawisa, Numaylatiya and the Banu Ali, and the first Nusayri President of Syria Hafez al-Assad also belongs to the Numaylatiya branch of the tribe.
The most prominent leader of the Nusayris after al-Makzun was Shaykh al-Tubani (d. 1300) from the Haddadin clan. Nusayris, who took advantage of the political authority gap created by the destruction of Abbasid Caliphate following the destruction of Baghdad by Mongols in 1258 and of the tolerance shown to minorities, lived under Mamluk rule from 1317 until the Ottoman conquest of Egypt in 1517. Although Nusayris were attacked by Sunnis from time to time until 14th century due to their extremist beliefs and were considered as infidel, the first anti-Nusayri fatwa in the Islam world was given in 1317 by Hanbali Islamic scholar Taqi al-Din Ibn Taymiyya. Ibn Taymiyyah, who was born in Harran, had to move to Damascus after the Mongol invasion. Ibn Taymiyya, who is one of the most popular Hanbali Islamic scholars and who argued the necessity of turning back to the first resources of Islam, considered all the Islamic beliefs including Shiism as deviant other than this. He told Nusayris' beliefs and how deviant these beliefs are in the fatwa he had written in his book called “Al-Fatawa al-Kubra” under the title of Risala fi al-rad ‘ala al-Nusayriyya; and mentioned the hostilities against Islam and Muslims.(2)
When Shiite Safawi state in Iran and Sunni Ottomans rose in the area as two major powers in the beginning of the sixteenth century, Nusayris under the rule of Ottomans felt sympathy towards Safawis. Perceiving it as a threat, the Ottoman State resorted to certain measures against Nusayris. It is rumored that Sultan Selim wanted the identification of Nusayri population living near the Iranian border, and that he massacred afterwards in the area when he fought against Safawis before the Ottoman conquest of Egypt in 1514.(3) Nusayris were considered neither Muslim nor dhimmi as Christians and Jews by the Ottomans. Therefore they were not ruled in accordance with the nation system, and their domestic independence was not recognized.(4) Nusayris, who frequently revolted against Ottomans throughout the 19th century, used their poverty as an excuse and did not want to pay tax to Ottomans. Ottoman government's attempt to enroll Nusayris in the army was another reason of the uprisings. At the end of the aforesaid century, Ottomans who hesitated the intervention of West in the religious minorities in the region, tried to appeal Nusayris. Ottomans, who built schools and mosques in Nusayri villages, strived to make Nusayris adopt Sunni Islam through trainings of Sunni scholars.(5)
The Nusayri region, which is a part of the Syria divided by the notorious secret Sykes-Picot Agreement signed between France and Britain in 1916, was placed under the French mandate after the World War I. France divided Syrian territories into four parts and one of those parts was Latakia, where most populated community is Nusayri population. At this time, the Nusayris were called Alawis, and their territory, which became a state on 1 July 1922, was called the Alawis state; in 1933 it became the government of Latakia. Nusayris, who started to be called “Alawis” after the establishment of the Alawi state, strived to make themselves accepted as a part of the Muslim Shiite world. A fatwa issued in 1926 by a group of Alawite shaykhs said: “Every Alawite is Muslim and those who do not adhere to Islam, and deny that Koran is the word of God or that Mohammed is His Prophet are not Alawites... Alawites are Shiite Muslims... They are the followers of Imam Ali.”(6)
In that period, Nusayris cooperated with the French in order to protect their social interests on sectarian basis. In fact, they even boycotted the Syrian Conference organized by the Arab nationalists in 1919. In this period, many Nusayris who were poor and could not afford an education for their sons had them join the French army. The enrollment of the Nusayris in the army was the beginning of their movement toward control of the army until 1960s and their ultimate rise to political power in 1970.
When France entered into negotiations with the Syrian nationalists in Paris, in 1936 for the independence of Syria, Nusayris sent memorandums regarding they do not want to unite with Syria. In these memorandums, they stated that they were different from Sunni Muslims and they did not want to unite with Syria, whose official religion is Islam, because that Islam viewed Alawites as heretics. Therefore they requested from the French government a guarantee of Alawis' freedom and independence within their small territory.(7) In the midst of all this, Muhammad Amin al-Husayni, who was born in Jerusalem, who served as the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem between the years 1921-38 and known as Arab nationalist, issued a fatwa regarding Syrian Alawites to be known as Muslim. Haj Amin al-Husseini aimed at uniting the Syrian people against the Western occupants through the aforesaid fatwa he issued on 1 July 1936. After this fatwa, many Alawite scholars made statements regarding their belief in Islam and that they are Shiite Muslims. In fact, a group of Alawite students were sent to Najaf province of Iraq, they were trained on the Shiite Islam doctrines and Jafari (Twelver) centers in many provinces, in Latakia in particular.(8) When the World War II broke out, new generation of Nusayris adopted a more flexible attitude in terms of cooperating with Syrian nationalists and they asked permission from France for the participation of Nusayri delegation in the negotiations on independence. On 5 April 1946, when Syria became independent, Nusayri territories also became a part of Syria.
Following their independence, Nusayris started to play an efficient role in Syria through army and the Baath party. Consecutive military coups and the last military coup in the post-independence period on 13 November 1970 was carried out by General Hafiz al-Assad of Nusayri origin, and he took the power in the country. On 22 February 1971, Hafez al-Assad became the first Nusayri President of Syria. The fact that Nusayri/Alawites became a part of the Shiite society and that they were identified as Muslims would become a political issue and would have a more critical importance.
The Relation Between Nusayrism and “Twelve-Imam Shiism”, Official Sect of Iran
Even though Nusayris' efforts to make themselves accepted as part of Shiite Muslims appeared as a political issue especially after Hafiz al-Assad became the Head of State in Syria, it actually has a religious/sectarian aspect as well. Understanding the differences and similarities between the Nusayri belief and Twelve Imam Shiism belief in Iran would shed light on the arguments regarding “the sectarian similarity between current Iran and Syria”.
Nusayrism has the same faith-base as Twelver Shiism (Ithna Ashariyya), which is the official sect of Iran. According to this belief, the leadership of the Muslim community was given to Ali after the death of Muhammad and the Twelve Imams, the descendents of Him, are the leaders of Muslim community until the occultation (ghayba) of Mahdi who is the last Imam. However, the main difference between Nusayris and classical Twelve-Imam Shiism is the fact that Nusayris worship Ali, and there is no such thing in Persian Shiism. According to Nusayris, Ali is God in the flesh who created the heavens and Earth, and they believe that God has appeared seven times on Earth and the last appearance was Ali. When God appeared as Ali, He created Muhammad from His own spirit and Muhammad is the reflection, thus name, of His spirit. Nusayris believe that Allah has appeared in a Trinity of Ali, Muhammad and Salman al-Farsi. Accordingly; Ali is described as the 'Meaning', the Prophet is the 'Name' and Salman is the 'door' / 'gate' (Bab). This trinity is inseparable; because the unity of the trinity points out the divinity of Ali.(9) Those who believe in divinity of Ali are rewarded and they are chosen. Mohammad, on the other hand, is the Veil to reveal Ali to mankind (believers). And Salman al-Farisi is the Gate (Bab), through whom the true believer can gain an entrance to the mystery of the Godhead as revealed in 'Ali.(10)
Nusayris believe that Salman al-Farisi is the door to Ali, the first Imam; while there are eleven 'doors' (Bab) for each Imam following Ali. As Ibn Nusayr, the "Gate" (Bab) to the eleventh Twelver Shi'a Imam Hasan al-'Askari, lived in the same period with Mahdi who went into occultation and who is also the last Imam, He is also considered as the successor of Imam Mahdi. Ibn-Nusayr, followed by al-Junbulani and then by al-Khasibi, who is the highly respected unifier and consolidator of this religion, were considered as 'gates' opening to Imam Mahdi. The Twelver Shi'a in Iran also believe in Imamat and they believe in Imams, who protect the religion and maintain its continuity and take the lead in the society in political, social, scientific and religious fields after the Prophet starting from Ali to the last occult Imam Mahdi. However, they believe that the occultation of the twelfth Imam Mahdi took place in two stages as; minor occultation and major occultation. During the minor occultation period, which lasted some seventy years, Imam still maintained contact with his followers and answered the questions of Shi'as via four deputies. In 329 AH, the fourth deputy announced an order by Muhammad al-Mahdi that the Major Occultation would begin, and this would continue until the reappearance of the Mahdi.(11)
Unlike the Twelve-Imam Shi'a in Iran, Nusayris believe in the transfer of souls from one body to another (reincarnation). When a Nusayri dies, the soul passes into the body of other humans, animals, plants or into an object. A good Nusayri will assume a better form after his death while the soul of a bad Nusayri passes into beasts. This cycle continues until they once again return to the stars in the beginning.(12) Nusayris, who show respect to light, believe Ali is covered with light that is the eye of the sun and that he will be seen again from there.(13) Nusayris have religious books written by their own scholars. Nusayris, who do not build a sanctuary, pray in private houses. Their religious ceremonies involve bread and wine, which is a ritual adopted from Christianity. They celebrate various Muslim, Persian and Christian religious holidays, but in a different way than their original forms.
Other than the Imamat belief, the most important common point between Nusayris in Syria and the Twelve-Imam Shi'a in Iran is the festivals celebrated by both societies. These festivals are: Nowruz, which is the Persian New Year and the traditional celebration dating back to pre-Islamic period in Iran and which is still celebrated and observed as the most important celebration across the country; and Mihrijan, which is the celebration of the beginning of autumn. It is said that the aforesaid two celebrations indicate the influence of the Iranian culture on Nusayri belief. Nusayris believe that the divinity will reveal itself in various forms and costumes during these days. According to Bar-Asher, the fact that Salman al-Farisi is believed to be an inseparable part of the Trinity and the door opening to Ali, is related to the belief among Nusayris that the divinity revealed itself among the Iranians already in ancient times.(14)
Another difference in religious beliefs between Classical Twelve-Imam Shi'a and Nusayris is the imitation. The Iranian Shias believe that the guidance would be necessary as everyone cannot have enough knowledge about the religious issues. Therefore, they they see it as a requirement for an average man to ask the opinion of scholar, who are able to comment on religious issues and to make new decisions in line with current conditions. The Twelver Shi'as in Iran call these scholars “marja-i taklid”, and each Shi'a imitate the opinions of a scholar appealing to himself/herself on religious subjects. The Nusayris in Syria do not recognize such an authority.
Thus, it is seen that Syrian Nusayris and Iranian Shi'as have different cosmological perceptions despite the fact that their starting point as the followers of Ali is the same. Therefore, there are major differences in their religious beliefs that shape their conception of the world.
Syria Led By Nusayris and the Problem of Religious Legitimacy
Even though Hafez al-Assad amended the constitution in 1973 and adopted a secular regime after becoming the first Nusayri President of Syria, the influence of Nusayris in the administration of the country increased. While Hafez al-Assad's relatives from his own tribe were appointed to high ranks in the government, especially the army and intelligence were taken under the control of Nusayris. Some researchers believe that the reason why Hafez al-Assad strived to establish an understanding of a secular regime was to avoid the disturbance stemming from the fact that Nusayris were considered as infidel by Sunni Arabs and thus to feature the secular Arab nationalism.(15)
After Hafez al-Assad became the Syrian President, he embarked on a quest for religious legitimacy in order to prove that Nusayri/Alawite belief, which he adheres to, is a part of Islam and to maintain his power. The fatwa issued in 1972 by Grand Ayatollah Hassan Shirazi, a Shi'a scholar from an Iranian family and who was exiled from Iraq to Lebanon in 1970, was an important evidence regarding the aforesaid goal of Assad. In the fatwa that Shirazi issued three months after his visit to Alawite communities living in Lebanon and Syria in 1972, “First of all, Alawites are the Shi'a followers of Ali Ibn Abu Talib, the shah of all believers. And secondly, Alawite and Shi'a are synonyms just like Jafari (Twelver) and Imamiya, and every Shi'a is Alawite in terms of belief and every Alawite is Shi'a in sectarian terms,” he said.(16) While the fatwa of Shirazi was used in almost every work written by Nusayris/Alawites, the close relationship between Syria and the Shiite religious leaders was rooted as a result of this fatwa and it also eased the sectarian legitimacy for the Assad regime.(17)
Despite the fatwa of Ayatollah Hassan Shirazi recognizing Nusayris/Alawites in 1972 following the fatwa of Haj Amin al-Husseini in 1936, the Muslim Brotherhood in Syria did not accept the fact that their President was Nusayri/Alawite. As Hafez al-Assad laid down the condition, suggesting that the President shall be Muslim, in the constitution in 1973, the friction increased between the two parties as he considered himself as Muslim. Then, Hafez al-Assad convinced the Shi'ite clerics in Lebanon to declare that Nusayris are real Muslims. In 1973, Imam Musa al-Sadr from the Twelve-Imam Shi'a established the Supreme Islamic Shiite Council in Lebanon and appointed a Lebanese Alawite as the Head of the Council and as Shi'ite mufti of Northern Lebanon. The fact that Sadr recognized Lebanese Alawites like this meant the recognition of Nusayri/Alawite belief in Syria as well. In his speech, Sadr showed that Alawism is not an extremist belief, but a part of Shi'ism by underlining the fact that Alawites and Shiites shared the same sorrow. As a matter of fact, in the same speech Sadr stated that the Alawites of today are the brothers of Shiites.(18) All these might be considered as the efforts of Nusayris/Alawites to legitimize themselves in the Syrian regime in the eyes of Sunni Arabs.(19)
However these efforts could not been sufficient, as the society of Muslim Brothers in Syria staged a revolt against the 'deviant'. The Muslim Brotherhood seized the control in Hama, where Sunni population was dominant, in anti-regime demonstrations which became quite violent in 1982; and they killed the officials appointed among Nusayri/Alawites. Assad responded by sending 12,000 Nusayri/Alawite soldiers to the province and they massacred as many as 30,000 Sunni Arab civilians. Following the Hama massacre in 2 February 1982, Assad secured his power in the country through a very large intelligence network he established.(20)
Nevertheless, there are certain facts in the Assad regime in contrast with the fact that Nusayri/Alawites are privileged. For instance, Nusayris/Alawites, who live in rural areas, suffered from the restrictions imposed on the sales of tobacco, the essential product they had produced for centuries. It is hard to tell that Nusayri/Alawite villages developed under the administration of Hafez al-Assad.(21)
The Relations Between Syria, Led By Nusayris, and The Islamic Republic of Iran
When Iran entered in the process of the Islamic Revolution of 1979, Syria under the presidency of Hafez al-Assad took a stand supporting the religious opposition against the Shah in Iran. When Ali Shari’ati, who introduced the politicization of Shiism to the masses in Iran and who is considered as the ideologue of the Iranian revolution, passed away in 1977, he was buried next to his beloved Zaynab in Damascus. Imam Musa al-Sadr, who managed the funeral service, appears as an important actor establishing the relationship between Syria and Iran. When Ayatollah Khomeini, the leader of the Iranian Revolution, was exiled from Iraq in 1978, Hafez al-Assad invited him to Damascus. The relations between Syria and Iran continued to become closer after the Iranian Revolution of 1979. While Syria's attitude towards Iran could be considered as Assad regime's continuing its efforts to reinforce its religious legitimacy through supporting the Shiite clerics in Iran, Kramer believes that a sense of shared fate, not shared faith, bound these two regimes together.(22) On the other hand, the Muslim Brotherhood also supported the Iranian Revolution in Syria and they hoped a similar change would also take place in Syria and the current regime would be toppled by the Islamic movement. Nevertheless, despite its revolutionary export policy, Iran kept quiet about the Muslim Brotherhood's fight against the regime in Syria. When Iraq declared war against Iran in 1980, the only Arab country supporting Iran was Syria. The strategic relations, deepening through the aforesaid support of Syria, became stronger as Iran provided Syria with cheap oil and free oil products. As a matter of fact, a powerful Iraq led by Sunnis was threatening for Syria led by Nusayris/Alawites. As the Sunni tribes living on the Syrian borderline of Iraq was also perceived as a threat by the Assad regime in a Sunni-opposition environment in the country, Syria strived to reduce the threat posed by this powerful neighbor by taking sides with Iran in 1980-1988 Iran-Iraq war and then by supporting the coalition led by the U.S. which entered in Iraq in 1991.
On the other hand for Iran, which became isolated in the region, the relations with Syria supporting itself were extremely important. Besides being its only ally, Syria was also of key importance in terms of strengthening its relations with Hezbollah in Lebanon. As a matter of fact, Iran provided Hezbollah with money, arms, military and religious guidance support both in order to fight against Zionism and also for the independence of Palestine. After the death of the leader of the 1979 Iranian Revolution, Khomeini, in 1989; the dynamics of Khomeini period in Iran's Syrian policy continued to be effective also during the period of Iran's new leader Ayatollah Khamanei. Despite the fact that Syria's joining in the Madrid peace conference with Israel in 1991 caused to tension between Iran and Syria, the failure of the negotiations reduced the tension. In 1990s, Syria assumed mediating role between Arab Gulf countries and Iran. After Iran annexed the Abu Musa island in 1992, Syria also played a mediating role in the tension between Iran and the United Arab Emirates (UAE).(23)
Syria under the presidency of Hafez al-Assad strived for Nusayri/Alawite belief to be recognized by Twelve-Imam Shi'a throughout 1970s, and thus aimed at obtaining its religious legitimacy in the eyes of Sunnis and other religious groups in the country. The close relations established with the Islamic Republic of Iran, which was established in 1979, indirectly served to this purpose of Assad. In August 1980, Assad called upon the religious shaykhs to modernize and make reforms and to strengthen the tenuous links of the community with the main centers of Twelver Shi’ism. To this end, two hundred Alawi students were to be sent to Qom, to specialize in Twelver Shi’ite jurisprudence.(24) On the other hand the new Iranian government, which was created after the Iranian revolution, posed a threat to the status quoist Arab regimes in the region due to its revolutionary export discourse. In such an atmosphere, Syria became a very important regional ally for the new Iranian government. While the sectarian difference in the relations between the two countries were ignored; the anti-imperialism, anti-colonialism, and anti-Zionism became the common values between these two countries. The fact that the aforesaid two countries needed one another paved the way for a good relationship and the relations between them were kept at a certain level by overcoming the tensions which broke out from time to time in years.(25) When the elder Assad died in 2000, his son Bashar al-Assad inherited Syria's presidency and carried on the good relations between Syria and Iran.
During the presidency period of Bashar al-Assad, the 'Shiite crescent' discourse, described in the axis of Iran-Syria-Lebanon, left its mark in the Middle East. When the U.S. President George W. Bush added Syria along with Iran and North Korea among the “axis of evil” countries in 2002 after the 9/11 attacks, Syria was associated with Iran which had been excluded from the international system since the Iranian revolution. After the U.S. toppled the Saddam regime in Iraq in 2003, the powerful Shiite organizations emerging in the country reinforced the idea of the rise of Shiism in the region. For the first time in 2004, Jordan's King Abdullah mentioned the idea that Iran strived to create a 'Shiite crescent' by uniting Shiites who live in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq and the Gulf countries in the region.(26) The fact that the U.S. held Syria responsible for the assassination of the former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri in 2005, and also the accusations regarding that Syria did not support the new government created under the supervision of the U.S. after Saddam regime was toppled in Iraq, consolidated the perception that Syria was a part of the Shiite crescent which was strived to be created by Iran against the Sunni governments. Another development reinforcing the Shiite crescent discourse was the solidarity of Hezbollah-Iranian-Syrian-Iraqi Shiites that was created during the Israel-Hezbollah war in 2006. However, despite all these debates, many analysts believe that the foreign policy followed by Bashar al-Assad is far from being Shiite-axis. Accordingly, Bashar al-Assad is in a good relationship with Iran, not on loyalty-basis but completely in order to continue his own existence. Even though the Islamization process of Syria, which was launched during the elder Assad period, was maintained by his son Bashar al-Assad; the fact that Bashar is not anti-western, and that Assad has made a great deal of progress in opening his economy to the West and has modestly increased political freedoms in the country may be considered as an attempt to demonstrate a desire for increased interaction with western nations.(27)
One of the most important reasons why Syria under the presidency of Nusayris/Alawites is perceived in the same camp with Shiite Iran, is the support given by the two countries to the Shiite Hezbollah organization in Lebanon in order to defend the Palestine's case. As a matter of fact, Syria has always made its presence felt in Lebanon since the Syrian occupation of Lebanon in 1976. In fact, Syria ended its military presence in the country only after the Hariri assassination on February 2005. Syria has been supporting the organization as the transit country of Iran's arms aids to Hezbollah. However, contrary to common view, the purpose of Syria's presence in Lebanon is not to support Hezbollah, but the fact that Syria has been carrying on its war against Israel over Lebanon. Similarly, the underlying reason behind Syria's supporting Hezbollah is not to strengthen Iran's hand in the region, but the desire to win against Israel. As a matter of fact, the theocratic Shiite state to be established in Lebanon would not serve the interest of Syria, and furthermore, strengthening of Hezbollah disturbs Syria as it poses threat to approximately 50,000 Nusayris/Alawites living in Lebanon. There is a concern regarding that such a development could threaten the Syrian government in the long term. To sum up, the main concern for Syria on Hezbollah is its security concerns vis-à-vis Israel and the Nusayri/Alawite minority in Lebanon, rather than serving the regional interests of Iran which is the supporter in the region.(28) On the other hand, Hezbollah receives the arms aid provided by Iran through Syria, and the organisation needs Syria to let the arms pass. That being the case, we can see that there is a strategic interdependence between Hezbollah and Syria.(29)
Another dynamic caused by the sect factor in the relations between Syria and Iran is the holy Shiite places located on the Syrian territories. The tomb of Zaynab, the daughter of Ali, in Damascus is the biggest Shiite center and a holy place for Shities, and many visitors come from Iran to pray. The tomb and mosque of Sayyida Ruqayya, Ali's four-year old daughter who was held captive by Yazid after the Battle of Karbala and who died at the age of four, are also located in Damascus. Although these shrines are under the administration of Directorate of Religious Foundations and they have they have their own financial resources, Iran wants to have an influence over religious centers by providing financial support for their development. For instance, at the beginning of the 1990s the Iranians constructed a large tomb over the tomb of Ruqayya, and they purchased the land around it and began constructing a very large husayniyya (a religious Shi'ite centre, which is dedicated to Hussein and in which religious ceremonies are held and study groups are conducted etc.). Within this framework, the allegations related to Iran's efforts to spread Shiism across Syria ought to be taken into consideration in the relations between the two countries. In the strategic relations established with Iran during the Presidency of Hafez al-Assad, certain measures had been taken to prevent this kind of direct activities of Iran. Hafez al-Assad had the institutions, which were financed by Iran, shut down in order to avoid Syria's being affected by the Iranian revolution, and strived to prevent Iran's attempts to have an influence on Nusayris/Alawites in Syria by taking advantage of the sectarian relations. In order to control religious activities, the President also ordered the Mufti of Syria to establish schools for Quranic study, which are called “al-Asad Institutes for Memorizing the Quran” throughout Syria, including in predominantly Alawite regions of the country.(30)
During the Bashar al-Assad period, on the other hand, it is observed that the influence of Iran and Shiism has increased in Syria. While Syrians have access to foreign networks like al-Manar, which is the broadcast channel of Hezbollah and promotes conversion to Shiism, there are also a number of local channels that broadcast Shiite traditions, lectures; and the media appearance of pro-Iranian shaykhs is also promoted by the Assad regime. In addition to this, the construction of husayniyyas are permitted in the country and many Iranians have been given Syrian citizenship. It is reported that Iran has been carrying out activities through aid organizations in Syria, and that free medical care has been provided in Iranian charity hospitals in Syria. Another pillar of Iran's sectarian approach between Syria and Iran is considered as education; and the fact that Syria send students to Iran on full scholarships and support those studying in religious institutes in Qom, is the indicator of this.(31)
The Arab popular uprisings – commonly known as Arab Spring – , which broke out in 2011 in Tunisia and penetrated into the countries such as Egypt, Libya, Yemen, Bahrain, also affected Syria. The uprisings, launched by opposition groups against the Bashar al-Assad regime in March, turned into armed conflicts upon the resistance of the Assad regime. In the conflicts, where many Syrian were killed and many others were arrested, the opposition demanded the Assad regime to leave power. The fact that Assad made a constitutional amendment on February 2012, and promised to hold multi-party general elections did not calm down the opposition. By accepting the Annan's peace plan on 27 March, Assad promised to cease fire. But violence did not stop. Despite the chaos across the country, the boycott of the opposition left its mark on the elections held on 7 May.
While all these developments took place, the biggest and the only supporter of the Assad regime for a while has been Iran. Supporting the people against the 'pro-western dictator regimes' in uprisings taking place in other Arab countries, Iran chose to support the Assad regime in Syria. On the other hand, he described the Syrian opposition as 'armed gangs'. The aforesaid support of Iran brings many explanations to mind such as; the Shiite crescent, the axis of resistance against Israel, the policy of maintaining alliances with the purpose of providing sectarian superiority. Nevertheless, Iran states that its support to Syria is not based on religious, but completely on ideologic and strategic reasons. The two biggest ideological enemies of Iran are the U.S. and Israel; and in principle terms, the Islamic Republic of Iran indicates that they are against those who take sides with the U.S. and Israel, while those who are against the aforesaid two states are their friends. Strategically, on the other hand, Syria has been the partner, supporter and ally of the Islamic Republic of Iran since the establishment of the Republic in the Middle East. Both states act in unison with Israel, and cooperate in the Lebanese policy with their common interests. In this respect, Iran, which is a religious-theocratic state, highlights the continuation of the strategic alliance established with Syria, a secular Arab Republic especially in the period of Hafez al-Assad, based on the common values of anti-imperialism and anti-Zionism. The allegations regarding that Iran supports Assad due to their sectarian relationship has been strived to refuted with the argument that Nusayrism/Alawism is not the same thing with Shiism and thus there is no such similarity. It is partially true; because the sect issue has never been at the center of political relations between the two countries. However, it is obvious that the Nusayri/Alawite administration in Syria has always been closer to the Shiite doctrine, and that it forms a more proper social/political basis for Iran's activities to spread Shiism. Another argument used by Iran to refute the sectarian-based allegations is that the description of Shiism means accepting Wilayatul Faqih as well as adhering to Shiite doctrine for the Islamic Republic of Iran. As a matter of fact, Iran suggests that it considers Hezbollah Shiite as the organisation recognizes the authority of Wilayatul Faqih. It is partially true as well; because Wilayatul Faqih is both a religious institution and also a political institution as it leads the Islamic Republic. Therefore, one of the conditions of Iran's pursuing a sectarian-based policy is the approval of this political authority taking its power from sect. But there is a fact which should not be ignored that Iran's official description of Shiism is just an interpretation and, even in Iran, there are clerics and their followers who do not accept this description and believe that the authority should not be determined through political, but only through religious principles. In conclusion, it might be suggested that the religious concerns in Iran's supporting the Assad regime is a controversial issue. However, the strategic concerns are quite clear. Therefore, currently Iran's strategic concerns are more important than its religious concerns in its Syrian policy.
(1) Matti Moosa, Extremist Shiites: The Ghulat Sects, (New York: Syracuse University Press, 1988), ss. 255-266.
(2) Bkz.Yvette Talhamy, “The Fatwas and the Nusayri/Alawis of Syria”, Middle Eastern Studies,
Cilt 46, Sayı 2, 175–194, Mart 2010, ss. 178-181.
(3) Ibid., s.181.
(4)Matti Moosa, Extremist Shiites: The Ghulat Sects, (New York: Syracuse University Press, 1988), ss. 267-278.
(5) Yvette Talhamy, ‘The Nusayriya Uprisings in Syria in the 19th Century’ (PhD Thesis, University of Haifa, 2006), ss.251–256.
(6) Ali ‘Aziz al-Ibrahim, al-‘Alawiyun wa-l-tashayyu‘ (Beirut: al-Dar al-Islamiyya, 1992), ss.87–8, aktaran Yvette Talhamy, “The Fatwas and the Nusayri/Alawis of Syria”, Middle Eastern Studies,
Cilt 46, Sayı 2, 175–194, Mart 2010, s. 187.
(7) Matti Moosa, ss. 287-288.
(8) Yvette Talhamy, “The Fatwas and the Nusayri/Alawis of Syria”, Middle Eastern Studies,
Cilt 46, Sayı 2, 175–194, Mart 2010, s.186-187.
(10) Ibid.,s.176; bkz. Matti Moosa, ss. 324-336; 342-351.
(11) Allame Tabatabai, İslam’da Şia, (Kum: İslami Kültür ve İlişkiler Merkezi, 1998), s. 220.
(12) Bkz. Matti Moosa, ss. 362-371.
(13)Bkz. Matti Moosa, ss. 337-341.
(14) Meir Michael Ben-Asher, “The Iranian Component of the Nusayri Religion”, Iran, Cilt 41, s. 217.
(15) Anoushiravan Ehteshami ve Raymond A. Hinnebusch, Syrian and Iran: Middle Powers in a Penetrated Regional System, (London: Routledge, 1997),ss. 98-99.
(16) Yvette Talhamy, “The Fatwas and the Nusayri/Alawis of Syria”, Middle Eastern Studies,
Cilt 46, Sayı 2, 175–194, Mart 2010, s. 188.
(17) Martin Kramer, http://www.martinkramer.org/sandbox/reader/archives/syria-alawis-and-shiism/
(18) Yvette Talhamy, “The Fatwas and the Nusayri/Alawis of Syria”, Middle Eastern Studies,
Cilt 46, Sayı 2, 175–194, Mart 2010, s. 190.
(19) On İki İmam Şiasının bazı din adamları Nusayriliğin Şiilik çerçevesinde değerlendirilmesi gerektiği konusunda bahsedilen benimseyici fetvaları verirken bunun tersi örnekler de mevcuttur. Mesela İran’ın etkili din adamlarından Ayetullah Kazım Şeriatmedari, 1970li yıllarda Suriye Alevilerinin tanınması istekleri karşısında sessiz kalmıştır. Martin Kramer, http://www.martinkramer.org/sandbox/reader/archives/syria-alawis-and-shiism/.
(20) Robert D. Kaplan, Syria: Identity Crises, http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/1993/02/syria-identity-crisis/3860/
(21) Leon Goldsmith, “Alawites for Assad: Why the Syrian Sect Backs the Regime”, Foreing Affairs, April 16, 2012, http://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/137407/leon-goldsmith/alawites-for-assad?cid=nlc-this_week_on_foreignaffairs_co-041912-alawites_for_assad_3-041912
(22) Martin Kramer, http://www.martinkramer.org/sandbox/reader/archives/syria-alawis-and-shiism/
(23)Yvette Talhamy, “The Syrian Muslim Brıthers and Syria-Iran Relations”, Middle East Journal, Cilt 63, Sayı 4, Güz 2009, s. 573.
(24) Martin Kramer, http://www.martinkramer.org/sandbox/reader/archives/syria-alawis-and-shiism/
(25) Yvette Talhamy, “The Syrian Muslim Brıthers and Syria-Iran Relations”, Middle East Journal, Cilt 63, Sayı 4, Güz 2009, s. 573.
(26)Bayram Sinkaya, “Arap Baharı Sürecinde İran’ın Suriye Politikası”, SETA Analiz, Sayı 53, Nisan 2012, s. 19.
(27)Pat Proctor, “The Mythical Shia Crescent”, Parameters, Bahar 2008, s. 38.
(28) Ibid., s. 39.
(29) Rola El Husseini, “Hizbollah and the Axis of Refusal: Hamas, Iran and Syria”, Third World Quarterly, Cilt 31, Sayı 5, s. 811.
(30) Khalid Sindawi, “The Shiite Turn in Syria”, Current Trends in Islamic Ideology, Cilt 8, 23 Haziran 2009, s. 88.
(31) Ibid., s. 88-91.