Part 4 of our series on the Syrian civil war focuses on the history of the Alawites, a bizarre and minor Islamic sect that spent most of its 1100 year history being oppressed (and beheaded) by the Sunni majority – until Hafez al-Assad, an Alawite, became the President of Syria in 1970. They were originally called the Nusayris after Muhammad ibn Nusayr (died 868 CE) and considered by many Muslims to be worse than infidels, perhaps even secret Christians. So the Nusayris fled Iraq into northwestern Syria after being threatened with three fatwas. From that point on, Sunnis used the term “Nusayri” to mean “pariah.” An Ottoman decree in 1571 treated them as non-Muslims and Alawites were beheaded. When the Ottoman Empire crumbled and France claimed Syria, Nusayris stressed their affinity with Christianity and achieved an independent state under the French mandate in 1922. The Sunni majority considered army jobs as reserved for the poor. But the Alawites were a poor community and happily joined the army. So by the end of the French mandate, Alawites formed half of the eight infantry battalions – something the Sunni majority would soon learn to regret.
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