The Alawis of Syria: War, Faith and Politics in the Levant
By Michael Kerr and Craig Larkin (editors)
(New York: Oxford University Press, 2015)

Reviewed by Mr. Carl Yonker, Junior Research Fellow, MDC-Tel Aviv University, & Ph.D. Candidate, Tel Aviv University

The renewed focus on, and interest in, the region’s ethnic and religious minorities, be it the Christians, Kurds, Yazidis, or, in the case of the present review, the Alawis, is a byproduct of the ongoing crises in the Middle East and the rise of the Islamic State. As Stefan Winter, one of the book’s contributors, acerbically – albeit accurately – notes in the introduction of his essay, this renewed interest in the Alawis, and, by extension, other confessional groups, is “largely superficial” (p. 49). Nevertheless, Winter, in contributing to the present volume, believes the renewed interest in the Alawis deserves to be addressed, particularly in the comprehensive, thorough and insightful manner as the scholars gathered together by editors Michael Kerr and Craig Larkin have done.

Kerr, Larkin, and the twelve other authors featured in the book aims “to fill the gap in [readers’] knowledge of Syrian politics and society and, by extension, regime-Alawi relations, the flexible and changing nature of Alawi identities, and the role played by the Alawi community in opposition and pro-government organizations during the first years of the civil war” (p. 2). Divided into four sections – the Alawis in historical perspective; Alawis and the Syrian state; Alawi communities and identities; and the Alawis in conflict and contention in the Syrian civil war – the book details the differing Alawi responses to the current crisis and the regime’s efforts to “[link] this community’s fate to its own survival” (p. 2). Thus, the book seeks to demonstrate that the Alawi community is neither a monolith nor can it be equated with the regime of Bashar al-Asad. Rather, the Alawi community of Syria is dynamic and diverse, and the community’s identities are being changed and shaped anew by the political, social, economic, and geographic upheaval brought about by five years of war. With this objective in mind, Kerr and Larkin are to be commended for putting together this excellent and timely collection of studies.

As the works included in this volume amply demonstrate, in historical perspective, examples of unity and division and diversity and homogeneity, whether along tribal, ideological, economic or geographic lines, are not new phenomena in the Alawi community. The recent death of Bashar al-Asad’s mother, Anisa Makhlouf, provides a nice historical anecdote that is but one example of the ideological differences that existed within the community. Anisa’s betrothal to Bashar’s father, Hafez, in the 1950s was strongly opposed by her father, a staunch supporter of the Syrian Social Nationalist Party (SSNP), whose fiercest and most bitter ideological and political rival in Syria was the Baʿth Party, to which Hafez belonged.

Returning our attention to the present volume, a number of chapters stand out from the rest, though stating this by no means implies the others are of any lesser quality and scholarly rigor. The first chapter in the book, written by Aslam Farouk-Alli, provides an engaging and insightful overview of Alawi history from its emergence as a community to the present, detailing its evolution as a religious and political community. Fabrice Balanche traces the geographic and social shifts experienced by the Alawi community throughout the twentieth century, specifically under Baʿth rule, and includes a number of informative maps and graphics detailing the community’s demographic growth and population shifts. In the final section of the book, Aron Lund analyzes the etymological evolution of the term Shabiha, and its imprecise use to, among other things, characterize the various pro-regime militias operating in the country and denigrate opponents. Lund also breaks down the various regime-allied militias, contributing to our understanding of the armed movements that have proliferated in the conflict. Finally, Carsten Wielend provides much needed insights into Alawi participation in the opposition, reinforcing the sad reality that the Alawi community is “both perpetrators and victims/regime and opposition” (p. 243). Reinoud Leenders provides a strong, cogent counter-argument to the prevailing perception that the Asad regime, in its application of violence, has acted in an irrational and incompetent manner, arguing that the regime has been “calculative, rational, and learning” (p. 246), adapting its strategies, tactics, and policies in an effort to remain in power.

This book is a must read for anyone – scholar or lay reader – interested not only in Syrian history or the history of a minority religious community, but in understanding the dynamics of the ongoing Syrian conflict. It is well-written and comprehensive, making it an accessible work that is a pleasurable and rewarding read.