One must not lose sight of the fact that, historically speaking, and contrary to prevalent belief, the Alawites wanted no part of the “Unitary Syria” that emerged out of Franco-British bickering in the Levant of the interwar period. Indeed, when the French inherited the Ottoman Vilayets (governorates) of Beirut, Damascus, Aleppo, and Alexandretta in 1918, they opted to turn them into six autonomous entities reflecting previous Ottoman administrative realities. Ergo, in 1920, those entities became the State of Greater Lebanon (which in 1926 gave birth to the Republic of Lebanon), the State of Damascus, the State of Aleppo, the State of the Druze Mountain, the State of the Alawite Mountain (corresponding roughly to what the Alawites are reconstituting today), and the Sanjak of Alexandretta (ceded to Turkey in 1938 to become the Province of Hatay.)
But when Arab nationalists began pressuring the British on the question of “Arab unity,” urging them to make good on pledges made to the Sharif of Mecca during the Great War, the Alawites demured. In fact, Bashar al-Assad’s own grandfather, Ali Sulayman al-Assad, was among leading Alawite notables who, until 1944, continued to lobby French Mandatory authorities to resist British and Arab designs aimed at stitching together the States of Aleppo, Damascus, Druze, and Alawite Mountains into a new republic to be christened Syria.
From this long-winded (but useful) article by Franck Salameh in the National Interest. What would be interesting to research is how long it took the Ottomans to figure out how to best govern such a diverse set of peoples. God forbid anybody let them govern themselves. Also interesting to note is the “Arab unity” canard that ultimately created the state of Syria. From what I recall, Arab nationalism was largely pushed by a hodgepodge of urban liberals with connections to British and French businesses and rural aristocrats hailing from the Gulf and promised land and power by the British for turning on the Turks.
What a mess. The liberals, by the way, are long gone. They were swept away by the military dictatorships of the 1960s and 1970s. The Islamists are largely a reaction to the military dictatorships. Islamism as we know it today only came into being in the late 1950s, when the leaders of the Middle East were all puppets that had been installed by the last vestiges of European colonialism. Arab nationalism was still strong in the late 1950s, so the Islamists lost out in popularity to the military dictatorships (which operated under the guise of “Arab socialism”). Twenty years of Arab socialism – guided by Generals and Colonels – paved the way for the Islamists and their internationalist rhetoric to become the voice of the Arab street.
I, for one, wouldn’t mind seeing Syria dissolve back into six independent states. If the international community could get them to bind their economies together in a free trade zone of sorts, the region would heal quickly and set an important precedent: political decentralization and economic integration work well no matter where they’re applied.
Update: the Economist has more on the ethnic angle in Syria’s civil war.