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Divide and Confound—or Divide and Empower? The Opportunities and Dangers of Strategic PSYOP against the Alawi Rulers of Syria

At times it has been the policy of the United States to appeal directly to foreign populaces, rather than  to the tyrannical elites or unresponsive dictators who rule over them. This approach is applicable throughout the entire range of operations from peace through conflict to war. PSYOP can be not only a powerful arm of this strategy but also the only appropriate weapons system in the preconflict environment .1

I. Introduction: A Brief History of Strategic Ideological-based PSYOP

Psychological operations aimed at undermining not just one’s battlefield enemy but the hostile government behind it are nothing new under the sun.  In American history, they go back beyond the usual suspects of the Cold War, 2 and World War II 3 even to the Revolutionary War: the Declaration of Independence itself contains a litany of grievances against King George III of Great Britain, including having “plundered our Seas, ravaged our Coasts, burnt our Towns and destroyed the Lives of our People” by “transporting large Armies…to compleat the Works of Death, Desolation and Tyranny….” In fact, psychological operations to support military and foreign policy objectives were practiced in ancient history: for just one example Pompey, before he became Julius Caesar’s failed rival, justified his annexation of Syria for the Roman Republic  with the allegation that “this country has no legitimate kings.” 4

Polytheistic civilizations tended to malign their enemies’ leaders on the basis of  political illegitimacy, for being “barbarians” 5 or simply for posing a potential threat.  With the coming of monotheism, however, religious propaganda that vilified enemies as “idolaters” or—once rival monotheisms existed and wielded power—as “heretics” began to be employed; for example, the Hebrews, the world’s first true monotheists, were told this by Moses:

When the Lord your God brings you into the land you are entering to possess and drives out before you many nations—the Hittites,Girgashites, Amorites, Canaanites….and when the Lord your God has delivered them over to you and you have defeated them, then you must destroy them totally. Make no treaty with them, and show them no mercy. Do not intermarry with them…..for they will turn your sons  away from following me to serve other   gods….This is what you are to do to them: smash their sacred stones… and burn their idols in the fire. 6

Unlike the Jewish people,  a relatively small population which held political and military power only in short interludes between Moses’ time and the establishment of modern Israel, the two offshoots of Judaism—Christianity and Islam—early in their histories took political power, 7 held it and eventually became the world’s two largest religions. 8  Under the guise of various political incarnations, Christendom and the Islamic ummah (“community”) have often been at each other’s throats regionally (Middle East, Europe, Africa) and in some senses are now globally.  Many know of the infamous Crusades, called by Pope Urban II in 1095 CE against “an accursed race, a race utterly alienated from God.” 9  Usama bin Ladin, whose writings always refer to Americans as “Crusaders,” certainly knows and exploits this trope. But  Islamic states, leaders and theologians have also brandished Islam’s alleged position as the final revelation of God to humanity as a propaganda tool justifying attacking, occupying and conquering Christian (and other, such as Hindu Indian) territory, as well, doing so on the basis of Qur’anic verses such as “fight those who believe not in God nor the Last Day, nor hold that forbidden which has been forbidden by God and his messenger [Muhammad], nor acknowledge the religion of  truth, even if they are people of the book [Jews and Christians], until they pay the jizyah 10 with willing submission, and feel themselves subdued.” 11  Such thinking was the basis for the enormous expansion of Islamic territory that occurred in the centuries after Muhammad’s death in 632 CE, and it even continued as a state ideology into the twentieth century. Furthermore, Islamic polities often took full advantage of divisions in the Christian world; one prominent example took place during the sixteenth-century Reformation, as European Christendom split between Roman Catholic and Protestant branches:

The Ottoman Empire was aware of and exploited this tear in the fabric of Christendom ….[emphasis added] [Sultan] Süleyman wrote at least one letter urging the Protestant princes of Germany to hold firm and ooperate with the French against [Holy Roman Emperor] Charles V; the Ottoman government continued to support the Calvinists not only in Hungary and Transylvania but also in France…. 12

Some four centuries later, the Ottoman Empire issued a fatwa, an official Islamic ruling, upon entering World War I on the German and Austro-Hungarian Empires’ side in 1914, calling upon Muslims under European rule to rise up against their illegitimate rulers: since “Russia, England, France and the governments that support them…are hostile to the Islamic Caliphate” it was “incumbent upon all Muslims that are being ruled by these governments, to proclaim jihad against them and to actually attack them….” 13

However, Islamic groups and states have also throughout their history labeled other Muslim factions as “infidels,” “unbelievers,” “rebels,” “atheists,” etc., as a means of undermining, de-legitimizing and ultimately defeating them.  The Abbasids did this in their covert preparation for their ultimately-successful overt war against the ruling Umayyad Empire in the late 7th and early 8th centuries CE. 14 In the medieval period Ibn Tumart (d. 1130 CE), founder of the al-Muwahhid state, began his career as a critic of the  al-Murabit Empire that ruled most of the Maghrib 15 at that time; some of his major grievances against them were their “idolatrous” literal reading of the Qur’an (in which Allah has actual hands) and their “un-Islamic” allowing of men and women to mingle together in public. 16   Likewise, Sayyid Muhammad Jawnpuri (d. 1505 CE), who led a Mahdist (Muslim messianic) revolt against the Gujarati Sultanate of western India, did so mainly on the basis of the takfir, “unbelief,” of the ruling sultan. 17  In probably the most prominent example of Islamic state-sponsored strategic PSYOP, the Ottoman and Safavid Persian Empires were at each others’ throats both literally and rhetorically from the early 16th century until the early 18th, as described by an eminent historian of the Ottomans:

The Safavids [Persians/Iranians] were both a militant state and an heretical Shi`ite sect. Religious propaganda emanating from Persia and directed toward…eastern Anatolia, undermined Ottoman authority….[In turn] Religious opinions were issued by the sheikh ul-Islam [the Ottoman highest religious figure] against the Safavids to rally emotional support behind and to justify war against another Muslim state [emphasis added]. 18

Approaching more modern times, Muhammad Ahmad (d. 1885) of Sudan, in the late 19th century, led an ultimately-successful expulsion of Ottoman and Egyptian troops from his country 19 on the basis of strategic propaganda labelling the occupying Muslim forces as morally-lax, pseudo-Muslims. 20  More recently, the attempt in 1979 to overthrow the House of Sa`ud  led by Juhayman al-`Utaybi also trumpeted the Islamic illegitimacy of the Kingdom’s rulers. 21  In general, Islamic history is rife with Sunni denigration of various Shi`ite sects, and vice-versa, and such existed long before the late Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, murderer par excellence of Shi`ites, was killed.  The most recent examples of Sunni v. Shi`i strategic propaganda against one another are seen in 1) the dust-up between Shaykh Yusuf al-Qaradhawi, prominent Egyptian Sunni cleric, who condemns Iran and the Shi`ah for having “strayed far from the truth” and for trying to infiltrate Egyptian society, and the counter-attacks by the Islamic Republic of Iran, accusing al-Qaradhawi—among other things—of sounding like a “Jewish rabbi;” 22   and 2) the inter-regime war of words between, on one hand, the leading Sunni Arab nations and, on the other, Iran and Syria. 23 Many Sunni, especially those Arab ones influenced by the ubiquitious Muslim Brotherhood, consider Shi`is heretical at best and non-Muslim at worst. 24  Shi`ites, conversely, are less doctrinaire about branding Sunnis as non-Muslims, but tend to see them as misguided and not possessing the full truth of Islam.  But there is an ideological and religious divide that cuts both ways and has been exploited by Muslims themselves throughout 14 centuries of history.

II.  Syria and the Alawiyah Sect

Syria has been ruled for almost four decades by a religious minority known as the Alawiyah,  members of whom hold key positions in the military, intelligence services and government and, of course, the Presidency which was passed on from Hafiz al-Assad to his son Bashar in 2001. Alawis make up no more than 11-12% of the population of Syria, the vast majority of which—some 74%--is Sunni Muslim. 25  In fact the Alawis may constitute a much smaller percentage of the population, since the regime has a vested interest in keeping their exact numbers secret, particularly if they are indeed an even smaller demographic slice than assumed. 

The Alawis present themselves in the modern world as Shi`ites, but in fact they are, doctrinally, not even really Muslim. 26  The origins of the sect 27 lie with one Muhammad b. Nusayr al-Namiri (d. 868 CE),  a devotee of the 10th Shi`ite Imam Ali al-Hadi. Ibn Nusayr believed himself to be the prophet for the divine al-Hadi, who rejected such beliefs.  A later Nusayri leader emphasized the divinity of Ali—Muhammad’s son-in-law and cousin, who married Muhammad’s daughter Fatima and through whose sons the line of Shi`ite imams  is traced—and by the 11th century CE the sect had gained converts in northwest Syria, then under the rule of the Christian Byzantine (Eastern Roman) Empire.  After the Muslim conquest of the region, attempts were made to convert the Nusayris to Sunni doctrines and practices by both the Mamluks of Egypt and, more systematically, by the Ottoman Empire in the 18th and 19th centuries.  It seems that Nusayri resistance was not futile, for both the Mamluks and Ottomans built mosques only to have them stand empty or be turned into stables—the Nusayris not being purveyors of mosques.  In 1924 Muhammad Amin Ghalib Tawil, an Alawi, published Tarikh al-`Alawiyin [History of the Alawis], a work dedicated to mainstreaming Alawis as Twelver Shi`ites—the  brand of Shi`ism in Iran, Iraq and Lebanon—and in fact it was not until after this book’s publication that the term “Alawis” replaced “Nusayris.” 

The terminology may have changed but the doctrines of Alawism remain the same, and many of them are decidely unIslamic. 28  Ali would seem to be considered not just an Imam, or divinely-inspired leader as in Shi`ism, but the first incarnation of Allah—and incarnational theology, as shown by Islamic attacks on Christians for their belief that Jesus is the God-Man, is a cardinal sin.  Human beings are reincarnated and only Alawis, with their esoteric knowledge, can hope to escape this cycle.  Women do not seem to be believed to even possess souls. Ramadan, the month of fasting, is ignored, as are the zakat (giving to the poor) and even the hajj, the pilgrimage to Mecca.  In fact, Alawism seems in many respects more Christian than Muslim: it has a trinity (Ali-Muhammad-Salman al-Farisi 29); celebrates Christmas and Easter; and reveres Christian saints. 30   But like Shi`is, Alawis engage in taqiyah, 31 literally “fear [of God]”, which has taken on the meaning of a disconnect between what one does outwardly and what one believes inwardly—to pretend to worship as a Sunni while believing in the Shi`ite imams secretly, for example. 32 

The apparent Alawi acknowledgement of the twelve Shi`ite imams led the French, during their occupational Mandate of Syria and Lebanon in the wake of the Ottoman Empire’s dissolution after World War I, to try to shoehorn the Alawis, legally,  under Twelver Shi`ite judges brought in from Lebanon. 33  Ensuing efforts to have Alawism recognized as a step-child of Twelver Shi`ism elicited “not a word of public comment on the standing of the Alawis…from Najaf or Qom, the great seats of Twelver Shi`ite learning.” 34  Alawis were sent from Syria to study in Najaf, Iraq and Qom, Iran, with mixed results; but by the late 1960s rival Ba`th tensions between Damascus and Baghdad closed down the Najaf connection, and some Alawis actually went to study at al-Azhar in Sunni Cairo. 35  The roots of the al-Assad family’s efforts to use Shi`ism as an Alawi cloak really began in 1973, in the wake of the famous Lebanese Shi`ite cleric Musa al-Sadr’s 36  attempt to get Lebanon’s small Alawi community recognized as Shi`ites in order to bolster his political organization of Lebanese Shi`ites. Following Sunni riots against minority Alawi rule at that time, Hafiz al-Assad signed accords with al-Sadr recognizing Alawis as Twelver Shi`is under a Lebanese muft i37—in effect claiming the same for Syria’s Alawis.  The result was that al-Sadr gave Shi`ite Muslim legitimacy to al-Assad and the ruling clique, while al-Assad supported the Shi`ites in Lebanon over against the Beirut government.  And this Syrian connection gave Iran’s ayatollahs a conduit into Lebanon just a few years later,  by the time of the Islamic Revolution in Iran.  “In Lebanon, Iran realized that it could not extend support to its clients there without Syrian cooperation; Syria knew that without Iran it could not control those Lebanese Shi`ites [soon to be Hizbullah] who believed they were waging sacred war against the West. A sense of shared fate, not shared faith, bound these two regimes together [emphasis added].”38

III.  Strategic Religion-based PSYOP Targetting Syria’s Alawi Regime

Syria has been deemed a state sponsor of terrorism by the U.S. government for decades. 39  Among the groups it supports, or gives haven to, are Hizbullah, Hamas, Palestinian Islamic Jihad and militants seeking to enter Iraq to engage U.S. and Iraqi government forces. Syria, as previously noted, provides Iran a conduit for funnelling support to groups in Lebanon, particularly Hizbullah. Besides covert support of terrorist groups, Syrian irredentist claims on Lebanon contantly threaten to undermine that nation’s geographical and communal integrity, and Syrian recalcitrance toward Israel is a major thorn in the side of any potential Palestinian-Israeli peace plan. Note, however, that unlike the other two Muslim-majority nations on the State Department list of terrorism sponsors—Iran and Sudan—Syria is ruled not by its religious majority but by a minority—furthermore, a minority that has for centuries been considered heretical by the larger Islamic world. This makes it an ideal target for strategic, religion-based PSYOP.  If “American officials have spent the last several years trying to identify…types of ‘territory’ that [Muslim] extremists hold dear…[such as] the terrorists’ reputation and credibility with Muslims,” 40 why can’t the same approach be utilized against a state regime that, if exposed, would have little to no Islamic credentials? 

With this in mind, the most trenchant line of attack would be to exploit the fatwas of almost 700 years ago issued by Taqi al-Din Ahmad b. Taymiyah (d. 1328), 41 a renowned Sunni jurist beloved of today’s Salafis, Wahhabis and jihadists. 42 In the early 14th century Ibn Taymiyah, probably at the behest of the Sunni Mumluk rulers of Egypt who were expanding into Syria, wrote at least three religio-legal rulings damning the Alawis, still known then as Nusayris.  Although Ibn Taymiyah seems to have conflated the Alawis with other suspect sects such as the Isma’ilis 43 and the Druze, 44 many of his hardline Sunni criticisms of them remain relevant: that they allegorically interpret the Qur’an; are overly influenced by Greek philosophy; practice taqiyah; are murtaddun, “apostates,” being “neither Muslims nor Jews nor Christians;” they don’t pray five times daily and don’t fast during Ramadan; they drink wine; and most horribly, they believe Ali is God.  The third of Ibn Taymiyah’s fatwas was issued in the wake of a Mahdist uprising in Jabala, Syria, in 1317, in which a local Alawi leader declared himself the returned Twelfth Imam, 45 the rightly-guided one (al-Mahdi) who would make the entire world Muslim. 46 Although crushed by the Mamluk army, the sultans in Cairo still felt the need for ideological cover, which Ibn Taymiyah provided by not just describing Alawi heterodoxy but also prescribing that their “fighters should be killed and their property confiscated.” 47  More recently, in the 19th century, another Sunni shaykh—Ibrahim al-Maghribi—promulgated a fatwa repeating the legality of Sunnis seizing Alawi possessions and executing them. 48

The Syrian branch of al-Ikwan al-Muslimun, the Sunni Muslim Brotherhood, long opposed the Alawi government on the basis of its minority, heretical nature. 49  Before being crushed by the elder al-Assad in 1982, the Muslim Brotherhood published broadsheets criticizing the Alawis for all of the following 1)  being labeled non-Shi`ite even by prominent Shi`ite scholars; 2) not advancing their Shi`ism claim until after the French Mandate ended; 3) promulgating the unIslamic, and even unShi`ite belief, of Ibn Nusayr being the mystical gate for the Imam; 4) likewise, disseminating the heretical belief that the divine spirit was incarnate in the Shi`i Imams; 5) believing in al-majusiyah (Zoroastrianism 50, al-dahriyah (atheistic materialism) and/or al-hindusiyah (polytheistic Hinduism, a severe insult for Muslims). 51  The MB has also applied the following epithets to the Alawis: ta’ifi (“sectarian”), batini (“esoteric,” or believing in mystical religious secrets), mulhid (“heretical”) and zindiq (“atheist”). 52  In this the Syrian MB was ahead of its time, for today “[o]ne of the characteristics of the Salafi-jihadist discourse is the use of derogatory names to malign or ridicule those considered to be enemies, especially opponents within the Muslim world [emphasis added]. This polemic device is used by the Salafi-jihadists to discredit their opponents while reinforcing their own legitimacy.” 53  This practice has not changed in a quarter-century, and it might behoove the U.S. to exploit it.

One potential fly in the Sunni-oriented psyops against the Alawi regime would be that in 1936 the Sunni mufti of Palestine, Muhammad Amin al-Husayni (d. 1974) issued a fatwa declaring the Alawis to be true Muslims. However, since the impetus for this was purely political—al-Husayni was trying to help his Pan-Arab brethren in Damascus, when Syrian Sunni muftis would not do so 54--it should not be hard to trump it with the more religiously legitimate argumentation of Ibn Taymiyah.

Driving a wedge between the Alawis and their Twelver Shi`i patrons in Iran would be much more problematic. True, prior to the 20th century “Twelver Shi`ite heresiographers were only slightly less vituperative [than Sunni ones] and regarded the Alawis as ghulat, ‘those who exceed’ all bounds in their deification of Ali. The Alawis, in  turn, hold Twelver Shi`ites to be muqassirah, ‘those who fall short’ of fathoming Ali’s divinity.” 55  Recently I asked one of my clerical contacts in Iran whether the Alawis were true Shi`ites; here is his reply:

 [R]eal Islamic conduct must derive from holy Quran...authentic narrations [of Muhammad’s sayings]…[and] intellect. Therefore any doctrine or notion beyond these three pillars is considered non-Islamic. Granting this crucial point you should compare any sect’s doctrines and belief with this criteria and judge upon it….I wish I could reply to your question [emphasis added]. 56

Responding to an inquiry as to whether Syrian Alawi students were still matriculating in Qom, this same contact informed me that “I have some friends here from Syria but they are Shia (who believes [sic] in twelve infallible Imams…).” 57 If a researcher who is also an ayatollah-in-training has a gag order on criticizing the putative Shi`ites in Damascus, or even on stating that they are indeed Alawi, rest assured that  any attempts from outside Iran to play up, much less exploit, the Syrian Alawis’ doctrinal impurity would be brushed aside by the leadership in favor of Syria’s immense geopolitical value to Tehran vis-à-vis Lebanon, Arab Shi`ites in general and of course Israel.  While efforts to de-legitimize Alawis within the Shi`ite realm might be viable in the future, for now the focus should be on doing so in the minds of Sunnis, and particularly the majority Sunni population of Syria. What specific strategic PSYOP steps might be taken along these lines, in order to “drive a wedge between the [Syrian] adversary’s leadership and its populace to undermine the adversary leadership’s confidence and effectiveness?” 58  In the realm of “white products”—so-called  because the source is openly identified and the information “is disseminated without intention to deceive the target audience as to where…originated” 59 —U.S. forces and agencies might consider the following ideas, to start:

    • Radio Sawa 60 Arabic broadcasts that report on Syria’s government  and draw attention to, quote and interview Sunni clerics in the larger Arab world  (Egyptian and Saudi, in particular) who are critical of the Damascus regime’s Alawism?
    • Similar radio broadcasts from U.S. PSYOP units in Iraq, aimed into Syria?
    • Radio programs, as well as Arabic publications funneled into Syria (via Turkey, Iraq and Lebanon) that discuss the history of the Alawi sect in a seemingly benign but critical fashion (describing, for example, why they were until recently called “Nusayris,” Ibn Taymiyah’s aforementioned fatwa, etc.)

Of course, one of the main disadvantages of this genre of PSYOP product is “the opponent knows who the source is and can therefore easily direct their refutation.” 61  The Arab and Muslim street is hypersensitive to—indeed, paranoid about--any hint of American attempts to influence hearts and minds in any sort of religious fashion. 62 Thus, any efforts at undermining the current Syrian ruling regime might better be worked utilizing “gray products,” in which the source is not identified. 63  Operating in this realm, American anti-Alawi efforts might include:

  • Persuading Sunni (Egyptian, Saudi, other) clerics to pen new fatwas denigrating the Islamic nature of the al-Assad family and its supporters
  • Working through the small, but accessible, Lebanese Alawi community to find a member willing to do a “tell all” interview or book, detailing the heretofore-secret, Islamically-heterodox beliefs and practices of the sect
  • Convincing Sunni Arab media (al-Jazeera?) to report, and do backgrounders on, Alawism’s non-Islamic nature
  • Sponsoring an anti-Alawi website, run by Sunni Arabs in an appropriate country, that not only discusses the “heretical tyranny” in Syria but applies loaded (but accurate) terms—such as ghulat (“extremist”), zindiq (“atheist”), murtadd (“apostate”) and mulhid (“heretical”)—to the Damascus government
  • Working with truly moderate, patriotic American Muslim groups such as the American-Islamic Forum for Democracy 64 to highlight the tyranny of a heretical minority in Sunni Syria among the influential and well-off American Muslim community—which would in all likelihood have repercussions in the Middle East via expatriate contacts and media exposure.     

Many more ideas for exploiting the truly non-Islamic nature of the Syrian ruling class could be developed, either by the relevant U.S. intelligence agencies or by the Strategic Studies Detachment specialists at U.S. Army 4th PSYOP Group, Ft. Bragg and/or by analogous PSYOP units in the other services.

IV.  Be Careful What You Wish For: The Pros and Cons of Attempted Regime-Destablization in Syria

Any  strategic PSYOP effort to destabilize an ostensibly Muslim government would be fraught with both opportunites and dangers for the U.S. government and the military.   It is plausible to postulate four levels of possible effects for such a concerted, American-allied Muslim destabilization program on Syria’s Alawi regime:

No effect: Considering the historical and theological issues explored herein, this is highly unlikely. 

Minimal effect: Destabilization programs result in increased criticism of Syria’s ruler among other Muslim (mainly Arab) states and perhaps—ironically-- non-state groups (like al-Qa`idah, Hizb al-Tahrir) , attempts at calls for more majority participation among Syria’s intelligentsia (probably quickly repressed), and perhaps some geopolitical defensiveness on the part of Damascus. Likelihood: high.  Geopolitical benefit to the U.S.: nominal.

Moderate effect: Under this scenario the al-Assad regime is seriously compromised,  the underground Muslim Brotherhood sponsors and leads Sunni riots, marches and possibly armed uprisings within Syria which have to be put down with mounting violence by the Syrian military, and conditions approach those of a civil/religious war—but the regime manages to hold on to power. Likelihood: low, but possible. Geopolitical benefit to U.S.: substantial, if only because it would seriously curtail Syria’s regional mischief-making in Iraq, Lebanon and the Palestinian territories.            

Maximum effect: The ultimate effect of an anti-Alawi PSYOP program would be the actual toppling of the regime in Damascus.  Considering that the population is 74% Sunni, and there are no other Alawi states to come to Damacus’ aid, this effect is distinctly possible, albeit unlikely in the near term. Geopolitical benefit to U.S.: enormous, but fraught with serious dangers, as well.

The benefits to the U.S. of the removal of the Alawi rulers of this crucial Levantine country would be as follows:

  • Cutting of the Islamic Republic of Iran’s land supply lines to its proxy Hizballah in Lebanon, thus weakening the latter ? Likewise, severing or at least a diminution of Iranian arms supply to Hamas
  • Possible improvement of Israeli-Syrian relations, as a majority Sunni government would not have to be as vociferous in maintaining its Islamic credentials
  • Possible consolidation of Lebanese territorial integrity as Syrian meddling by an insecure Alawi regime comes to an end
  • Possible further improvement of the security and political situation in Iraq, as Syria would stop cooperating with Iran in its interference there.
  • Increased popularity of the U.S. in the Sunni, especially Sunni Arab, world as it could legitimately present itself as the liberator of the majority of Syria’s Sunni population from heretical, minority rule.

On the other hand, were the extant government in Syria to collapse, the following possible negative repercussions should also be considered:  

  • Alawism is a non-fundamentalist pseudo-Islamic cult, and as such provides a conduit for relatively flexible ideas—such as ijtihad, “independent judgment in Islamic law”-- from Iranian Shi`ism to enter Arab Islam. At a time in history when the world’s second-largest religion sorely needs its own reformation or enlightenment, Alawism could be useful in this regard.
  • Since Hafiz al-Assad’s crushing of the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood a quarter century ago, the Alawi regime of Damascus has been decidely anti-jihadist/Salafi.  Do we really want to remove this bulwark against Sunni fundamentalism, troublesome as it is in other regards regionally?
  • Should the majority of Sunnis come to power in Syria, it could be even more inimical to Western interests, and to Israel, than that of the minority Alawis—espeically were a Hamas-style Muslim Brotherhood offshoot to take the reins of power.
  • The worst-case scenario of negative repercussions of an Alawi overthrow would be the geopolitical fragmentation of Syria, probably along the lines of the post-Ottoman, French Mandate state:


The U.S. is already riding herd on a country with questionable territorial integrity next door in Iraq, and several Syrian states would present as big a foreign policy and security headache as a single Alawi-ruled one. Although a fractured Syria would not likely split into the half-dozen pieces of the 1920s—Alexandretta, for example, is part of Turkey and the Syrian Sunnis probably would not split between Aleppo and Damascus—it is entirely within the realm of possibility that it would divide into a larger Sunni state and a smaller Alawi one around Latakia, as this was the historical situation. 

V.  Conclusion

The United States government heretofore has not, to the best of my knowledge, actively attempted to undermine a foreign government by waging a campaign to question and debase its religious credentials.  If this country is serious about winning the war on terror, we will have to admit on the policy and operational level that the primary ideology driving much, if not most, of the world’s terror today is some variant of Islam; furthermore, we will have to take previously unpalatable steps such as working to divide our enemies—both state and non-state actors—along their own religious lines.  If we wish to do so, the Alawi regime of Syria is the perfect target of opportunity.

1 Field Manual 3-05.30, MCRP 3-40.6, Psychological Operations (Washington, DC: Department of the Army, 2005), p. 1-4.

2 Janos Radvanyi, Psychological Operations and Political Warfare in Long-term Strategic Planning (Westport, CT: Praeger, 1990).

3 Robert T. Holt and Robert W. van de Velde, Strategic Psychological Operations and American Foreign Policy (Chicago: Unversity of Chicago Press, 1960).

4 Maurice Sartre, The Middle East under Rome (London: Belknap Press, 2005), p. 38.

5Barbaroi in Greek means “those who stammer”—that is, those who cannot speak Greek

6 Deuteronomy 7:1-5

7 Although Islam was a political force in its history long before Christianity: Christians spent the first three centuries of their religion’s existence as a persecuted and outlawed minority under Roman imperial rule, not taking power till Constantine’s conversion in 312/313 CE; Muslims, on the other hand, had political and military power by 622 CE/1 AH in Medina, when Muhammad was installed as ruler only 12 years after he began his religious mission.

8 Christians  number  2.1 billion today, and Muslims 1.5 billion: http://www.adherents.com/Religions_By_Adherents.html

9 Albert Craig, et al., The Heritage of World Civilizations, Vol. I (Seventh Edition), p. 407.

10 The tax levied on non-Jewish minorities (espeically Jews and Christians) under Islamic rule.

11 Surah al-Tawbah [IX]:29

12 Daniel Goffman, The Ottoman Empire and Early Modern Europe  (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002), p. 111.

13 “Jihad and War Propaganda: The Ottoman Jihad Fatwa of November 11th, 1914,” in Rudolph Peters, Jihad in Classical and Modern Islam(Princeton: Markus Wiener Publishers, 1996), pp. 56-57.

14 Jacob Lassner, Islamic Revolution and Historical Memory: An Inquiry into the Art of `Abbasid Apologetics (New Haven, CT: American Oriental Society, 1986).


15 “The West,” in Arabic, encompassing modern Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia and Libya.

16 See my book Holiest Wars: Islamic Mahdis, their Jihads and Osama bin Laden (Westport, CT: Praeger, 2005), pp. 31ff.

17 Furnish, Holiest Wars, pp. 38ff.

18 Norman Itzkowitz, Ottoman Empire and Islamic Tradition (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1972), pp. 68-69.

19 Immortalized in the movie Khartoum (1966)  starring Charlton Heston as British General Charles Gordon, hired by the Ottomans to stave off the Sudanese Mahdist forces.

20 Furnish, Holiest Wars, pp. 45ff.

21 Furnish, Holiest Wars, pp. 60ff.

22 “Recent Rise in Sunni-Shi`ite Tension (Part II): Anti-Shi`ite Statements by Sheikh al-Qaradhawi,” MEMRI (Middle East Media Research Institute), December 16, 2008: http://www.memri.org/bin/latestnews.cgi?ID=IA48108

23   C. Jacob, “Rising Inter-Arab Tensions: Saudi Arabia and Egypt versus Syria and Iran, Part I: Deepening Crisis in Saudi-Syrian Relations,” MEMRI, December 22, 2008: http://www.memri.org/bin/articles.cgi?Page=archives&Area=ia&ID=IA48508

24 An anecdotal, personal example: I was on my way to Iran to present a paper at the Mahdism Conference there in August 2008, and on the leg of the flight to Paris met an Egyptian-American who had long lived in the U.S.  Upon learning where I was headed, he sniffed “Shi`iah? They are NOT Muslim!”  And while in Tehran and Qom,  in one of my conversations with an Iranian cleric about interpreting the Qur’an, I gently chided him that “that’s not what the Salafis [strict Sunnis who seek to emulate the Muslims of Muhammad’s time] say.” He replied “I am talking about true Muslims!”—meaning, of course, Shi`ites.

25 For Syria’s demographics see https://www.cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook/geos/sy.html, as well as “Syria,” in William J. Spencer, Global Studies: The Middle East, 11th edition (Dubuque: McGraw-Hill/Contemporary Learning Services, 2007), pp. 161-168.

26 In this regard the Alawis of Syria resemble the Alevis of Turkey and the Bajalan and Kakais of Northern Iraq, all of whom “have such heterodox beliefs that their neighbors do not see them as Muslims at all,” Michael Leezenberg, “Between Assimilation and Deportation: The Shabak and the Kakais in Northern Iraq,” p. 158, in Krisztina Kehl-Bodrogi, et al., eds., Syncretistic Religious Communities in the Near East. Collected Papers of the International Symposium ‘Alevism in Turkey and Comparable Syncretistic Religious Communities in the Near East in the Past and Present,’ Berlin 14-17 April 1995 (Leiden: Brill, 1997), pp. 156-174.

27 See Heinz Halm, “Nusayriyya,” Encyclopedia of Islam, New Edition.

228 See Daniel Pipes, “The Alawi Capture of Power in Syria,” Middle Eastern Studies, vol. 25, no. 4 (Oct. 1989), pp. 429-450.

29 One of Muhammad’s companions, believed by Shi`ites to have been one of the first to acknowledge Ali’s claim to the caliphate.

30 Pipes, p. 431.

31 Pipes, p. 433.

32 The meaning usually ascribed to taqiyah is really that described by the term kitman, from the Arabic verb katama, “to hide, conceal, keep secret.” See R. Strothman, “Takiyya,” Encyclopedia of Islam, New Edition.

33 Martin Kramer, “Syria’s Alawis and Shi`ism,” in Shi`ism, Resistance, and Revolution, Martin Kramer, ed. (Boulder: Westview Press, 1987), accessed online at: http://www.martinkramer.org/

34 Kramer

35 Kramer

36 Who disappeared in 1978 on a trip to Libya; see Fouad Ajami, The Vanished Imam: Musa al-Sadr and the Shia of Lebanon (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1986).

37 Kramer.

38 Kramer.

40 “U.S. Adapts Cold-War Idea to Fight Terrorists,” The New York Times, March 18, 2008.

41 Yaron Friedman, “Ibn Taymiyya’s Fatawa against the Nusayri-`Alawi Sect,” Der Islam, vol. 87 (2005), pp. 349-363.


Ibn Taymiyah’s writings on the inability of Muslims to live under non-Muslim rule, and the requirement of violent jihad against non-Muslim rulers, became the foundation for the modern Wahhabi/Salafi ideology as articulated by Arabia’s Muhammad Ibn Abd al-Wahhab (d. 1792).

43 “Sevener” Shi`ites, who trace the line of Imams descended from Ali differently than do the more numerous Twelver Shi`ites of Iran, Iraq and Lebanon.

44 A neo-Shi`ite sect that believed in the divinity of one of the Fatimid (Isma’ili Shi`ite) rulers of Egypt, al-Hakim (d. 1021).

45 Friedman, pp. 357ff.

46 On Mahdism, particularly its Sunni versions, see my book Holiest Wars, as well as my website www.mahdiwatch.org

47 Friedman, p. 357.

48 Pipes, p. 435.

49 See Emmanuel Sivan, Radical Islam: Medieval Theology and Modern Politics (New Haven, CT:  Yale University Press, 1985), pp. 104ff.

50 Zoroastrianism was the pre-Islamic religion of Persia. It was basically a dualistic religion with two gods (a good one name Ahura-Mazda and a bad one name Ahriman), a host of lesser spiritual beings (angels and demons) and an eschatology (end of time belief system) that included a heaven and hell and which may have influenced Judaism and Christianity, as well as Islam.

51 Al-Nadhir, issue 24, February 10, 1980, pp. 35-38.

52 Sivan, p. 106.

53 D. Nagy, “Language as a Tool in the Political-Religious Power Struggle between the Salafi-Jihadists and Their Opponents,” MEMRI, Dec. 18, 2008, available at: http://www.memrijttm.org/content/en/report.htm?report=2927¶m=IDTA

54 Kramer, “Syria’s Alawis and Shi`ism.”

55 Kramer.

56 Email correspondence with Iranian cleric-in-training [name withheld for his safety], Nov. 16, 2008.

57 Ibid., December 11, 2008.

58 Psychological Operations, p. 7-4.

59Ibid, Appendix A, p. A-1.

60 An Arabic-language radio station established by the U.S. government after 9/11, broadcasting from Washington, D.C. and the Gulf region: http://www.radiosawa.com/

61 Psychological Operations, Appendix A, p. A-1.

62 For one example, see Yoginder Sikand, “Christian Supremacists and American Imperialism,” October 28, 2006: http://www.countercurrents.org/us-sikand281006.htm

63  Psychological Operations, Appendix A, p. A-2.

64 Located in Phoenix and headed by M. Zuhdi Jasser, M.D., commissioned U.S. Navy veteran: http://www.aifdemocracy.org/