|Bashar Al-Assad and his fellow Alawites control the government in Syria|
One question well worth asking though is who exactly are the Alawites and what are their core beliefs? After some research, I found a great article from the NY Review of Books by a lady named Brooke Allen with an excellent summary of the Alawites and their backgound. Alawite means "follower of Ali," and of course Ali was the cousin and son-in-law of the Prophet Mohammad and is the original figure over which the Shiites and Sunnis disagree (Note: here is the earlier post on the origins of the Sunni-Shia split in the Middle East).
The Alawites consider Ali to be divine, and Alawism was originally called Nusairism. Alawites believe that the so-called Pillars of the Muslim faith (the five duties required of every believer in Islam) are symbols rather than actual duties. What I did not realize is that although the Alawites consider themselves Shiites, they have a rather diverse group of holidays they celebrate, some of which are Christian, and many Alawite beliefs and practices are actually secret and are protected by a tradition called taqiyya, which means the right to hide one’s true beliefs from outsiders in order to avoid persecution.
The Christian elements in the Nusayri (Alawite) religion are unmistakable. They include the concept of trinity; the celebration of Christmas, the consecration of the Qurban, that is, the sacrament of the flesh and blood which Christ offered to His disciples, and, most important, the celebration of the Quddas [a lengthy prayer proclaiming the divine attributes of Ali and the personification of all the biblical patriarchs from Adam to Simon Peter, founder of the Church, who is seen, paradoxically, as the embodiment of true Islam].For those interested in a comprehensive overview of who the Alawites in Syria are, I strongly recommend reading the entire NY Review of Books article.