From 1920 to 1936, Syria's Alawites enjoyed their own separate autonomous state in French-ruled Syria. First, it was known explicitly as the Alawite State and from 1930 to 1936, as Latakia Governorate. In response to pressure from the Sunni majority, France dissolved the Alawites' state and forcibly incorporated it into the Sunni-dominated areas.
Needless to say, the Alawites (as well as the Christians and Druze) were appalled by France's surrender to the Muslims and pleaded with the mandate authorities to protect them. In an eerie echo of today's situation in Syria, 450,000 Alawites, Druze, and Christians signed a letter to the French authorities, part of which stated:
"The 'Alawis believe that they are humans, not beasts ready for slaughter. No power in the world can force them to accept the yoke of their traditional and hereditary enemies to be slaves forever...."
Israel's liberal Haaretz newspaper recently quoted part of another letter, sent by Alawite leaders to French Prime Minister Leon Blum in 1936. The French surrender to Arab Muslim demands was influenced by the bloody uprising of Muslims in British-ruled Palestine, led by the future ally of Hitler Haj Amin Al-Husseini. The Alawites alluded to the bloody revolt in their plea to the Jewish Blum:
“The condition of the Jews in Palestine is the strongest and most explicit evidence of the militancy of the Islamic issue vis-à-vis those who do not belong to Islam. These good Jews contributed to the Arabs with civilization and peace, scattered gold, and established prosperity in Palestine without harming anyone or taking anything by force, yet the Muslims declare holy war against them and never hesitated in slaughtering their women and children, despite the presence of England in Palestine and France in Syria.”
“Therefore we ask you to consider the dreadful and terrible fate that awaits the Alawites if they are forced to be annexed to Syria, when it will be free from the oversight of the Mandate, and it will be in their power to implement the laws that stem from its religion.”
One of the six signatories of that letter was Sulayman Assad, the father of Hafez and the grandfather of Bashar.
Of course, the Alawites' desperate pleas fell on deaf years. And from then on, their leaders realized that they can no longer rely on the West, but have to use their tight-knit community's influence and wealth to seize power in Syria, which finally came about in the 1960s. The unflinchingly brutal response of the Alawite-dominated regime to the violent Sunni Hama uprising in 1982 stems from the Alawites' understanding that they could never expect any quarter from their "traditional and hereditary enemies".
How ironic that France, by preparing to attack Syria on behalf of the Islamist rebels is repeating exactly the same betrayal of the Alawites - the most pro-French group in the Middle East, except the Maronites- as in the 1930s.
Eugene Girin is a New York-based attorney and commentator.