The Alawites have inhabited the coastal mountain area of Syria for more than a thousand years. For the majority of that time, they knew only persecution from the Sunni majority inhabiting Syria. Alawites generally keep the tenets of their faith secret to outsiders, however their religious observances do not include the emphasis on prayer, pilgrimage, or building of mosques, which are staples of traditional Muslim faith.
The Alawi were able to secure autonomy to create their own nation in 1925, with the establishment of the Alouite territory. In 1939, France generously gave part of the territory which was home to many of the Alawi, to Turkey, angering both the Sunni and the Alawi sects. A resistance was led against this by a young Alawi leader, Zaki al-Arsuzi, who would later be co-founder of the Ba’ath party. Reunification with Syria was achieved shortly after the second World War, and was followed by more than a decade of coups and civil unrest.
In 1963, several high ranking Alawi members of the Syrian military took control of the Ba’ath party, among them Hafez al-Assad, a general in the Syrian Air Force. Al-Assad took control of the Syrian government, and became president in 1971. The constitution of the Syrian people directly forbade any faith other than Sunni Islam from taking this office. Al-Assad had the constitution altered in 1973 to allow any sect of Islam to hold the office.
Many Syrians of the Sunni faith were incensed by this, as few considered the Alawi to be legitimately Muslim. This was addressed by the issuance of a fatwa declaring the Alawi faith to be part of the community of the Twelver Shi’a Muslims. The al-Assad family also have taken steps to outwardly conform to the practice of Sunni Islam, and the Alawi faith has gradually grown more in line with the other Muslim sects over the past century.