Minority Rights Group International (MRG) Deputy Director, Claire Thomas, writes this opinion piece for the Thomson Reuters News Foundation.+ LEARN MORE
The Isma’ilis are considered an offshoot of Shi’a Islam, and the split with the mainstream Shi’ism occurred over the recognition of the Seventh Imam.
The Isma’ilis of Syria are the Misaris, who were originally found in al-Ladhiqiyah Province. Since the times of the Ottoman Empire, most of them can be found in the south of Salamiyah. A few thousand Isma’ilis also live in the mountains west of Hamah and several thousand in al-Ladhiqiyah.
Isma’ilis believe in two imams, the visible and the hidden, with the identity of the hidden imam not known to the community. Isma’ilis generally follow the religious practice of the Shi’a Twelvers in prayers, fasts, and Quranic observations.
Most Isma’ilis live in Salamiya, east of Hama, with smaller communities centred around Masyaf and Qadmus in the southern part of the coastal mountain range.
The Syrian Isma’ilis established themselves in the coastal mountain range south of the main Alawi areas under direction from Alamut. In the twelfth century they acquired the major fortress of Banyas, and also Qadmus and Masyaf, from where they inspired fear in both Muslim and crusader rulers. They became divided into two main groups, the Hajjawis and Suwaydanis, following a leadership succession dispute.
In the first half of the nineteenth century, the community was decimated by conflict with Alawi tribes, with which there was long-standing rivalry, and by punitive government expeditions. Thereafter, substantial numbers moved to the marginal zone on the desert frontier around Salamiya.
Like the Alawis and Druze, individual Isma’ilis eagerly enrolled in Les Troupes Speciales under French rule, and later in the Ba’ath. Although a number of Isma’ilis have continued to enjoy senior posts in government, they have been carefully excluded from substantive power. Isma’ilis in Salamiya have advanced economically much faster than those in Masyaf. In state schools, Isma’ili pupils share classes in Islam with Sunnis and Shi’a alike.
Salamiyeh, a mostly Isma’ili city, was particularly active in its opposition to the Assad government in the early stages of the uprising, when thousands of people participated in anti-regime protests. However, despite the town’s early activism, Isma’ili protestors never found a clear place among the Sunni-dominated opposition. Moreover, as Shi’a Muslims, they are viewed as apostates by ISIS and other extremist groups, who also associate them with support for the regime.
Rather than crushing the protests with brute military force as occurred elsewhere, the government quelled dissent in Salamiyeh by conducting a campaign of door-to-door raids and detaining and torturing activists. Combined with the threat of ISIS and Jabhat Fateh Al-Sham (previously called Jabhat al-Nusra), this strategy appears to have worked to suppress anti-government sentiment in Salamiyeh. Many men from the town have since fought and died for the army or the National Defense Forces. The Syrian Social Nationalist Party, which supplies volunteers to fight in support of the government, has a strong presence in Salamiyeh.
Salamiyeh and surrounding areas have been the targets of attacks by ISIS on more than one occasion. In 2014, residents of the town claimed that the government had sharply decreased its military presence in the area, leaving them unprotected. On 31 March 2015, ISIS attacked the village of Mabouja outside of Salamiyeh, killing more than civilians. ISIS also attacked the town later in the year with rocket fire, leading to tens of deaths and injuries, and executed individuals for apostasy. In 2016, it was reported that ISIS attempted unsuccessfully to take control of Salamiyeh.
Due to its proximity to Hama, Homs and Rastan, Salamiyeh has hosted thousands of internally displaced persons fleeing violence in those cities. However, the town is shackled by both water and electricity crises.
Updated March 2018
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