I don’t pretend to be a first-order authority on Syria. That said, I’ll take the liberty of linking to an article I published some years ago about Syria’s Alawis more particularly, on how this heterodox sect came to be recognized as a true-green branch of Islam.
From the 1920s, Shiite authorities in Iraq and Lebanon tried to “convert” the backward Alawis of Syria to the “true” Shiite Islam. Later, after the Alawis began their rise to power, their notables sent out numerous feelers to mainstream Shiite and Sunni authorities, seeking recognition. In 1973, Hafez Asad managed to get a stamp of approval from the Lebanese-Iranian Shiite divine, Musa Sadr. It’s been useful to the regime in proving itself to be Muslim, in the face of Sunni Islamists who still denounce Alawis as deviants.
The political ramifications of the Alawi-Shiite link are hard to pin down. It may have played a role in facilitating the Syrian-Iranian relationship. Today, the only major faction in Lebanon that unequivocally defends the Syrian regime is the Shiite (Islamist) Hizbullah. And it’s only this link that makes it possible to speak, as some do, of a contiguous “Shiite crescent” from Iran to the Mediterranean. Even so, Alawi power-brokers don’t take their cues from beturbanned ayatollahs, and their Shiite loyalties rest rather lightly on their shoulders. They’re also careful not to overplay the Shiite card, lest they offend Syria’s Sunni majority.
In the end, the continuation of Alawi dominance (which has never been exclusive) depends on the regime’s success in showing that it has advanced and protected Syrian interests. Asad the father somehow managed to create that illusion. Asad the son? It doesn’t look good.