As for Shia activists, they are much more open about the Syrian crisis: openly supporting the Assad regime against the opposition and its foreign advocates. The most charismatic Shia leader in Azerbaijan is Hadji Ilgar Ibrahimoglu, who we interviewed in his office of the DEVAMM human rights association.[17] He clearly does not believe in the democratic and revolutionary aspirations of the Syrian opposition to Assad and blames foreign intelligence. “What is happening in Syria is not a people revolution against a tyrant—although Assad is one—but a plot formed by the United States and Israel to overthrow the regime of Bashar al-Assad; and doing so, the objective is to get rid of Iran’s major ally in the region” [18]. (It is worth mentioning that there is truth in what he says, with the U.S. providing assistance to the armed rebel forces and the CIA coordinating the flow of arms from Saudi Arabia and Qatar to the rebels.) On the one hand, he ignores the Syrians’ democratic claims, and on the other, he’s among the first religious men in Azerbaijan to blame Aliyev’s regime for autocratic practices. When questioned about his paradoxical attitude, he dodges the issue and gives a pure religious reading of the situation.

The leaders of another influential Shia association working “for the promotion of moral purity”, Manevi Safliga Devet Ijtimai Birligi,[19] Elshan Guliev and Elshan Mustafaoglu, took a similar stand: “behind the support to the rebels are foreign powers that are hostile to Iran and to Shia and who want to punish the Syrian regime for being pro-Iran”[20]. They added: “There is no such thing as Western democratic intentions, nor for Syria, nor for any other Arab country; the West proved totally indifferent to the Shia uprising in Bahrein”. And for many Shia in Azerbaijan, “the United States and their Sunni friends allied against Iran only to weaken Ahmadinejad’s regime”.[21]

Their reaction in solidarity with Assad’s regime has actually few religious motivations. Both schools differ very much in terms of religious fundamentals, and all attempts at including Alawis in the greater Twelfth Imam Shia failed, but they both praise Ali,[22] and that’s pretty much where the comparison ends. The Alawis of Syria do not recognize the authority of any marja’al taqlid, whether from Iran or Iraq, and remain loyal to their ancestral syncretic practice, known as ghulat or “excessive” by all other Shia schools.[23] Although they were under Russian and Soviet rule for a long time, Azerbaijani Shia recognize the authority of Shia leaders of Iraq and Iran. Whereas many Azerbaijani Shia students stayed in the Shia district of Sayyida Zaynab in Damascus, and many pilgrims visit the place, they haven’t bond with the Syrian Alawis, nor did they seek to learn more about their particular practice.[24] Their affinity with the Alawis is not to be found in religion. They are pro-Assad by default. They are well aware the man is a tyrant, but the feeling that Arab spring revolutions will favor the Muslim Brotherhood is extremely pervasive in the Shia community. In parallel, they believe that the Assad’s regime is the last and only bulwark against the dangerous thriving of radical Salafi movements all across the region.

But, there are other hidden and probably more important reasons behind their support for Assad, like their strong identification with Shia Iranian organizations. With the exception of the illegal and marginal Islamic Party of Azerbaijan, Azerbaijani Shia organizations cannot display open solidarity with Iran, but in reality they do, as they all follow the guidance of great religious thinkers. In Azerbaijan, the most popular marja’ al taqlid are Ali Khamenei, Ali Sistani, Jaffar Subhani, Javad Makarrami, Fazil Lenkerani (deceased in 2007), and Jevad Tabrizi (deceased in 2006). With the exception of Ali Sistani, all are Iranians and based in Iran, and young Azerbaijani leaders like Haji Ilgar or Elshan Mustafaoglu were educated in Iran and remain close to the position of Iran’s greatest figures and for more political reasons than religious affinity with Syria’s Alawis.

Future perspectives

The Syrian war is a serious concern for the regime in Baku. Beyond the Sunni Shia split, the secular opposition forces view the Arab spring revolutions as a source of inspiration. A recent poll shows that only 35 percent of the Azerbaijani believe the country is going in the right direction, against 34 percent who wish for a revolution on the example of what happened in Northern Africa, 14 percent who are disgruntled but favor the status quo and stability, and 17 percent who do not give an opinion, probably because they fear chaos in a Syria-like scenario, as shown by official media propaganda and reports. Moreover, the interest shown by religious leaders and communities for the confessionalization of the conflict in Syria is one more concern for Azerbaijani central authorities, who fear for national integrity and stability as it stresses antagonisms in the community.

At the same time, a regime change in Damascus would be disastrous for Baku. The war and chaos in Syria legitimates (or at least helps) the autocratic regime in Azerbaijan, like other dictatorial regimes of the former Soviet Union and shows that strong power only guarantees peace and national cohesion, especially in multicultural and multi religious contexts. On the other side, a regime change in Damascus would stress Russian and Iranian diplomatic failures and indirectly pave the way for the emerging of Azerbaijan as a regional power. Of two evils, Azerbaijan has to choose the least. While Baku is weighing the pros and cons for its sole national interests, like we all do, Syrian civilians continue to fall under the harsh repression of their democratic aspirations.


[1] George Joffé, « The regional implications of the conflict in Syria”, NOREF, Norvegian Peacebuilding Ressource Center,May 2012, URL :

[2] Paul Salem, « Syrian Crisis Spills into Lebanon », Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, May 22, 2012, URL :

[3] Deborah Amos, « Syrian Uprising Raises The Specter Of Sectarian War”, National Program Radio, Januray 04 2012, URL :

[4] See for example, John Calabrese, « The Regional Implications of the Syria Crisis”,Middle East Institute, December 21, 2012, URL :

[6] Khadija Ismayilova, “Azerbaijan: Protests in Egypt Are Reverberating in Baku”, Eurasianet, January 31, 2011, URL :

[9] M. Aliev, « Azerbaijan to highlight complexity of Syrian issue at UN Security Council », Trend Az, 4 January 2012, URL :

[10] Marianna Grigorian, « Armenia: An Uncertain “Homecoming” for Syria’s Diaspora”, Eurasianet, July 31, 2011, URL :  Voir aussi Marianna Grigoryan, « Armenia: Syrian Refugees Resettling in Nagorno-Karabakh”, Eurasianet, January 24, 2013, URL :

[11] Eldar Mehdiev, “Azerbaijan to discuss settlement of occupied Azerbaijani territories by Syrian Armenians at PACE”, Trend, 8 August 2012, URL :

[12] Gunel Ahmad, « Azerbaijan: Police Crack Down on Baku Protesters”, Eurasianet, January 26, 2013, URL :

[13] Bayram Balci, Altay Goyushov, “Changing Islam in Post-Soviet Azerbaijan and its impact on the Sunni-Shia cleavage”, in: Maréchal, Brigitte & Zemni, Sami,Contemporary Sunni-Shia relationships, Hurst & Co Publishers Ltd, 2012)

[14] Interview with Religious attaché in Turkey’s embassy in Azerbaijan, Bakou, December 2012.

[15] Sofie Bedford, “Islam in Azerbaidjan”, The Caucasien Analytical Digest, N° 44, 20 November 2012, pp. 12-16, URL :

[16] Kuwait Times, « Jihadists seeking Islamic state in post-Assad Syria », URL :

[17] Association for Religious and Conscious Liberty, founded and managed by Ilgar Ibrahimoglu, and the website related to it, Deyerler (Values):

[18] Interveiw with Ilgar Ibrahimoglu, Baku, Dec 2012.

[19] See his website :

[20] Interview with Elshan Guliev and Elshan Mustafaoglu.

[21] Ibid.

[22] Martin Kramer, « Syria’s Alawis and Shi‘ism », in Martin Kramer (ed.), Shi’ism, Resistance, and Revolution, Boulder, Colorado: Westview Press, 1987), pp. 237-54, URL :

[23] Moosa Matti, Extremist Shiites: the ghulat sects, Syracuse University Press, 1987

[24] Interview with Kenan Rovshanoglu, Bakou, 21 December 2012.