Will Assad's Alawites have to retreat to their own state in Syria?
One of the mysterious subtexts of the current uprising in Syria is how the Alawite community will react once they fully realize that President Bashar Assad and his family have led them to disaster.
Under the minority leadership that predated the takeover of power by Hafez Assad in 1970, but especially under the late president, Alawites came to play an assertive role in Syrian life. Many departed from their northwestern areas of origin for other parts of the country, including Damascus. The poverty and ruthlessness of Assad rule notwithstanding, the story of the Alawites was one of social promotion and achievement, even if many in the community did not benefit from the returns enjoyed by their military-political elite.
Today, the prospect of their having to abandon many of the districts to which they had migrated and retreat to an Alawite mini-state is anathema. If, figuratively, Hafez was one of those who guided the community down off their mountain, Bashar threatens to push them back up, and that is something no Alawite can readily stomach.
Much discussed in the last year has been the notion that once the Alawite-dominated regime realizes it can no longer prevail in the Syrian conflict, Alawites will fall back on their communal heartland and the coastal cities of Latakia and Tartous. Several massacres of Sunni villagers in the plains between the Alawite mountains and the highway from Homs to Aleppo have appeared to be cases of ethnic cleansing in the event a communal statelet is established. There are also those who interpreted the regime’s focus on recapturing Homs, especially the Baba Amr neighborhood, as an effort to secure the geographical hinge of an Alawite entity, and link it up with the Shiite-majority Baalbek-Hermel district in Lebanon.
That scenario may ultimately play out, but it poses serious political and military problems for the Assads. It is conceivable that Iran and Russia might react to it by supporting the Alawites, or doing so for a time to retain leverage over a new government in Damascus. This could be decisive (or it may not be) in containing the Alawites’ disintegration and ensuring that they regroup in an orderly way.
But an Alawite statelet would also signal the breakup of Syria, with Alawites going one way, Kurds the other, and a weak central government prevailing in Damascus, led by the fragmented, perhaps by then conceivably antagonistic leaders of the Free Syrian Army. While this disarray could provide the Iranians and Russians with footholds in a post-Assad order, the emergence of an autonomous Kurdish region would not only alarm Turkey and Iraq, it might also give dangerous ideas to Iran’s Kurds. The fact is that no one in Syria’s neighborhood has an interest in seeing the country fall apart.
Something more worrisome must also be considered. There are large numbers of Sunnis living along the coast, and an Alawite statelet would have to forcibly expel them to properly protect itself. This would represent a crime of indescribable proportions, tainting all those aligned with the Alawites. And if that were to occur, how would a rump, communally unmixed Alawite entity survive economically, even socially? The imperatives of self-preservation, buttressed by paranoia, could destroy everything invigorating in Syria’s northwest.
The Assads will continue to be masters of the Alawites for as long as they remain in Damascus. However, once they flee the capital their ability to govern their community will very likely fray severely, or even collapse. The contract between Alawites and the Assads is not one bound by devotion; it is defined by interests, minority solidarity, and frequent Assad intimidation, even assassination.
If Bashar were to abandon Damascus and move to the Alawite area, all bets would be off. Having brought only ruin to their community, the Assads could expect a harsh backlash. And if they use military power to silence their coreligionists, we could begin seeing a crucial split within the Alawite community that might, ultimately, spell the end of an Alawite state project. What better way for the uneasy Alawites to preserve their stake in a future Syria, than to turn on the family and its acolytes who brought them to the abyss?
That may be one reason why Bashar has been so resilient in combating the revolutionaries, amid persistent signs that he will never be able to reassert his authority over the whole of Syria. Deep down, he may sense that an Alawite statelet is not one that would long last, and even less his leadership over such a creation. Bashar needs to prop up the eroding façade of a Syrian state in order to avoid an alternative that is almost certain to consume him.
Which begs the question: Given that the regime’s praetorian units are still in Damascus, at what stage, if an exodus toward the Alawite mountains becomes imperative, do the Assads sound the retreat? Do the elite units fight on in the capital indefinitely, weakening them for the future, or do they decide at some point that the priority must be to defend their communal redoubt? This imposes delicate choices. Too sudden a withdrawal from the capital could provoke a rout for the Assads; too late a withdrawal could mean their forces get bogged down in a debilitating struggle that undermines the fallback plan.
The carving out of an Alawite statelet is a sincere probability, but the obstacles hindering the success of such a mission are immense. The Assads are trapped. By pursuing their repression from Damascus, they are unable to concentrate their forces; by implementing an Alawite-first scheme, they could sign their own death warrant. Sooner rather than later they will have to decide which is their priority.
Michael Young is opinion editor of THE DAILY STAR. He tweets @BeirutCalling.
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