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Can Assad Regime, Kurds Create Safe Havens in Syria?

  • David Arnold

President Bashar al-Assad stands with his military generals, most of whom are Alawites, at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Damascus, October 6, 2011

President Bashar al-Assad stands with his military generals, most of whom are Alawites, at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Damascus, October 6, 2011

As the civil war intensifies in Syria, officials and experts in the region are increasingly concerned the fighting could lead to redefining the nation’s political boundaries, possibly including autonomous regions or safe havens for Alawite and Kurdish factions.

Origins of the Alawi and Kurds of Syria

Origins of the Alawi and Kurds of Syria

Those concerns have increased in recent days as the Sunni-dominated Free Syrian Army on an urban corridor in the west and Kurdish rebels in the north have scored one success after another against President Bashar al-Assad’s army and his Alawite followers.

Neighboring Turkey is paying especially close attention, worried that the success of Syria’s Kurds might further enflame separatist sentiments among its own Kurdish minority.

Aram Nerguizian, a Syria expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, says the concerns are not ill-founded. He says if the safety and the interests of Syria’s Alawi and Kurds are not addressed, “they will opt at least for the effort to produce some kind of autonomy and if not, a territorially contiguous space where they feel they have command and control.”

Restless Kurds unite on the Jazirah Plain

Syria’s Kurdish militias have been especially successful, taking advantage of the Assad government’s military emphasis on battling the Free Syrian Army fighters in Damascus and Aleppo. In recent weeks, the Kurds have taken control of at least five towns on the Jazirah Plain in the north - Efrin, Kobani, Amuda, Sari Kana and Derek – though Syria government forces continue to hold Qamlishi, the largest Kurdish city.

But Ercan Citioglu of Turkey’s Bahcesehir University told VOA’s Kurdish Service that the government in Ankara is worried that if Syria’s Kurds establish an autonomous region in the area, it could be used to stage attacks on Turkish targets just across the northern border. That, he warns, would trigger a swift reaction from Turkey’s military.

The fate of Syria’s Alawite religious/ethnic minority could be even more problematical.

Security for Damascus Alawi elite in question

For centuries, the Alawites were a poor and largely uneducated minority living in the al-Alawiyin Mountains near the Mediterranean coast. That began to change when the Ottoman Empire collapsed during World War I. Under a post-war colonial mandate, the French recruited Alawites into the military, passing over many urban Sunni.

And when Hafez Assad rose to power 42 years ago, his Ba’ath Party put many Alawites on a fast track to scholarships, college educations and government jobs.

And though Alawites now make up less than 13 percent or so of Syria’s 22 million people, under the Assad family’s ruthless rule, they have dominated the government, the military and Syrian culture.

Every country surrounding Syria stands to be affected by this
Now, President Assad and his Alawite followers fear that if they lose control, they will be overrun by Sunnis, who make up more than 70 percent of the population.

“The fate of our people and our nation, past, present and future, depends on this battle," Assad said in a statement released as government forces began their attack on Aleppo last week.

Could Bashar al-Assad retreat to al-Alawiyin Mountains?

For several months now, some Syrian experts have been saying that pro-Assad shabiha militias have been carrying out wholesale killings in Sunni towns along the Orontes River, suggesting they might be trying to carve out a safe zone in the area for the Alawi.

Joshua Landis, director of the University of Oklahoma’s Middle East Studies Center, says that if government forces lose, Assad and his followers might be tempted to retreat to their ancient Alawite homeland.

It’s not a point of going back because they’ve never lived there
Landis, however, predicts such an effort – if it indeed takes place – would be unsuccessful. He notes that Alawi have for decades been moving out of the mountains to the cities and larger towns and that if the lose this civil war, they would be unable to defend themselves in the mountains.

Syria scholar Nikolaos van Dam says most of the Alawites who migrated to positions in the military and the government in Damascus have been gone from their Alawiyin homeland for a couple of generations.

"It’s not a point of going back because they’ve never lived there," van Dam said of the Alawite elite in Damascus.

And van Dam said Alawite loyalties are more divided than many suppose. He says many Alawites in those the traditional Alawi areas have for years opposed the Assad regime and some remain “political prisoners” in their villages.

What will the neighbors say?

All of Syria’s neighbors are worried about the impact of an extended civil war with the growing burden of more refugees crossing into their territory.

“Every country surrounding Syria stands to be affected by this,” said Nerguizian of CSIS. “And frankly, the different actors at the regional and international level have not done enough to take stock of the fact these pressures and concerns within minority groups like the Alawite community are very real.”
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