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July 02, 2013

'Alawistan', Syria’s Once and Future State?

by Cecily Hilleary

Middle East analysts have been speculating in recent weeks about the various ways the 28-month-old civil war in Syria might come to an end. One scenario mentioned often is that the warring factions will divide the country into separate ethnic or religious enclaves that reflect Syria’s diversity and settlement patterns.
 
And key to any such a scenario, according to the analysts, is creation of an enclave along Syria’s Mediterranean coast for the Alawites, adherents to an offshoot of Shiite Islam followed by President Bashar al-Assad and a majority of the ruling elite in Damascus.
 
The Assad regime is said to have been fortifying what is becoming known as “Alawistan” for months, with help from Russia and Iran. Some analysts note that the government’s recent military offensives seem designed to help create such an enclave in a majority Alawite area on the coast.
 
But could such an enclave develop into an Alawite state with the Assad clan in power, and if so could it be economically sustainable?
 
​​Murhaf Jouejati, professor of Middle Eastern studies at the National Defense University in Washington D.C., says he believes that such an enclave has been under serious consideration, especially by Iran.
 
“Iran, in its ambitions for regional hegemony, very much needs Syria, its strategic ally,” Jouejati said. “It needs it as a conduit to Hezbollah [the Iranian-backed Shiite militia], but it also, through Syria, has a reach into the Arab-Israeli conflict.
 
And so Iran has a major stake in the survival of the Assad regime, and as a result, we all know about the support that Iran has given the Assad regime throughout the rebellion."
 
So when it looked as if the Syrian opposition were gaining strength, Jouejati believes Iran and the Assad regime both began working on “Plan B,” in which Assad and his  followers would move to a majority Alawite area along the coast and carve out a mini-state that would remain allied with Iran.
 
While this would represent a serious setback for Assad, it would be better than what happened to Moammar Qadhafi when he was overthrown in Libya, Jouejati says, recalling that the Libyan leader was killed when he was captured by opponents.
 
Jouejati adds that it would maintain Iran's interests in the region and provide Syrian Alawites a refuge.
 
Preparations underway
 
Jouejati says most Alawites fear they will be judged as “guilty by association” with the Assad regime and fear retaliation from Sunni Muslims and other opposition members. He said Alawites are already amassing weapons caches in the coastal region and that the Assad regime is planning to build an  airport on the coast near Tartus, not far from a Russian naval base.
 
“And the way they [the Assad regime] have gone after  towns like Rastan, like Homs, like Qusair – strategic towns between the Damascus-Aleppo axis the the coast does suggest … they want to retain these strategic areas and not allow Sunnis in there,” Jouejati said.
 
But even though Iran and Russia could be expected to help support such an allied mini-state, Jouejati doubts it could become economically self-sufficient any time soon.
 
But Assad, his followers and allies just might be counting on another possibility.
 
In 2009, Israel discovered three high-yielding natural gas fields off its Mediterranean coast. That spurred great interest in exploring other regions of the eastern Mediterranean. Preliminary surveys of Lebanon's offshore fields show reserves of 30 trillion cubic feet of natural gas and 660 million barrels of oil. Four years earlier, the Syrian government had contracted the CGG Veritas company to conduct a 2-D [two-dimensional] seismic survey off Syria’s coast. The survey concluded there was “significant evidence for a working petroleum system, both thermogenic and biogenic.” 
 
So in 2010, the Syria put three offshore blocks up for bid, but the Arab Spring uprisings and tough economic sanctions put the possible exploration on hold.
 
Though CGG Veritas officials would not talk about the results of its surveys, Jouejati believes, based on studies he has read, that there are gas reserves off the Syrian shoreline – “perhaps not as important a find as with Israel and Lebanon, but an important one nonetheless.”
 
And if Jouejati is correct, then an Alawite state on the coast would have an economic basis for survival. The Alawites also would also get an economic boost from transit fees they could charge for oil coming through pipelines from greater Syria to Mediterranean ports.
 
That's because Syria fields do produce a significant amount of crude oil – not significant like Gulf oil producers, but significant for the region. And the pipeline was built to get it to market through Mediterranean ports at Baniyas and Tartus.
 
Syria’s as energy producer and conduit

According to Mark Eshbaugh of the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA), Syrian wells were producing about 400,000 barrels of crude per day before the civil war.
 
“Since the conflict, our latest short-term energy outlook pegs that number at about 100,000 barrels per day,” Eshbaugh said.  “The Syrian Oil ministry has released a couple of estimates about what impact the uprising has had on Syria’s economy, and the estimates range as high as $8 billion, including export totals.  That’s a massive impact.”  
 
And the civil war has halted other ambitious projects involving oil and gas.
 
In 2009, for example, Assad announced what he called his “Four Seas Strategy,” which would set up Syria as a hub of oil transport between the Mediterranean, the Black and Caspian seas and the Persian-Arab Gulf. 
 
A year later, he signed a memorandum of understanding with Iraq to build a gas and two oil pipelines from Iraq to the Syrian port of Baniyas.
 
In the summer of 2011, Iran announced a $10 billion pipeline deal between Syria, Iraq and Iran that would carry gas more than 3,000 miles from Iran’s huge South Pars field (shared with Qatar) through Iraq to Syria.
 
Syria also planned to extend a portion of the Arab Gas Pipeline from Aleppo to southern Turkey.
 
But like the other projects, the Aleppo-to-Turkey pipeline was put on hold by the civil war.