News / Middle East

    Can Assad Regime, Kurds Create Safe Havens in Syria?

    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
    x
    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
    David Arnold
    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 SyriaOrigins of the Alawi and Kurds of Syria
    x
    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.”

    You May Like

    Clinton, Trump and the 'Woman’s Card'

    Ask supporters of Democratic front-runner in US presidential campaign, and they’ll tell you Republican presidential candidate is playing a dangerous hand

    Russian Censorship Group Seeks Chinese Help to Better Control Internet

    At recent Safe Internet League forum in Moscow, speakers from both nations underscored desire for authorities to further limit and control information online

    Video Makeshift Pakistani School Helps Slum Kids

    Free classes in Islamabad park serve a few of the country’s nearly 25 million out-of-school youths; NGO cites ‘education crisis’

    Featured Videos

    Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
    Turkish Kurd Islamist Rally Stokes Tensionsi
    X
    April 29, 2016 12:28 AM
    In a sign of the rising power of Islamists in Turkey, more than 100,000 people recently gathered in Diyarbakir, the main city in Turkey’s predominantly Kurdish southeast, to mark the birthday of the Prophet Muhammad. The gathering highlighted tensions with the pro-secular Kurdish nationalist movement. Dorian Jones reports from Diyarbakir.
    Video

    Video Turkish Kurd Islamist Rally Stokes Tensions

    In a sign of the rising power of Islamists in Turkey, more than 100,000 people recently gathered in Diyarbakir, the main city in Turkey’s predominantly Kurdish southeast, to mark the birthday of the Prophet Muhammad. The gathering highlighted tensions with the pro-secular Kurdish nationalist movement. Dorian Jones reports from Diyarbakir.
    Video

    Video Pakistani School Helps Slum Kids

    Master Mohammad Ayub runs a makeshift school in a public park in Islamabad. Thousands of poor children have benefited from his services over the years, but, as VOA's Ayesha Tanzeem reports, roughly 25 million school-age youths don't get an education in Pakistan.
    Video

    Video Florida’s Weeki Wachee ‘Mermaids’ Make a Splash

    Since 1947, ‘mermaids’ have fascinated tourists at central Florida’s Weeki Wachee Springs State Park with their fluid movements and synchronized ballet. Performing underwater has its challenges, including cold temperatures and a steady current, as VOA’s Lin Yang and Joseph Mok report.
    Video

    Video Somali, African Union Forces Face Resurgent Al-Shabab

    The Islamic State terror group claimed its first attack in Somalia earlier this week, though the claim has not been verified by forces on the ground. Meanwhile, al-Shabab militants have stepped up their attacks as Somalia prepares for elections later this year. Henry Ridgwell reports there are growing frustrations among Somalia’s Western backers over the country’s slow progress in forming its own armed forces to establish security after 25 years of chaos.
    Video

    Video Bangladesh Targeted Killings Spark Wave of Fear

    People in Bangladesh’s capital are expressing deep concern over the brutal attacks that have killed secular blogger, and most recently a gay rights activist and an employee of the U.S. embassy. Xulhaz Mannan, an embassy protocol officer and the editor of the country’s only gay and transgender magazine Roopban; and his friend Mehboob Rabbi Tanoy, a gay rights activist, were hacked to death by five attackers in Mannan’s Dhaka home earlier this month.
    Video

    Video Documentary Tells Tale of Chernobyl Returnees

    Ukraine this week is marking the 30th anniversary of the world's worst nuclear accident, at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant. Soviet officials at first said little about the accident, but later evacuated a 2,600-square-kilometer "exclusion zone." Some people, though, came back. American directors Holly Morris and Anne Bogart created a documentary about this faithful and brave community. VOA's Tetiana Kharchenko reports from New York on "The Babushkas of Chernobyl." Carol Pearson narrates.
    Video

    Video Nigerians Feel Bite of Buhari Economic Policy

    Despite the global drop in the price of oil, Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari has refused to allow the country's currency to devalue, leading to a shortage of foreign exchange. Chris Stein reports from Lagos businessmen and consumers are feeling the impact as the country deals with a severe fuel shortage.
    Video

    Video  Return to the Wild

    There’s a growing trend in the United States to let old or underused golf courses revert back to nature. But as Erika Celeste reports from one parcel in Grafton, Ohio, converting 39 hectares of land back to green space is a lot more complicated than just not mowing the fairway.
    Video

    Video West Urges Unity in Libya as Migrant Numbers Soar

    The Italian government says a NATO-led mission aimed at stemming the flow of migrants from Libya to Europe could be up and running by July. There are concerns that the number of migrants could soar as the route through Greece and the Balkans remains blocked. Western powers say the political chaos in Libya is being exploited by people smugglers — and they are pressuring rival groups to come together under the new unity government. VOA's Henry Ridgwell reports.
    Video

    Video Russia’s TV Rain Swims Against Tide in Sea of Kremlin Propaganda

    Russia’s media freedoms have been gradually eroded under President Vladimir Putin as his government has increased state ownership, influence, and restrictions on critical reporting. Television, where most Russians get their news, has been the main target and is now almost completely state controlled. But in the Russian capital, TV Rain stands out as an island in a sea of Kremlin propaganda.

    Special Report

    Adrift The Invisible African Diaspora