A new report by the U.N. Commission on Human Rights
offers disturbing evidence that the civil war in Syria is turning into a sectarian battle between the country’s majority Sunni and minority Alawite Muslim communities. At the same time, Russia’s President Vladimir Putin has expressed concern
that Syria could plummet into a continued cycle of violence and retaliation.
These dire assessments come amid growing rumors in Syria that President Bashar Al- Assad may be fortifying an Alawite enclave in the mountains that could form the foundation for a breakaway Alawite State. But how credible are these reports and could such a state or enclave be a solution to Alawite fears of massive post-Assad reprisals?
The Alawites are an ethno/religious offshoot of Shi’a Islam who traditionally lived in the an-Nusayriyah Mountains, in the west of Syria. Because they do not follow the standard practices of Islam, they were historically marginalized and ostracized.
That all changed after the French occupation between the two World Wars, when France recruited Alawites to fight an Islamist insurgency. By the 1960s, the Alawites had permeated the military and the Baath Party, and after Hafez Al-Assad became the first Alawite president of Syria, their power was assured.
Today, the majority of the Syrian military and militias, or shabiha,
have been recruited from among the Alawites. That is not, however, to say that all Alawites support Bashar Al-Assad, but supporters or not, they all have good reason to fear what could happen to them if the Assad regime crumbles.
Retreat to the heartland
But war, by its nature, polarizes communities and forces them to take refuge with the familiar. War fractures the bonds that hold the society together.
In December, 2011, an Israeli online publication called Debkafile published a report
-- so far unconfirmed -- that Syrian engineering corps was building a fortified encampment in the heavily wooded areas of the an-Nusayriyah
mountains, surrounding it with anti-tank defenses and anti-air batteries.
There also were unconfirmed reports that Alawites had begun flocking
to Tartus province, close to the Mediterranean, fueling speculation that Assad and his supporters, at the first whiff of defeat, would move to this stronghold and possibly try to create a new Alawite state.
, Director of the Center for Middle East Studies, says it’s only a matter of time before Damascus falls, but predicts that Assad won’t leave Damascus until it is completely destroyed.
“I think he will be forced into the coastal mountains. Now, the question is whether he can set up a separate state there. I don’t believe that the world will recognize a separate Alawite state on the coast of Syria. That doesn’t mean that he’ll be defeated, in the same way that Hezbollah resides in Southern Lebanon, where Shi’ite Lebanese are the majority, and that forms a social base and a protection for Hezbollah.”
Landis believes that Syria’s Alawites are preparing for a mountain defense. “There is a legitimate basis for fear, because this has turned into a sectarian war,” he said. “The government has so mistreated the Syrian people and used so much force, killing so many and making others homeless that there’s going to be revenge.”
What remains unanswered is whether the Alawites could survive as a military power in the mountains. Landis says that would depend on two factors: “Whether Iran is willing to continue to invest and support them militarily by sending weapons and money, and whether the Sunni Arabs overcome their deep factionalism and unify.”
If the Sunnis, who represent 70 percent of the Syrian population, do unify, Landis says it is likely they would be able to defeat the Alawites.
“But if they remain divided and they fight amongst themselves over Damascus and other ideological reasons, then it’s quite likely that the Alawites may survive the military power along the coast.”
Self-rule not feasible
Faisal al-Yafai is an award-winning journalist and essayist and chief columnist
at the United Arab Emirate’s newspaper, The National,
who has lived in and reported from Syria. He agrees with Landis that reprisals against the Alawites are inevitable.
“For about a year now, I've been arguing
that the longer the conflict drags on – and is allowed to drag on by the international community – the harder it will be to put the mosaic of modern Syria back together,” Al-Yafai said.
However, unlike Landis, Yafai argues
that an Alawite state isn’t practical, feasible or defendable.
“It is hard to see how the Assads might persuade Alawites to form a last stand with them, especially if a new Syrian political leadership could guarantee their safety in a new Syria,” Yafai said.
“Would Alawites, some of whom have done extremely well out of the rule of the Assads, but many of whom remain of rather humbler economic status, be willing to join a state where they are entirely reliant on the goodwill of the Assads?” Yifai asks. “It seems like a political fantasy to me.”
Not to mention the fact, adds Yafai, that rebels, anticipating the possibility that Alawites would retreat to the mountains of Latakkia, have already made territorial gains there.
Argument for unity
Jordanian political analyst, blogger and commentator Amer Sabaileh
concurs with Yafai’s assessment. Rather than focus on separating Sunni from Shia, he argues that the world should instead channel efforts into a political transition that will help the Syrian people preserve their identity and unity. Talk of sectarian differences concerns him, and he says it is a trend that is spreading in the region. Once you start talking about one ethnic group forming its own state, it opens the idea for many other groups.
“The Druze, for example,” Sabailah said. “Or the Ismailis. You also have the Christians, and once you start looking at them, you’ll discover the many different sects within Christians in the Middle East.”
Sabaileh cites the example of Iraq, which, he says may not be divided politically, but is certainly divided culturally and socially. He believes that the best hope for Syria is a political solution that focuses on unity.
“I think the challenge from the beginning was in keeping Syria united and achieving a political transition,” he said. “This still should be the focus, because otherwise, the more we are in a crisis, the more risk we have that the crisis expands and the more we will think of division as a way to solve the problems.”
All that is needed for a political settlement of the crisis, says Sabaileh, is international willingness—but more importantly, a consensus between the U.S. and Russia—and finally, steps on the ground to pave the way for a democratic future.