by Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi
January 7, 2013
Over the course of the Syrian civil war, there has been much speculation as to what the Assad regime's endgame plan might be.
In this context has come the notion of establishing something along the lines of the "Alawite State" that existed under the French Mandate of Syria, and which Bashar al-Assad's grandfather- Suleiman al-Assad, one of the main Alawite community leaders in the period- eagerly sought to preserve rather than seeking unity with the rest of Syria.
Indeed, in a memorandum to the French prime minister in June 1936, Suleiman, with five other notable Alawite signatories, cited the Arab Muslim [i.e. Sunni] "spirit of hatred and fanaticism…against everything that is non-Muslim" and status of Alawites as "infidels" under Islam as reasons to prevent a union of the Alawite State with Syria, whose population was and still is mainly Sunni.
A hypothetical Alawite State would be based along the northwestern Mediterranean coastline, including the traditional homeland of the rural mountains. Further, the port cities of Latakia, whose population is still predominantly Sunni, and Tartous would be included, being vital economic assets.
However, there is little evidence to suggest that Assad's regime has a Plan B to retreat to the northwest and make its last stand there in an effort to establish an Alawite State.
To begin with, such a view posits a too rigid Sunni-Alawite dichotomy behind the conflict in Syria, when it is in fact clear that if the regime enjoyed no real Sunni support, it would not have survived for so long.
One tactical advantage Assad maintains in general over the rebels is superior weaponry, particularly with his air-force, whose pilots are predominantly Sunni. While defections from the Syrian army are very apparent and the Sunni component of the army has been diminishing over time (even as the pace of the defections has been exaggerated), the air-force has remained almost entirely intact, and the regime has become increasingly reliant on it.
The composition of the Syrian air-force seem surprising if one assumes a dogmatic Sunni-Alawite sectarian paradigm of analysis behind the Syrian civil war, but it is highly likely that the recruits for pilots are drawn from the Sunni middle and upper-middle classes of major cities like Damascus and Aleppo. In fact, it is no coincidence that the Syrian air-force academy is located just outside Aleppo.
How could the regime pursue an Alawite State as Plan B when it is heavily reliant on an air-force whose pilots are largely Sunni?
There is another issue of practicality. In light of the fact that the notion of an Alawite State has been widely discussed for quite a while, it seems that rebel forces have been pre-empting any potential plan to relocate from Damascus to Latakia.
This has included the cutting off of roads leading from the capital and a gradual advance towards Latakia itself from the north. Besides these factors, since the cities under regime control can still be expected to hold out for quite a considerable time, the result is that, as American analyst Phillip Smyth put it to me, the moving of "a whole apparatus from Damascus to Latakia" would be very difficult.
Furthermore, it is important to consider what Assad believes he is fighting for. That Assad has touted himself as the protector of Syria's minorities (namely, Alawites, Christians and Druze: the Kurds in the north and north-east being the exception) is clear, and the cultivation of this image has undoubtedly succeeded in dissuading many members of these minorities from siding with the opposition.
It must be realized that this supposed status as protector-of-minorities is strongly bound to the Arab nationalist ideology, which, as reporter Nir Rosen discovered, is what many of the regime's Alawite supporters believe they are upholding. The idea is that sectarian divisions by religious grouping should not matter under a pan-Arab identity.
Thus, prior to the unrest, Assad had made an effort to promote the teaching of Western Neo-Aramaic in the village of Maaloula, whose population is predominantly Melkite Greek Catholic. Melkites have historical ties with Arab identity, and it is notable how Assad successfully put an Arabist spin on the initiative.
Among Melkites aligned with the regime, one finds the likes of Patriarch Gregory III Laham and Mother Agnes-Mariam, both of whom appeal to the concept of Arab unity and have criticized the Arab League for distracting attention from the main Arab cause: namely, the plight of the Palestinians.
Tied to the regime's ideology of Arab nationalism is a belief in the unity of the Syrian state. Yes, Alawites may constitute a disproportionate part of the military and political leadership, but that does not make the ideology of a united Syria a mere façade.
In short, it seems most likely that Assad will keep hold of Damascus for as long as possible, even if that entails the destruction of much of the city, rather than abandon the capital prematurely for the northwest in order to implement an Alawite State contingency plan.
All that said, it is useful at this point to draw a distinction between regime forces and what Israeli analyst Jonathan Spyer terms "Alawite irregulars." These militiamen, who have organized and taken up arms on a local basis, are likely to have been responsible for attempts at ethnic cleansing such as the Houla massacre back in May that left over 100 Sunnis dead.
In addition, in the city of Homs the militiamen have enforced a rigid segregation of the city's neighborhoods along sectarian lines by extorting money from the city's remaining Alawite inhabitants under the guise of 'protection' from Sunni rebels.
It should not be assumed that the irregulars are necessarily acting under direct orders from Assad or regime forces, but rather with impunity and autonomy, having a narrow sectarian interest in mind: namely, the survival of their community.
These Alawite irregulars can therefore be expected to join with some Alawite soldiers from whatever remains the regular armed forces and reform to make a stand for some form of Alawite autonomy in the northwest after the downfall of Damascus, but it does not follow that this development constitutes Assad's Plan B for his regime, even as Assad might end up in hiding near his ancestral hometown of Qardaha.
Whether the Alawites who do want to secure an autonomous Alawite enclave or state can succeed largely depends on how divided the rebels remain after Assad's fall. There are numerous pressures- including social divisions among Sunnis (urban, tribal and so forth), ideological divides and personal power struggles among the rebel battalions, internal displacement owing to climate change and the civil war, and the issue of Kurdish autonomy.
These pressures combine to herald a chronically unstable Sunni heartland along the lines of the "Somalisation" which UN envoy Lakhdar Brahimi has warned of. In other words militias - many with a hardline Islamist orientation- ruling small enclaves while the central government that succeeds Assad in Damascus remains very weak and unable to reign in the chaos, a problem that will be exacerbated if the future government is controlled by what is currently the opposition-in-exile.
In such a scenario, a battle for the vital economic assets of Latakia and Tartous between rebels and Alawite forces will be no swift and easy job. One can expect a drawn-out fight significant casualties on both sides, though at present rebel forces do hold the advantage of controlling much of the high ground in Latakia Governorate. If an Alawite enclave is able to emerge, there should be no doubt about which foreign powers will prop it up: namely, Russia and Iran.
Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi is a Shillman-Ginsburg Fellow at the Middle East Forum and a student at Brasenose College, Oxford University.
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