Preoccupied with the need to send its most loyal battalions to retake urban neighborhoods in six major cities, the Syrian government has become vulnerable to the political ambitions of a sizeable population of ethnic Kurds who live in portions of three northeastern governates.
As Syria’s armored divisions and MIG fighters engage Free Syrian Army units in Aleppo and government troops return to fighting in the streets of the capital, Damascus, minority Alawites are considering their own future if the Assad government falls. Alawites formed the backbone of the government for 42 years under Hafez and Bashar al-Assad. Some are wondering if the mountains of their ancestors near the west coast are safe enough to avoid the potential of Sunni revenge.
Aram Nerguizian, a visiting fellow with the Arleigh A. Burke Chair in Strategy at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, talks about these tendencies for separation from Syria and the failures of neighboring states to offer solutions.
Kurds possess a strong independence impulse
“You do always have this underlying impulse within the Kurdish community towards autonomy. You’ve had the Assad regime and the opposition respectively try to leverage the Kurdish question to their advantage. It looks like the opposition has badly managed the Kurdish-Arab dynamics…and now, what you’re seeing is the Kurds basically taking advantage or, at a minimum, doing what they think is necessary to secure their own terrain in a Syria that is becoming increasingly unstable. That doesn’t mean you will necessarily have overnight a second Kurdish enclave or a second Kurdistan. But the underlying impulse within the broader Kurdish community within the Levant – Turkey, Iraq and Syria – is toward this autonomous structure if they can secure it.”
Can the Alawites integrate themselves in a Sunni society?
“Even if you have the majority of Alawites who see themselves as Syrians, you also have a majority of Alawites who, for better or for worse, don’t know what their strategy is in terms of integrating them in a Syria where Sunnis take power, especially where you’ve had a repressive cycle whereby the Assad regime has increasingly taken on this sectarian tone. The same goes for the opposition, which has in many ways embraced – albeit it not officially and not publicly – the fact that it represents the majority of Sunnis who happen to be Sunni.… This puts Alawites in a very difficult position. On the one hand supporting Assad has been very challenging. At the same time espousing a future where they are likely to become relegated to their tertiary or bottom role like the beginning of the 20th century is not a very positive prospect…”
What do their Middle Eastern neighbors say?
“You have a perfect storm of instability. You have a lot of talk about ending the crisis and finding a political transition but there is very little realism in terms of mapping out what that implies. What kinds of difficult choices they need to map out on both sides. And at the same time, there’s still a lot of hope as a substitute for reality when it comes to socializing transition plans in a country that is essentially gripped with a broad sectarian conflict. You’ve had far too much focus on a willingness to negotiate as long as it is exactly what you want. And that’s a non-starter.”
Listen to more of Aram Nerguizian’s interview here:
David Arnold coordinates the Syria Witness project at Middle East Voices and reports on Middle East and North Africa affairs for both Voice of America and MEV. The Syria Witness project publishes on-the-ground citizen reporting, giving Syrians the opportunity to offer to a global audience their first-person narratives of life on the streets of their war-torn country.