It is an idea that was first introduced more than a year ago: If President Bashar al-Assad were to fall or be remove himself from power, would Alawites, for decades a ruling minority in Syria, retreat to their traditional western mountain enclaves and form a breakaway state? As rebels gain more ground in Syria, so too does the idea of an Alawite homeland as an antidote against sectarian violence that could become, in the words of one former U.S. diplomat, “the world’s next genocide.” Senior reporter Cecily Hilleary spoke about the prospects of an Alawite retreat from Syria’s capital, Damascus, with Joshua Landis, director of the Center for Middle East Studies and associate professor at the University of Oklahoma.
Landis: Well, Assad hasn’t come to the conclusion that he has lost Damascus, and he’s not anywhere near there. We’ve just heard Farouk al-Sharaa, his vice president, say that neither side could win – neither the rebels nor the government. There would have to be a political solution; there could not be a military solution.
So,I think Bashar al-Assad is still thinking in terms of a draw here. I don’t think he’ll be able to hold Damascus forever. I think it’s going to be a lot longer and a more bitter struggle than most people predict. Many have been saying that by this summer, in June, he’ll be out and finished. I suspect it’s going to take longer than that.
Hilleary: Well, he’s shown remarkable tenacity.
Landis: He did, and in many ways, if you think about it, just cold-bloodedly. He cannot afford to allow the rebels to take Damascus. Damascus is the “goose that lays the golden egg.” It is Syria. And for the rebels to take it whole would be to empower them a great deal, and it would put Assad’s “rump” military and the Alawite region along the coast at a great disadvantage.
So it’s likely that he will hang on to Damascus and that the city will be destroyed, as Aleppo has been destroyed, before it is relinquished.
Hilleary: That time may well come, and as we’ve seen in the case of Libya, Muammar Gadhafi, and in Iraq, Saddam Hussein, they both ran off to their ancestral, tribal homelands – why not Assad?
Landis: Well, I think he will. 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. And it’s quite likely that the Alawites and the Syrian Army, which has now largely been turned into an Alawite militia, will be forced back into the coastal mountains.
Whether they can be defeated there as a military power or not depends on two things, really: 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 they do unify – they represent 70 percent of the population – they will defeat the Alawites. If they remain divided and they fight amongst themselves over Damascus and other ideological reasons, spoils, then it’s quite likely that the Alawites may survive the military power along the coast.
“If Russia and Iran continue to support the Alawites along the coast, and the Arabs remain very divided and perhaps settle into civil war, well then they could pull it off, the same way the Kurds pulled it off in Iraq.” – Joshua Landis
Hilleary: How likely is it that that kind of infighting will take place among the Sunnis and allow for the Alawites to survive?
Landis: I think it is quite likely. We see vast differences in ideology, country versus city, class, and also north and south, Aleppo versus Damascus, have traditionally separated Syrians, and these questions about Islam versus secularism, the role of minorities, and so forth, were never decided after independence. Syria went straight from French rule to, really, dictatorship. And they are all being debated today.
Hilleary: Is there any truth to reports that Assad has been quietly preparing for some kind of an enclave along the Mediterranean?
Landis: I have read these reports that that is what he’s been doing, which were largely aired on [... a] website that is rarely factual. I don’t doubt that Alawites from every walk of life are preparing for a mountain defense. I know my own family – my wife’s family, which is Alawite – has been adding rooms onto their mountain house, which is a summer house, because they don’t want to hang out in Latakia, which they believe will become a battleground because it’s half Sunni and half Alawite and Christian. So these things make people fearful, and they are taking precautions, and I don’t doubt that Bashar al-Assad is also doing similar things.
Hilleary: Well, there is a legitimate basis for fear.
Landis: Of course there is a legitimate basis for fear, because this has turned into a sectarian war. The government has so mistreated the Syrian people and used so much force, killing so many and making others homeless that revenge is going to be – there’s going to be revenge.
Hilleary: What about Russia? Has it expressed any interest in support for a separate Alawite region? I mean, if you look at it geographically, Iran and Russia could certainly access them from the Mediterranean and support them for a while. Could they pull it off?
Landis: Absolutely. But it all depends on continuing support. If Russia and Iran continue to support the Alawites along the coast, and the Arabs remain very divided and perhaps settle into civil war, well then they could pull it off, the same way the Kurds pulled it off in Iraq. But if that doesn’t happen, the Syrian Arabs are not going to let the Alawites take the entire coast.
Hilleary: Well, that’s another question—
Landis: It will only happen over their dead bodies. Obviously, it’s not something that any Syrian Sunni Arab is going to want. It’s going to have to be taken from them. And whether the Alawites, in the long run, can manage, that is questionable. But so much of that depends on whether Sunni Arabs can unify. If they can, they will overpower the Alawites, who just don’t have the numbers.
“[Syria's militias] span the ideological spectrum from al-Qaida all the way to much more secular outfits that want democracy and are looking toward the West.’ – Joshua Landis
Hilleary: Well, how is it looking for the Sunnis at this point?
Landis: It’s looking bad.
Hilleary: I’ve almost lost track of the number of different opposition groups blending, re-blending, re-naming themselves—
Landis: There are hundreds of militias. And there has been a Darwinian process taking place, where a few of the most powerful militias are sucking up a lot of the smaller ones. But there are still dozens of very powerful militias, and they span the ideological spectrum from al-Qaida all the way to much more secular outfits that want democracy and are looking toward the West.
Hilleary: What do you see happening?
Landis: I see a long, long battle along the same lines we’ve seen, and unfortunately, both sides are radicalizing, and the radicals are taking over – not only among the Sunni Arabs but also within the Alawite community, and that means bad things because it’s going to destroy – it is destroying Syria. And we’ve seen the north is so devastated, and I think that same devastation is going to be visited on the south in Damascus. And we’re going to have rubble. And unfortunately, unlike Iraq where there was an occupying power, which had, of course, its bad elements, but also it allowed the Maliki government to unify the Arabs because the Americans undermined all the competitor militias and built up a central Iraqi state before they left. That’s not going to happen in Syria. The various militias are going to fight it out. And, secondly, there’s no oil, or very little oil. So the ability to rebuild is not, there’s just very little ability to rebuild, so it’s going to take a long time, and there are going to be tons of refugees, and there’s going to be lots of hunger and privation.
Cecily began her reporting career in the 1990s, covering US Middle East policy for Dubai-TV English. She has lived and/or worked in the Middle East, North Africa and Gulf regions, consulting and producing for several regional radio and television networks and production houses, including MBC, Al-Arabiya, the former Emirates Media Incorporated and Al-Ikhbaria. She brings to VOA and MEV a keen understanding of the region's top social, cultural and political issues.