States are born bloody. Wars of secession and age-old ethnic and sectarian grievances lurk behind the fanfare of self-determination in new nations such as Kosovo and South Sudan. Now the Syrian people stand on the edge of a similar abyss. The longer the conflict persists, the more likely it is to give rise to a separatist Alawite enclave.
As defections increase and fighting continues in Damascus, the international community needs to prepare for the worst-case scenario: a civil war that changes the map of the modern Middle East.
The inability of Bashar al-Assad’s forces to hold predominantly Sunni areas and the recent massacres point towards the fragmentation of Syria. Tremesh, Rastan and Houla, each of which have experienced the mass killing of civilians, all lie on the edges of the Alawite corridor, a strip of land running from Lebanon to Turkey through Syria containing large numbers of Alawites and Arab Christians.
To understand the logic of the violence, you have to look at Alawite separatism in Syria dating from the French Mandate.
Following the first world war, the French organised Syria into ethnic and sectarian territories including an “Alawi state” comprising predominantly rural members of the Shia sect along the Mediterranean. For many years, this Alawi state was administratively separate from Syria. Only a small number of Alawites participated in the Great Revolt from 1925 to 1927, choosing instead to serve in special French military units. In 1936 the French gave in to Arab nationalists and incorporated Alawite lands into Syria. Yet, like other minorities, the Alawites remained suspicious of the Sunni majority and continued to flock to the security services. After independence, the Alawites used their disproportionate representation in the military to seize power in a 1963 coup led by Hafez al-Assad, Bashar’s father.
Read against this backdrop, massacres along the sectarian faultline that separates Alawite villages from other Syrian communities seem to suggest that the present regime and its allies are preparing a “plan B”.
The Free Syrian Army is growing stronger. Though largely uncoordinated and fraught with internal rivalries, the rebels are gaining ground and are threatening Mr Assad’s hold on power.
However, the president has time and geography on his side. Even if Damascus falls, he is not finished. He knows that with China and Russia blocking a broader UN mandate, any significant western military intervention is unlikely. As long as the remnants of his regime maintain control over chemical and biological stockpiles, they reduce the likelihood of a unilateral Israeli strike.
The resurrection of an Alawi state could be catastrophic. First, it would be a heavily armed rogue regime that would continue to act as a proxy for Iran and guarantee Russia a deepwater Mediterranean naval base in Tartous.
Second, much like other heavily militarised and unrecognised quasi-states (such as Abkhazia and South Ossetia), the area could become a haven for criminals and terrorists.
Third, the new “state” would act as a catalyst to spread the conflict further into northern Lebanon and Turkey, whose population includes approximately half a million Arab Alawites along with perhaps 20m Turkish Alawites, or Alevis.
Fourth, Israel would be confronted with not one but two hostile regimes in the break-up of Syria, both of which might possess chemical weapons and missiles capable of reaching Tel Aviv.
Fifth, an Alawi state would set a dangerous precedent for other separatist groups, such as the Kurds in the region, and reignite Sunni-Shia violence in Iraq, where prime minister Nouri al-Maliki is backing Iran and Mr Assad against the Syrian people.
The international community should be mindful of the risks inherent in the fragmentation of Syria. Any intervention, whether diplomatic or military, that further splits Syria is liable to end with the creation of a rogue Alawi state. This stillborn entity is highly unlikely to contribute to long-term peace and stability in the Middle East. In fact, it raises the question of what darkness awaits post-Assad Syria.
The writer is an assistant professor at the American University in Washington
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