In light of the accelerated collapse of the Syrian state, it’s worth looking at the sectarian angle and the prospects for Syria’s territorial unity – and, in particular, at the question of whether Assad and his allies will seek an Alawite state or “mini-state” carved out of the country.
A few passages from Roots of Alawite-Sunni Rivalry in Syria, a recent article in Middle East Policy (Vol. 19, Issue 2, pages 148–156, Summer 2012).
On the historical roots of Alawite domination:
During the period of the French mandate (1920-46), sectarian divisions were deliberately in- cited in order to suppress Arab nationalism … In 1922, the Jabal al-Druze region, located in an area of Druze concentration south of Damascus, was proclaimed a separate unit under French protection, with its own governor and elected congress. The mountain district behind Latakia, with its large Alawite population, became a special administrative regime under heavy French protection and was proclaimed a separate state. Later, in 1922, all but the Jabal al-Druze were united in a Syrian Federation that was dissolved at the end of 1924 and replaced by a Syrian state comprising the states of Aleppo and Damascus and a separate Sanjak of Alexandretta. The Alawite state was, however, excluded from this new arrangement. Except for a brief period, from 1936 to 1939, Alawite and Druze states were administratively separate from Syria until 1942. (p.148)
Until 1920, the Alawites were known to the outside world as the Nusayris or Ansaris. The name change was imposed by the French when they seized control in Syria. “Nusayri” emphasizes the group’s different approach to mainstream Islam, whereas “Alawi” suggests an adherent of Ali (the son-in-law of the Prophet Muhammad) and accentuates the religion’s similarities to Shii Islam. The Alawites benefited from the mandate more than any other minority group, gaining political autonomy and escaping Sunni control. (p.150)
Origins of Alawite domination of the military:
Another major instrument of French influence on the Alawites was their recruit- ment into the Troupes Spéciales du Levant, a local military force formed in 1921 and later developed into the Syrian and Lebanese armed force … By the end of the mandate, several infantry battalions were composed almost entirely of Alawites. Not one battalion was composed entirely of Sunni Arabs. Even those few battalions with significant Sunni Arab components were filled mostly with men from rural areas and far-off towns … Depressed economic conditions made the army a vehicle for social mobility. For the first time, Alawite youth benefited from a small, but secure, income and became disciplined, trained and exposed to new ideas (pp.150-1)
On March 8, 1963, a coup by a group of officers, including the Military Committee, brought down the “separatist regime.” Five of the 14 members of the Baathist military committee were Alawites. After the coup, the gaps in the army resulting from purges of political opponents were filled by Alawites. Even the graduating Sunnis cadets were denied their commis- sions: “The representation of Alewis [sic] among the newly appointed officers was as high as 90 percent.” As Batatu points out, many Sunnis are still in the officer corps, but, if they are important, they are important not as a group but as individuals. (p.154)
With whispers that Assad himself has fled to Latakia, erstwhile capital of the Alawite state, there is renewed interest in the prospect of Syria’s de facto partition, or outright Balkanisation.
Franck Salameh, in The National Interest, asks An Alawite State in Syria?:
For beyond the killings, the world’s indignation and the Syrian regime’s continued recalcitrance, there lurked a method to Assad’s madness that very few observers have deigned address: what animates Assad are communal-survival concerns and Alawite group contingencies; that the international community and the Syrian opposition’s oratory about Syria’s unity and national integrity are the least of the regime’s preoccupations; that it might be too late at this point in the game for the Alawites to abdicate their reign and resign themselves to a subservient future in Syria; that many assumptions about the current shape of the Syrian state are broken beyond repair; and that the Alawites would rather dismantle their existing republic and retreat into fortifications in the mountains than share power with a Sunni-Arab majority ill-prepared to grant either democracy or clemency to its erstwhile wardens.
On ethnic cleansing as a strategy for partition:
And so today’s strings of wanton murders, sexual assaults, torture, arbitrary detentions, targeted bombings and destruction of neighborhoods—and what they entail in terms of displacements, deportations and population movements—are nothing if not the groundwork of a future Alawite entity; the grafting of new facts on the ground and the drafting of new frontiers. No longer able to rule in the name of Arab unity (and in the process preserve their own ethnic and sectarian autonomy), the Alawites may retreat into the Levantine highlands overlooking the Mediterranean.
On the viability of an Alawite state:
Though its industrial resources are quite limited, this projected Alawite region benefits from a well-developed infrastructure, rich arable highlands, fertile coastal plains, abundant water sources, Syria’s only deep-water harbors—Tartous and Latakia—and an international airport that would make an emerging state self-sufficient and supremely defensible
Katie Paul, in Foreign Affairs, has a Letter from Tartus:
In several conversations, Alawites said that thousands of families have relocated to the coast. Others spoke of friends and family members who have not yet moved but have purchased homes there in anticipation of a shift in fortunes. Although the real figure is impossible to determine, visits to Damascus, Homs, and Tartus indicated that such numbers are plausible.
Paul offers a note of caution on viability.
Import-export businesses fuel the economies of Tartus and Latakia, and those would suffer if a de facto partition develops further, since merchants would be unable to move their goods to market in Damascus and Aleppo across a hostile border. Although there is some discussion among the Alawi elite that they might find oil and gas on the coast offshore … sectors such as tourism and agriculture are not enough to sustain an Alawi state on their own. The entity’s regional neighbors, wary of their own domestic secessionist movements, would be loath to recognize it.
Roula Khalaf, in the Financial Times, quotes a sceptical Emile Hokayem:
For months now, opposition activists have been claiming that the regime’s long-term survival plan is to create an Alawite enclave. They say the military strategy has been designed to secure religiously mixed areas around the cities of Homs and Hama that could be connected to the coast, and crucially also to nearby Lebanon. The displacement of population in the fighting has meant that more Alawites have moved to the coastal areas, and more Sunni have left the mixed areas in central Syria.Emile Hokayem … question[s] whether an Alawite militia could be sustainable. The Assad regime would have little strategic value for its allies, be it the Russians or the Iranians, or even Lebanon’s Hizbollah, if it ended up defending an Alawite enclave. If that happened, Mr Hokayem points out, it would be solely focused on survival – and on revenge.
Richard Spencer, in a persuasive and reflective piece in The Telegraph, is also doubtful:
But Syria is not the same [as Yugoslavia]. Whatever the current state of the European Union financially, its superstructure has been a security blanket for nearly all the former Communist nations of Eastern Europe, whether they have joined or only seek to do so. The superstructure of the Levant is a continued angling for sectarian advantage, where emotions and fears, even of a majority that would dearly love to forget all about differences of religion, are easily stirred. Syria’s role model is not Czechoslovakia but Iraq, where Sunni and Shia can exercise power over each other but are unwilling to share it; or even Israel and the Palestinian territories, where the Jewish engagement with Arabs seems to be based around an assumption of permanent semi-conflict.
In short, the division of Syria would be a recipe for permanent instability, in which the West, Russia, Iran and a variety of Islamist sub-groups would be constantly manoeuvring to press their ends, and in which, as in the Occupied Territories, war and diplomacy are simply extensions of each other
Finally, courtesy of Wikileaks, a 2006 US diplomatic cable on regime dynamics:
At the end of the day, the regime is dominated by the Asad family and to a lesser degree by Bashar Asad’s maternal family, the Makhlufs [sic], with many family members believe to be increasingly corrupt. The family, and hangers on, as well as the larger Alawite sect, are not immune to feuds and anti-regime conspiracies, as was evident last year when intimates of various regime pillars (including the Makhloufs) approached us about post-Bashar possibilities. Corruption is a great divider and Bashar’s inner circle is subject to the usual feuds and squabbles related to graft and corruption. For example, it is generally known that Maher Asad is particularly corrupt and incorrigible. He has no scruples in his feuds with family members or others. There is also tremendous fear in the Alawite community about retribution if the Sunni majority ever regains power.