A Syrian Stalemate? (NY) TIMES OP-ED) By FRANK JACOBS 07/25/12)
NEW YORK TIMES
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Even when defeat seems imminent, the losing side in chess has the
option - or at least the hope - of forcing a draw. We don´t know
whether Bashar al-Assad is an aficionado of the game of kings ,
but some sources say the Syrian dictator has an endgame in mind that
would finish the fighting in his country without clear winners or
losers: the Alawite Stalemate.
The Assad family, which has ruled Syria since Bashar´s father, Hafez,
took power in the so-called Corrective Revolution of 1970, issues
from the Alawite minority, which represents about 12 percent of
Syria´s 22.5 million inhabitants. Members of that formerly
disadvantaged Shiite sect have benefited greatly from the Assad
regime´s hold on power, occupying crucial positions in Syria´s army
, economy and politics.
The Alawite dominance of Syria´s now-crumbling government is such
that the rebellion against it, recently reclassified as a civil war
, could just as easily be labeled a sectarian conflict, pitching
the country´s Sunni majority against the Alawites. And perhaps also
against other national minorities , equally uneasy about the
prospect of a new government energized by a more fundamentalist,
orthodox version of Islam than has been allowed in Syria .
The sectarian angle should not be overstated - plenty of Alawites and
other minorities are taking up arms against Assad, who ostensibly
still commands the loyalty of a considerable number of Sunni Syrians.
But it could explain at least some of the bloodbaths as ethnic
cleansing in the worst traditions of 1990s Yugoslavia. Some of the
massacres are said to involve the so-called Shabiha
(literally "Ghosts"), an Alawite militia with its roots in Mafia-like
crime syndicates in the Alawi homeland.
In an interview with Le Figaro, Fabrice Balanche, director of the
research group on the Mediterranean and the Middle East at the
University of Lyons II , said that the Assad regime has a worst-
case plan, years in the making, for just such a conflict:
The "defection of Sunni officers, marginalized and frustrated, could
finally force the regime to focus on its Alawite core The Alawite
minority can defend a redoubt along the coast, where it is in the
majority. The Alawite-dominated army would then be defending its own
territory, not merely a corrupt regime."
If Assad should indeed pull back to the coast, it would not be the
first time the Alawite homeland was endowed with its own borders.
After World War I, now almost a century ago, France ran the show in
part of the previously Ottoman-controlled Levant . The French took
the opportunity to extend the existing Christian protectorate of
Mount Lebanon to that country´s present borders - thus severing it
from Syria proper . They also chopped up the rest of their mandate
area into five distinct proto-states, also largely along sectarian
and/or ethnic lines: Damascus, Aleppo, the Sanjak of Alexandretta
, the Jabal Druse and the Alawite State. France´s ambition to
divide and rule backfired: rather than accept their separation, these
diverse groups were united in their hatred of and resistance to the
The Alawite State encompassed those areas of Syria where the Alawites
were a majority: Syria´s coastal strip, reaching inland to the Alawi
Mountains . The relatively inaccessible mountain range was a
convenient refuge for heterodox sects - not just the Alawite, but
also the Assassins  before them. The parallel with Lebanon is
obvious - and if the Alawites had been as keen on independence as
Lebanon´s Christians, an independent Alawia might have been carved
out of the Syrian coast quite a few decades ago.
But could a modern Alawite state be viable as a refuge for the elite
of Syria´s current government and their co-religionists? Bien sûr,
according to Mr. Balanche: the farming is good, there´s an airport at
Latakia, a naval base at Tartus and an oil terminal at Baniyas.
Several strategically located military bases could contribute to the
state´s defense. "Assad could continue to count on support from Iran,
and the Russian Navy would retain is docking rights at Tartus." No
doubt Israel wouldn´t mind either that its powerful, less-than-
friendly neighbor would end up balkanized into a handful of identity-
An Alawi state, either in a resurrection of its 1920s French borders,
or based on the present distribution of Alawis, could become another
Lebanon, which - depending on the snapshot you´re looking at - was
once known as a Middle-Eastern extension of the French Riviera, or,
during its decades-long civil war, as the earthly embassy of hell.
Some observers think the question is moot. Collapsing governments
tend to have neither the time nor the presence of mind to entrench
themselves according to plan. Often, blueprints for national redoubts
are nothing more than safety blankets. Nazi Germany´s "Alpenfestung"
 was a myth, meant as much to provide illusory comfort for the
dying regime itself as to deceive the enemy.
Also, in spite of the Sarajevo-style resurgence of religious identity
after decades of enforced secularism during the 20th century, it may
be that Alawism is no longer as crucial to the communal identity.
Although officially a Shiite sect, with reputed syncretist elements
borrowed from Christianity and other confessions, persecution by
mainstream Islam as heretical has made Alawis wary of declaring their
innermost beliefs. Ironically, decades of dominance may have further
weakened the communal identity; Assad père et fils have always
striven to narrow the perceived difference between Alawism and
mainstream Islam as a way of legitimizing their regime. This
enforced "Sunnification" may have effectively erased much of the
theological differences with other Syrians.
Perhaps the Alawi-Sunni divide does matter less than Assad´s endgame
requires. If that is so, then maybe Mr. Assad really doesn´t have any
pieces left to play on his side of the chessboard, and the Alawi
State is his Alpenfestung.
If cornered, Assad might consider requesting asylum in Kalmykkia
, the home republic of Kirsan Ilyumzhinov, the Russian envoy who
visited him in the beginning of May. As controversial as he is
flamboyant, Ilyumzhinov is the president of the World Chess
Federation. Maybe he can teach the Syrian president a thing or two
Frank Jacobs is a London-based author and blogger. He writes about
cartography, but only the interesting bits.
 So called because crowned heads reportedly loved to play it, but
surely also because of the central role of the king in the
game: "checkmate" derives from "shah mat," Persian for "the king is
ambushed" (and not, as often mistranslated, "the king is dead").
 The Syrian Air Force is an especially strong, traditional Alawite
stronghold; Hafez al-Assad was its commander before the 1970 coup.
 On July 15, the Red Cross announced that it officially considered
Syria´s internal conflict a civil war, based on the spread of intense
fighting from relatively few isolated areas, mainly around the cities
Homs, Hama and Idlib, to other areas, including the capital, Damascus.
 About 10 percent of Syrians are Christian, about 3 percent are
Druse. The mainstream Sunni Muslims account for about 75 percent of
the population, but they also include well over 10 percent of non-
Arabs, mainly Kurds, Turcomans and Circassians.
 In 1982, the Assad government put down a rebellion initiated by
the Muslim Brotherhood and centered on the Sunni-majority city of
Hama. The resulting massacre by some accounts cost up to 20,000
lives, mainly innocent bystanders. This was the largest bloodbath
inflicted by an Arab government on its own citizens in modern times.
 "Syrie: ´Un mini-État alaouite, l´ultime recours pour Assad,´" Le
Figaro, July 19, 2012.
 France and Britain divided the Middle East among themselves with
the Sykes-Picot Agreement, discussed earlier on this blog here.
 "Greater Lebanon" won the local Christians territory, but lost
them their majority. Lebanon eventually gained its independence from
France in 1943. Lingering irredentism helps explain the tenacity with
which Syria immersed itself in Lebanese politics, occupying parts of
the country for three decades before its withdrawal in 2005.
 The Sanjak gained independence as the Republic of Hatay for 10
months between 1938 and 1939, after which it voted to join Turkey.
Hatay is also known as an exotic (if highly fictionalized) setting
in "Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade."
 The mountains are also called the Nusayriyah Mountains, after
another name for the sect.
 A Shiite sect that gave us the word for "hired killer," as this
was one of their main occupations.
 Another example, in the same general area but better prepared
(although ultimately equally untested) was the "Schweizer Réduit."
For more on this Swiss Redoubt, see Strange Maps No. 109.
 An autonomous republic on the Russian shore of the Caspian Sea,
and the only political entity in Europe where Buddhism is predominant.
(Copyright 2012 The New York Times Company 07/25/12)
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