Alawistan (FP) FOREIGN POLICY) BY TONY BADRAN 07/27/12)
FP} Foreign Policy
FP} Foreign Policy Articles-Index-Top
How long will President Bashar al-Assad remain in Damascus? His
regime appears to be reeling: A bombing last week claimed the lives
of his brother-in-law and three other senior figures of his regime,
military defections continue, and rebel forces have arrived in the
country´s largest cities. The prevalent view in Washington and many
other foreign capitals is that the question is not if Assad will lose
the capital, but when.
Assad has no intention of abandoning Damascus without a fight. Since
last week´s bombing, the Syrian Army´s Fourth Division -- led by
Assad´s brother Maher -- has launched an intense campaign to retake
control of the capital´s neighborhoods from the rebels. To secure
Damascus, the regime has redeployed troops from the Golan and eastern
Syria. Control of the capital is critical to Assad for maintaining
the pretense that he is not merely an Alawite warlord, but the
embodiment of the state.
The Syrian despot, however, is fighting a losing battle. As heavy
fighting rages on in the cities of Damascus and Aleppo, the regime is
losing control over the Syrian interior and the Kurdish northeast.
The predominantly Sunni areas of Syria are falling from Assad´s
grasp, and there is no realistic way for him to reassert his
But Assad has one card left to play: The Syrian regime has been
setting the stage for a retreat to Syria´s coastal mountains, the
traditional homeland of the Assads´ Alawite sect, for months now. It
is now clear that this is where the Syrian conflict is headed. Sooner
or later, Assad will abandon Damascus.
The Syrian regime´s recent decline in fortunes has seemingly
accelerated this process. With the sectarian fault line clearly
drawn, reports are emerging of internal population migration as
Alawites begin moving back to the ancestral mountains -- echoing the
dynamics seen during the Lebanese civil war. Shortly after the
assassination of the top Syrian security officials, opposition
activists and Western diplomats reported that Assad had relocated to
the coastal city of Latakia. This claim has since been contested, but
Assad´s whereabouts remain uncertain.
Despite the fact that the Syrian regime is a family enterprise, Assad
has sought to present himself throughout the conflict as the sole
legitimate interlocutor with the outside world. Regrettably, the
international community has played along with this conceit. All
diplomatic initiatives to solve the Syrian crisis have stipulated
dialogue with Assad and refrained from calling on him to hand over
However, it has long been apparent that Assad´s bid to control the
entirety of Syrian territory was hitting against demographic and
geographic realities. Contrary to all early assertions regarding his
military, Assad´s forces are little more than a sectarian militia.
This limited manpower has, from the beginning, meant that Assad would
not be able to re-impose his authority on the predominantly Sunni
interior and periphery.
This sectarian geography has determined the regimeís behavior. As he
dug in for a long war, Assad has had to consolidate the Alawites
behind him and fortify his position in the Alawite coastal mountains
overlooking the Mediterranean, in the region roughly between Jisr al-
Shoughour in the north, near the Turkish border, and Tal Kalakh in
the south, near Lebanon.
Assad has moved to secure all natural access points leading to this
Alawite redoubt. In a move somewhat reminiscent of the Lebanese
precedent, he also began to clear hostile Sunni pockets within the
enclave and to create a buffer zone in the plain that separates the
coastal mountains from the interior. This was the calculus behind the
string of mass killings in villages like al-Houla, Taldou, al-Haffeh,
and Tremseh -- all Sunni population centers either inside or on the
eastern frontier of the Alawite enclave in the central plain.
The common denominator to all these places is their relevance to
Syria´s strategic and sectarian geography. The areas near Homs and al-
Haffeh, for instance, are historical access routes into the coastal
mountains. In addition, villages like Taldou and Tremseh mark the
eastern faultline where outlying Alawite villages are sprinkled
uncomfortably near Sunni ones. They also lie strategically on the
north-south axis linking Damascus to Aleppo, and the rebellious
governorates of Homs and Hama to Idlib.
Damascus, however, lies well outside this prospective enclave. In the
capital, the regime does not possess a demographic reservoir of loyal
Alawite communities with which to balance the power relationship with
its rivals. The Syrian regime has responded to this problem by
ringing Damascus with military bases stocked with loyal Alawite
troops to control the main communication routes out of the city. As a
result, French political geographer Fabrice Balanche has written, the
capital has become an "encircled city." Moreover, as recent news
reports have noted, the influx of mostly Sunni refugees into Damascus
from other rebellious districts has further complicated the
demographic equation in the capital.
It is therefore not only conceivable, but also rather likely, that
these geographic and demographic factors will at some point lead
Assad to abandon Damascus and fortify himself in his Alawite
stronghold. As occurred in Lebanon, this could lead to a prolonged
static war, where the support of external patrons -- namely Iran and
Russia -- becomes increasingly critical to Assad.
Some will argue that an Alawite enclave is unviable in the long-term,
but Assad has an insurance policy to protect his retreat. As the
Assad regime just reminded the world, it possesses a large stockpile
of chemical weapons. While most observers are worried about Assad
passing these weapons along to third-party actors like Hezbollah, he
is more likely to hold on tightly to them. These weapons are his last
remaining and most formidable deterrent against his Sunni foes, and
precious leverage to guarantee the quiescence of the outside world.
With this insurance policy, Assad could hang on as a warlord
presiding over an Iranian and Russian protectorate on the
Mediterranean. The past several weeks have dealt Assad a serious
blow, but this is not yet the end of the Syrian conflict. It is
rather the beginning of a new phase, the endgame of which is not in
Damascus, but further west.
Return to Top
MATERIAL REPRODUCED FOR EDUCATIONAL PURPOSES ONLY