Will the Syrian 'endgame' stall in an Alawite holdout?
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As rebels advance in the Syrian capital of Damascus, embattled Syrian President Bashar al-Assad could retreat to the area around the coastal city of Latakia, the heartland of his minority Alawite sect. But is this holdout sustainable in the long run?
In the hills overlooking the Syrian coastal city of Latakia lies the village of Qardaha, the Assad family’s ancestral heartland, where former Syrian strongman Hafez al-Assad and his eldest son, Basil, lie buried in the family mausoleum.
It’s here, on the green slopes of the al-Alawiyin mountain range - a stronghold of the minority Shiite Alawite sect - that males from the Assad family expect to find their final resting place.
Assad belongs to the Alawite sect that constitutes about 12 percent of Syria's 22 million-strong population. A predominantly Sunni Muslim country, Syria has been ruled by the Assad family for more than four decades - a period that has seen Alawites dominate the political and military establishments. Their rise has fuelled resentments among the Sunni community and sparked fears that Syria could spiral into a brutally sectarian civil war.
As the international community mulls “the endgame” for embattled Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, experts are considering the regional and global ramifications of what they say is Assad’s inevitable fall from power.
But many Syrians believe that the end, if and when it comes, will centre in or around Latakia.
The narrative of embattled Arab autocrats fleeing to ancestral terrain is a familiar one these days. Iraq’s Saddam Hussein was found in his native Tikrit and Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi was caught in his hometown of Sirte before he was killed by rebel fighters.
On July 18, when the Syrian regime suffered one of its most crippling blows, many Syrians circled back to that familiar narrative as Western diplomats and opposition sources said Assad had “fled to Latakia”.
The attack on the National Security building in the capital of Damascus killed some of the country’s top security officials – including the defence minister and the president’s brother-in-law – and sparked a torrent of rumours and conspiracy theories.
Assad was not publicly seen until the day after the attack, when Syrian state TV reported that he had attended the swearing-in ceremony of the new defence minister. The footage, aired without any audio, showed the Syrian leader looking calm and composed in a blue suit and tie. The report did not say where the ceremony took place.
By the end of the week, Syrian rumour mills had members of the ruling family fleeing or flying to a variety of places within a 60 kilometre radius from Qardaha, including Latakia and the Mediterranean port city of Tartus.
All these places lie in the coastal and mountainous region in north-western Syria that was briefly an Alawite State during the French mandate period before Syrian independence in 1946.
The short-lived Alawite State ultimately crumbled because not even French protection could turn it into a viable entity.
An Alawite coastal strip from Turkey to Lebanon
But that has not stopped the resurgence of the idea of a breakaway Alawite state that could serve as a final Assad holdout.
According to this theory, the Assad clan could try to hold on to the strip of coastal and mountainous land between the northern border with Turkey and the southern Lebanese frontier. The strip includes the thriving city of Tartus, home to a Russian naval base and a likely security bulwark for the Syrian leader.
In a January 2012 interview with the French daily, Le Figaro, Abdel Halim Khaddam, a former Syrian vice president who has lived in Paris since his 2005 defection, said that Assad planned to “create an Alawite state from where he can lead a fratricidal sectarian war.”
Khaddam went on to add that Assad planned to “install himself in Latakia. I am sure there are enough underground shelters where he and his clan could withdraw.”
Days after the July 18 attack, as pundits mulled the Syrian endgame, Fabrice Balanche, a Middle East expert at the University of Lyon told Le Figaro that “everything has been prepared” since the current president’s father, Hafez al-Assad, rose to power to “transform this region into an Alawite holdout – just in case”.
‘Sweeping down from the mountains’
In the 18 months since the uprising began, Syria’s demographic map has been rapidly changing, according to witness accounts.
While official tallies do not exist, there have been reports of thousands of Alawite families relocating to the coast or buying property in cities such as Tartus in anticipation of a shift in fortunes.
Historically, the Alawites, a persecuted sect considered heretical by the Sunni Muslim establishment, tilled the fields in the mountains east of Syria’s northern coast. The wealthy Mediterranean coastal areas were dominated by Sunni merchants and a mix of other religious groups – including Greek Orthodox Christians and Armenians.
The marginalised Alawites’ fortunes turned when Hafez al-Assad, the current Syrian president’s father, came to power in 1971.
That’s when the term “sweeping down from the mountains” came to be employed to describe the migration of newly educated and empowered Alawites to the coastal regions.
But Syria’s social fabric is an intricately woven mosaic of sectarian groups. Even in Latakia province, Sunnis comprise 50 percent of the population. In Latakia city, capital of the province, the Sunni composition rises to 70 percent.
It’s one of the reasons many Syrians such as Abdel Hamid al-Atassi, senior member of the opposition Syrian National Council (SNC), dismisses the notion of a breakaway Alawite mini-state.
“Anyone who believes that Assad could create a state exclusively for Alawites is mistaken and does not know the country,” said al-Atassi. “The idea is unrealistic because the demographic makeup of Latakia and the surrounding region mirrors that of the rest of the country – there are Sunnis, Christians, Alawites, Armenians and a lot of little communities and no one can create an ethnically homogenous state within Syria.”
Little support for the Balkanisation of Syria
The Syrian opposition has been at pains to point out that the anti-Assad uprising is all-inclusive and should not be viewed as an exclusively Sunni Muslim movement.
That may well be true. But the Syrian opposition is also notoriously fractured and while many Alawites may have little sympathy for the ruling Assad family, they overwhelmingly view their security interests tied to the regime.
But while many Alawite families are undoubtedly fleeing to the perceived safety of strongholds such as Latakia and Tartus, a mini-Alawite state would be as untenable as it was more than 70 years ago.
Syria’s neighbours are unlikely to support a Balkanisation of the nation along sectarian lines and according to al-Atassi, most Syrians would not support secessionist splits.
“The madness of Assad could push him to try to create this state and he could even try to defend it,” said al-Atassi. “But it won’t last because no one in Syria would support this scenario. The Syrian people will never accept a partition of their country.”