Toward an Alawite State in Syria?

Ali Hussein Bakeer – USAK Center for Middle Eastern and African Studies -Wednesday, 10 October 2012

Increasingly, analyzers speculate that Assad may draw his forces back to the regions where the Alawite population is concentrated and where he intends to establish an Alawite state. The regime is also indicating that it might orient itself toward such an option.  

The fact that the Syrian regime continues to sustain heavy losses and utilizes its air force to completely destroy cities in order to prevent the advance of the Free Syrian Army indicates that the Syrian regime is losing the battle in Syria. To quote the Syrian Prime Minister who defected from the Assad regime: “The regime is financially bankrupt, economically and morally disbanded.” If it were not for Russia and Iran’s open support for the Syrian regime, we would not be discussing an Assad regime in Syria today. In light of these indicators, given that Assad’s current situation will persist and the capital Damascus will be lost, analyzers increasingly speculate that Assad may draw his forces back to the regions where the Alawite population is concentrated where he intends to establish an Alawite state. The regime is also indicating that it might orient itself toward such an option.

The Syrian regime is conducting ethnic cleansing based on sectarian affiliation in certain regions, for example along the inner borders of the supposed Alawite state, thus aiming to trigger a sectarian war. This may seemingly cause every sect to be drawn into further isolation in their respective regions, and such a situation may assist in establishing sect-based groups or entities.  

Many newspapers and international media outlets have reported on how Assad may turn to such an option if he cannot wholly suppress the revolution. While some experts express that this is only “one of the possible scenarios,” others regard this situation as the inevitable outcome. It is necessary to indicate that the efforts to build an Alawite state in Syria will no doubt be supported by certain groups who would have certain interests in the establishment of such a state. Among states and groups that would see an interest in the establishment of an Alawite entity would no doubt be Israel, Iran, Russia and Hezbollah based in Lebanon. Furthermore, it could even be said that these countries and groups have the necessary cause and means to provide support in order to ensure the realization of this possibility. Nevertheless, it is not easy or simple for Syria to be partitioned, for there to be an Alawite state and afterward a Kurdish state to be established.  

Demographic Distribution

Contrary to popular knowledge, mountainous regions such as Latakia and Tartus are not entirely made up of Alawites. There are significant Sunni populations in coastal cities such as Latakia. The Sunni population of Latakia is around 70% in certain regions and over 50% of the city as a whole.

In the city of Tartus, Sunnis comprise around 45% of the population. The rural population is particularly curious with its mixed demographic structure. Some villages are predominantly Sunni while others are predominantly Shia or Alawite. In such a situation, without annihilating the existing Sunni population, building an Alawite state in these regions seems impossible. In fact, despite the mass Sunni migration and massacres, these acts committed with the purpose of drawing the inner geographical borders of the Alawite state have failed.  

The Assad regime has from the very beginning strived to have control over all of Syria instead of concentrating on a small region or a few villages and towns. Therefore focusing on only the Alawite regions and investing in development only in these regions could help shatter this big illusion regarding where the regime is able to hold. The Assad regime chose instead to open its security and military institutions to members of the Alawite sect. These Alawite people were installed throughout the state institutions and apparatus, and as a result the Alawite presence spread through all of Syria. Consequently, the regions upon which the supposed Alawite state might be established are not endowed with any sort of natural resources or other developed economic and industrial advantages. The only real asset that the region has is the Tartus Port, which provides a point of access to the high seas. However, if the regime does intend to establish an Alawite state, this asset can also function as an obstacle to such an initiative.  

Security Risks

 Establishing an Alawite state means that the rest of Syria will have no access to the open seas. When we consider the strategic importance of access to the open seas for any landlocked state, it becomes apparent that the rest of Syria will show additional effort to prevent such a state from being established.

Although these regions are mountainous, they are not particularly advantageous to defend. Furthermore, the fact that the Alawites within the Shabiha and the Syrian Armed Forces are living in these regions also does not render the region any stronger. This is because these people will only have a presence for a short while. The Free Syrian Army soldiers will not be satisfied after Damascus falls and will probably advance on Assad and his supporters who will take to the mountains. In fact, it is highly unlikely that the forces that have captured all of Syria will suddenly come to a halt along the borders of a supposed Alawite state.  

International Conjuncture

The finding of a new state would no doubt render necessary the support of the international community and certain globally and regionally powerful actors. Although the Arab public opinion assumes that the West and Israel always have an interest in an Arab state being dismantled, up to now there has been no support for an Alawite state from the West. Therefore the likelihood of there being an Alawite state that is ostracized by the international community and established only through the support of Russia and Iran seems unlikely. Furthermore, creating such a precedent could spark further debates within Syria for Syrian Kurds and even other regional neighbors outside Syria with regard to establishing similar states themselves. As a result, on a regional level there would be strong opposition to creating such an Alawite state.  

The Free Syrian Army has witnessed certain minority groups’ attempts to establish their own autonomous government in regions where the Free Syrian Army could not have a presence. Therefore it felt it was necessary to stress that it operated in every corner of Syria. It subsequently opened two military councils in Latakia and Haseke trying to control and suppress separatist and pro-regime entities.  

In conclusion, in light of the current data it should be expressed that it is not easy, as some seem to allege it is, to establish an Alawite state. Our view is that these activities of the Assad regime will come at a high cost, resulting only in the overthrow of the regime.  

*Original Turkish version of the piece was published in Analist Journal on October 2012.