The grisly massacres running riot through the Syrian countryside are not mere sectarian outbursts or bouts of senseless killings and retaliatory counterkillings; they bear the telltale markings of what became known in Yugoslavia of the 1990s as "ethnic cleansing." Like their twentieth-century Balkan precedent, Syria’s massacres of civilian populations are deliberate, controlled and methodical, aimed at removing "from a specific territory, persons of a particular ethnic group . . . in order to render that area ethnically homogenous." The parallels don’t end there. As in the Balkans, geographic Syria—including today’s troubled Syrian Arab Republic—was once part of the Ottoman dominions. It remains at once a crossroads and a rugged mountainous refuge where many linguistic families, multiple ethnic groups, and bevies of religious and sectarian communities—among them Kurds, Turks, Armenians, Arabs, Shias, Sunnis, Greek-Orthodox, Druze, Syriacs, Alawites, Maronites, Jews and others—have for centuries lead an uneasy existence and a tenuous coexistence. The conditions that led to the twentieth-century rending of the Balkan states into multiple ethnic formations may be different from those responsible for Syria’s travails today. But the ingredients are hardly dissimilar: restless ethnic, religious and linguistic mosaics forcibly brought together under the banner of a homogenizing authoritarian pan-national idea.
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. The area in question is a sanctuary that the Alawites called home for centuries and which the French helped them create and protect as an autonomous “ethnic state” during the first half of the twentieth century.
By no means will the population of this new Alawite state be homogeneous, but its Alawite element will be an overwhelming majority that is well prepared to stand up and be counted. What’s more, the largely Christian coastal regions of Tartous and Latakia have remained “neutral” throughout the uprisings—and have in effect signaled (even if tacitly) their acquiescence in an Alawite-dominated state. Furthermore, the buffer zones of Masyaf and Cadmus to the east are home to a large Ismaili community, which has thus far remained loyal to the Alawites. Heading northeast, beyond the Turko-Syrian border town of Idlib, the Syrian branch of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) seems to have already begun establishing the foundations of autonomous rule, with Alawite blessings and encouragement. 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.
When it comes to Syria, the earth is flat no more—and its current shape makes no sense to an empowered group unwilling to return to servility. It is high time prevalent images of Syria and its future—as a cultural and ethnic monolith—moved away from this cognitive dissonance. This is not a prescription. It is a gentle reminder that a model for the future can be found in Syria’s Ottoman and French-Mandatory past, and that a single, unitary Syria locked up in its current map is neither sacrosanct nor a law of nature. It is a historical anomaly that arose in 1936—a date prior to which, politically and geographically speaking, Syria as we know it today did not exist. Given these realities, diplomats and those invested in Syria and its people’s well-being should explore all possible solutions to the current crisis—not only those dictated by dominant paradigms and comforting ideological predilections.