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.
Franck Salameh is an assistant professor of Near Eastern Studies, Arabic and Hebrew at Boston College and the author of Language Memory and Identity in the Middle East: The Case for Lebanon (Lexington Books, 2010).