The Alawites, Ethnic Cleansing, and Syria's Future

It's more than just a civil war. Why is Assad doing it?

Whatever the outcome of the current Syrian crisis, the sectarian killings that have been raging for the past two and a half years, and which might have reached new paroxysms of savagery in August 2013, all bear the telltale markings of ethnic cleansing, impending fragmentation, and ultimately the Balkanization of a country formerly known as Syria.

“Ethnic cleansing” is not a phrase to be uttered in vain; its tortured tales are stained with heartbreak and bloodshed, its sad trails spattered with chronicles of dispossession and forced population movements. As a concept, “ethnic cleansing” traces its semantic origins to the Balkans during the early 1990s, but its inglorious history is as old as history itself, its deeds recorded in the sacred writs and annals of nations, its crimes premeditated, designed to eliminate undesired populations with the aim of building ethnically, religiously, or culturally homogenous regions in once mixed or disputed territories. Syria, as a complex of ethno-religious and linguistic mosaics, living a brittle and uneasy peace under the rule of an apprehensive and historically oppressed community, falls within the patterns of deeply divided societies susceptible to ethnic conflagrations. And so, since the early days of the insurgency in early 2011, Syria’s troubles were pointing in the direction of an impending sectarian boiling point. And Assad, a child of the catacombs, an accursed minoritarian, an Alawite upstart whose family made good and bequeathed him the throne of the Sunni’s overlord, was not about to throw it all away and deliver a redeemed community back to its oppressors. Some Pollyanna in 2011 might have thought it opportune to ride the winds of an ill-conceived “Arab Spring”, doodling some rosy freedom slogan on a wall in Daraa. But Assad’s appetite was not for self-immolation so as to feed the flame of someone else’s freedom. Safeguarding one’s own trumps all other virtues in the creed of persecuted Levantine minorities, Alawites included, and Assad was not about to betray that sacred writ. Indeed, he has yet to have a “bad day” as he continues to prosecute this fight for self-preservation, and as he forges on, coming ever closer to carving out an Alawite heartland. But that “bad day” came and went, with Obama’s posturing and abrupt retreat, and Assad triumphed yet again. Today, with the regional and international response to his brutality as incoherent as ever, Assad remains the winner of this conflict, and he endures, more determined, consolidating an eventual rump state.

The opposition to Assad remains a motley assortment of Islamists, with some reformers and liberals interspersed in-between, most of whom loathe each other, perhaps more than they hate Assad himself. What’s more, Assad’s military remains largely loyal and determined, his popular base remains intact and committed, and American policy—or lack thereof—remains his greatest ally, and so he remains firmly ensconced at the helm. Like his father Hafez before him, Bashar al-Assad is a skilled strategist and a patient master of time; he is wily, deliberate, coolheaded, and coldblooded; a crafty murderer and a seasoned statesman at once, qualities that a flamboyant hothead like Muammar Qaddafi, a kleptocratic oligarch like Zine al Abidine Ben-Ali, and a fossilized military veteran like Hosni Mubarak all lacked. And so it is unlikely that Assad’s fate will come anywhere near Qaddafi’s, Ben-Ali’s, or Mubarak’s—although predictions are the praxis of the foolhardy in the Eastern Mediterranean.

A medical doctor by training, Bashar al-Assad has a cruel and criminal mind with a tender, dorky patina and an endearing speech impediment. But it is a grave mistake to dismiss him as dim-witted, delusional, or an unwilling figurehead; nor is he a thug or run-of-the-mill despot lashing out arbitrarily and in despair. The fact that he has lasted this long, fending off legions of international jihadis and bottomless supplies of Saudi and Qatari petrodollars streaming into Syria, all speak to the possibility that Assad may be doing something right. What Assad began claiming in early 2011, about battling foreign Islamists, has become a reality. Even if this had not been the case then, today Assad is clearly fighting a sinister and determined coalition of vicious Islamists and triumphalist divine warriors.

Assad’s use of chemical weapons, and the reluctance and incoherence met in the world’s (especially America’s) response, clearly fit into his calculus and his adept reading of American policy. In fact, not only is Assad comfortable with Obama’s inaction—and lately, Obama’s decision to outsource America’s dealing with the Syrian crisis to Russia—but Washington’s (non)policy is an important component of Assad’s survival, and possibly his eventual triumph. The more mixed signals Assad continues to receive, the more emboldened he will become to finish the job.

In the end, partition, anathema as it may be to those still emotionally attached to the Sykes-Picot order, may end up being the more humane solution to the Syrian crisis. An undefeated Assad ruling over the entirety of Syria will likely be more vicious than the current chemical Assad. Conversely, a united (or even a fragmented) Syria under the bevies of jihadiscurrently roaming its landscape is a nightmare of apocalyptic ramifications; a horrifying prospect not only to Alawites, but also to moderate Sunnis, liberals, and minorities who are not particularly enthralled with the idea of an Islamist Syria. Jihadisare also a bane to Syria’s neighbors, diverse countries whose societies are as fragmented, disparate, and variegated as Syria’s.

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