Another issue of crucial importance in this calculus is not only the future of Syria alone, but the fact that Syria’s reconfiguration into sectarian mini-states will have an effect on the remainder of the Levantine mosaic. For, even if the rebels do not defeat Assad, they are likely to remain in their areas of influence—more or less as demarcated by the current front lines—preventing a reversion to a Syrian status quo ante. Furthermore, the Alawites and other Syrian minorities, having remained largely in Assad’s camp, have no place in any configuration of a future unitary Syria. This is an eventuality that Assad père had foreseen and began planning for in the early 1980s, after the Hama massacre.
One must not lose sight of the fact that, historically speaking, and contrary to prevalent belief, the Alawites wanted no part of the “Unitary Syria” that emerged out of Franco-British bickering in the Levant of the interwar period. Indeed, when the French inherited the Ottoman Vilayets (governorates) of Beirut, Damascus, Aleppo, and Alexandretta in 1918, they opted to turn them into six autonomous entities reflecting previous Ottoman administrative realities. Ergo, in 1920, those entities became the State of Greater Lebanon (which in 1926 gave birth to the Republic of Lebanon), the State of Damascus, the State of Aleppo, the State of the Druze Mountain, the State of the Alawite Mountain (corresponding roughly to what the Alawites are reconstituting today), and the Sanjak of Alexandretta (ceded to Turkey in 1938 to become the Province of Hatay.)
But when Arab nationalists began pressuring the British on the question of “Arab unity,” urging them to make good on pledges made to the Sharif of Mecca during the Great War, the Alawites demured. In fact, Bashar al-Assad’s own grandfather, Ali Sulayman al-Assad, was among leading Alawite notables who, until 1944, continued to lobby French Mandatory authorities to resist British and Arab designs aimed at stitching together the States of Aleppo, Damascus, Druze, and Alawite Mountains into a new republic to be christened Syria. Dismayed by the prospects of the Alawite State ending up as an addendum to a future Syrian entity, the elder Assad held repeated meetings with French diplomats and intellectuals, and dispatched a stream of memos to the Quai d’Orsay demanding that the State of the Alawite Mountain—given legal recognition in 1920—be attached to the Republic of Lebanon, rather than any future Syrian federation. In one such memo addressed to French PM Léon Bluhm, Ali Sulayman al-Assad argued that any future united Arab Syrian entity would put in place a regime dominated by fanaticism and intolerance toward non-Arab and non-Muslim minorities. He stressed that “the spirit of hatred and fanaticism imbedded in the hearts of the Arab Muslims against everything that is non-Muslim has been perpetually nurtured by the Islamic religion. There is no hope that the situation will ever change. Therefore, the abolition of the Mandate will expose the minorities in Syria to the dangers of death and annihilation.” A united Syria, concluded Assad’s 1936 memo,
will only mean the enslavement of the Alawite people; [the French] may think that it is possible to ensure the rights of the Alawites and the minorities by treaty. We assure you that treaties have no value in relation to the Islamic mentality in Syria. […] The Alawi people appeal to the French government […] and request […] a guarantee of their freedom and independence within their small territory,” [in the confines of the Alawite Mountain.]
Echoes of this can be felt in Bashar al-Assad’s conduct today. Memories run deep in the Middle East, especially among persecuted minorities. The Assads remain haunted by the trauma and deprivation that have checkered their history. A mere generation ago, their daughters in a Syria dominated by Sunni Arabs were being sold into servitude, to suffer a lifetime of toils in the households of urban Sunni notables. This is not a past that the Alawites want restituted in a future Sunni-dominated Syria. And if it means breaking Syria in order to avoid such subjugation, then this is a small price to pay for Alawite dignity and security.