The Alawites, Ethnic Cleansing, and Syria's Future

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

For the time being, Assad’s most immediate concern appears to be maintaining control over the “north-south highway” linking Damascus, Homs, Hama and Aleppo. Holding on to this corridor, and clearing out resistance or pushing it further east, is crucial to the fortification and safeguarding of the future state that he seems to be envisaging. It is not per chance that the most important battles raging in Syria today have been occurring along this corridor—for all intents and purposes, the eastern flank of the Alawite State.

Even if Damascus should fall to the rebels—keeping in mind that Damascus remains ultimately a prize of primarily symbolic, not strategic, importance—the Damascus-Aleppo highway would remain the more important rampart of the Alawite sanctuary and, perhaps equally importantly, its passageway to the Shiite areas of eastern Lebanon—namely the Bekaa Valley and ultimately the Lebanese port-city of Tripoli. That was the whole idea behind the battle for Qusayr this past summer, and Hezbollah’s involvement in that fight alongside Assad’s forces. Now, whether Assad overtly declares an Alawite canton or keeps feigning a desire for a whole, unified Syria, the battles around the aforementioned corridors and the maintenance of this side of Syria under Assad’s control are of crucial importance because: 1) keeping these regions will mean that Assad and his community have survived the Sunni onslaught, and 2) this prospective, armored, Russian- and Iranian-supported rump state will eventually become an important bargaining chip for Assad and his community should a peaceful negotiation for an end-of-conflict (and a return to a unitary Syria) become an eventuality.

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.]