The Alawites, Ethnic Cleansing, and Syria's Future

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

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.

For nearly half a century, Syria’s Alawites have dodged persecution and humiliation, and they have safeguarded communal sanity and identity by dominating Syria. They did so by co-opting power centers and ruling a unitary state under the guise of Arab nationalism, an ideology that they flaunted with ostentation and bombast, even though they might not have been true believers. Today the lip-service that they paid to this failed ideology, and the image that they built for themselves as committed Arab nationalists, are coming undone. Ghosts of Sulayman al-Assad are coming back to life. And so, retreating to a fortified Alawite state may be the only option left in Bashar al-Assad’s bag of tricks. Anything less is tantamount to communal suicide. Anything feigning reconciliation, or power-sharing, or repackaging and brandishing once more vain Arabist credentials, will be lost on Assad’s foes. The Arab nationalist train, with its redeemed Alawite community, has already left the station, and a return trip does not figure on the schedule.

And so the battles that continue to rage on in Syria, and the cruelties that seem unlikely to abate, will be waged for the purpose of geographic, and demographic rearrangements—ethnic cleansing by another name. At the pinnacle of their power, the dynasts of the house of Assad had encouraged Alawite internal migrations to major urban centers such as Damascus and Aleppo. But they also maintained their traditional heartland and its Mediterranean littoral as almost exclusively Alawite—a core territory stretching from Tartus in the south, near the Lebanon border, to the outskirts of Turkey’s Antakya in the north. One might guess that of Assad’s main concerns today, besides the protection and reinforcement of the Alawite canton, would be maintaining safe havens and passageways for an Alawite “diaspora” scattered about the hinterland, laying down the groundwork for an eventual return and a secure “ascent” to the Alawite Mountain.

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). The author owes this essay to a conversation with Al-Jazeera America producer Michael Pizzi.

Image: Wikimedia Commons/Don-kun, TUBS, NordNordWest. CC BY 3.0.

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