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.

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.]

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.