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The Alawite Independence Option in Syria

12 December 2011

By Yisrael Ne'eman

Call it Alawiyah, the independent Alawite province should Syria collapse as a multi-ethnic yet independent entity. From 1920-36 under the French Mandate in one form or another, their province was semi-independent from the rest of Syria. Eventually it was fully incorporated into the multi-ethnic Syrian State. This historical 16 year period may once again become an option should Bashar Assad and the Alawites be forced from power.

What began as civilian protests nine months ago originating in the neglected southern city of Dera'a has not only spread to most of the country including such large urban centers as Homs and Hama but is resembling a civil war with each passing day. Most opposition is led by factions of the Muslim Brotherhood with certain "up front" public relations personalities pushing a more liberal democratic line. There are defections from the Alawite dominated army by Sunnis but for the most part Syria's military is holding together. The Alawites led by Pres. Bashar Assad and family dominate the political military scene despite making up only 10% of the population, meaning this minority totals some two million plus Syrians. Others claim the numbers to be much smaller. Either way they have dominated Syria for over forty years and are about to be overthrown. The questions are how, when and what are the consequences for the Alawites.

An offshoot of Islam, the Alawites are considered heretics by the Muslim majority in Syria and are most despised by the Muslim Brotherhood and associates. The Alawites alongside the Christian and Druze minorities are the backbone of the Ba'athist Syrian State – an entity about to become undone. Most commentators expect Assad to be toppled within a month or two, but such a victory by the opposition infers mass defections from his military. Some Arab Sunnis, who make up the majority of men under arms, may defect but despite being two-thirds of the population they are not unified. Many lower class Sunnis owe their improved economic status to the Ba'ath and have not forgotten their loyalties. As the protests/civil war gains in intensity and grinds on, the ruling clique will lose their grip on power. But for that to happen Syria's two largest cities, Damascus and Aleppo will need to join the rebellion. Should the regime fall the Alawites and their solidly middle class Christians allies (and possibly the Druze as well), can expect retribution in the form of massacre. Much of the Sunni majority, especially the Muslim Brotherhood types, will seek redress in blood.

Assad and his Alawite community do not have many options. They can fight to the death to hold on to Syria, acquiesce to regime change and pay an extremely heavy price or attempt to secede from the Syrian State. Although not discussed, the last option should not be dismissed. A large military land redeployment in the Alawite mountain region along the Mediterranean coast from Turkey to northern Lebanon will be very difficult to penetrate for either the rebels or an invading army from the outside (Turkish and/or Arab forces?). The regime has naval facilities in the ports of Latakiya, Banyas and Tartus, the latter being the central naval base for Russia's Mediterranean fleet. The air force can be re-concentrated in the newly solidified Alawite province-state leaving the rebels completely vulnerable from the air while protecting the air bases from being overrun on the ground. The downside is that such a territory is about the size of Lebanon and even a bit smaller.

Being that the Alawites and possibly some of their allies who may relocate to avoid the existential threat will only constitute a population of three or so million at best, they will be in need of a patron. Moscow constantly defends the present regime in all international forums against any form of sanctions and will continually use its influence and veto power in the UN to further its alliance with and military interests in Syria. The Russians cannot halt the impending overthrow but they can manage damage control in conjunction with the Alawites and their allies. They also have time to plan – Assad's downfall will take time. For them Syria can be reduced to Alawiyah, a much smaller yet ethnically more cohesive and trustworthy ally. In return Russia will receive full naval and air facilities, solidifying a relationship allowing them to project power throughout the Middle East once again. The Alawites will be fully indebted having been saved from large scale destruction.

Moscow is looking for a way to strike back at the West, particularly the Americans. The recent NATO discussions of missile deployment in Eastern Europe have greatly angered the Russian PM and strongman Vladimir Putin, who this spring will most likely take on the presidential office once again. The West, led by the US and Sec. of State Hilary Clinton are very critical of "irregularities" during the recent parliamentary elections in Russia, criticisms widely seen as helping spark the largest anti-government demonstrations in memory. A Russian response pillared in securing their own interests and doing damage to American/Western needs will not be long in coming. Securing Alawiyah puts NATO on warning that the Kremlin is a serious player in the game and will vigorously guard its interests. It further indicates to the Turks and PM Erdogan that Ankara can forget about a military option in Syria unless everyone wants a major conflagration. Western powers should not delude themselves into thinking that should Putin and the present president, Dmitry Medvedev, be replaced by others that Russian interests will change. Moscow will always seek allies, port facilities and military bases in the Mediterranean similar to any other aspiring international power.

Pursuing such a policy the Russians can put an end to any thought of NATO getting involved by making it clear that Alawiyah is a Russian interest and not only an inter-Arab/Muslim issue. The West has no time, money or support for a clash with Moscow. As we all know NATO and the US are busy withdrawing from Iraq and Afghanistan. For Russia to guarantee its own interests it must have stability in a steadfast ally with a suitable Mediterranean port. Alawiyah answers all three in the affirmative. A Russian – Alawite alliance serves both parties as Moscow projects power and the Alawites survive.

Let's face it, the idea of an independent State of Alawiyah is a bit far fetched, but then so was the thought early last December that Pres. Bin Ali of Tunisia, Qaddafi of Libya and Pres. Mubarak of Egypt would all meet their end during 2011. Who expected Assad's Syria to teeter on the brink and possibly come smashing down? Up until now Moscow was outmaneuvered by everyone – Putin is nobody's fool and is looking for opportunities. It certainly is a stretch but the Alawiyah option may yet be played out despite all of its complexities.