A postcard of Alawite musicians from northwestern Syria (1920s).Many Middle East analysts view Syria through one lens: a troubled state in need of regime change. But recent events indicate that a new paradigm is needed—one that accepts that the Alawite drive for communal survival may preclude survival of the present Syrian state.
Quite a few commentators described the Houla massacres of May 2012 as "a turning point" in Syria’s sixteen-month-old uprisings. “This is Syria's Srebrenica” they clamored, evoking the memory of the 1995 slaughter in Bosnia. Some called for sterner international pressures, ranging from the imposition of more debilitating sanctions against the Alawite regime of Bashar al-Assad to further isolating his government to putting boots on the ground to support the armed opposition and create civilian "safe havens." Yet the brutal killings continued, an undaunted Assad went on flouting international denunciations and, save for a litany of jeremiads about the regime's cruelty, precious little has changed on the ground in Syria. If anything, Assad seems to have raised the stakes, in late June downing a Turkish military jet that had presumably breached Syrian airspace. This too, along with news of fresh new massacres in the Damascus neighborhood of Douma, met with international mutism—and, curiously enough, with Turkish resignation.
There was the recent ballyhooed Geneva conference and before it the histrionic expulsions of Syria's diplomatic corps from key Western nations—with the Obama administration, true to form, demurring. But those remained perfunctory, timorous and largely ineffective slaps on the wrist. For beyond the killings, the world's indignation and the Syrian regime's continued recalcitrance, there lurked a method to Assad's madness that very few observers have deigned address: what animates Assad are communal-survival concerns and Alawite group contingencies; that the international community and the Syrian opposition’s oratory about Syria’s unity and national integrity are the least of the regime’s preoccupations; that it might be too late at this point in the game for the Alawites to abdicate their reign and resign themselves to a subservient future in Syria; that many assumptions about the current shape of the Syrian state are broken beyond repair; and that the Alawites would rather dismantle their existing republic and retreat into fortifications in the mountains than share power with a Sunni-Arab majority ill-prepared to grant either democracy or clemency to its erstwhile wardens.
The Syria Construct
Save for analysis published in The National Interest throughout 2011 and early 2012 , with most analysts, diplomats and policy makers invested in Syrian affairs seem beholden to spent paradigms about the country; namely that Syria is somehow a single unitary entity that shall remain so whatever the cost and whatever the outcome of the current uprisings, to be ruled in its entirety by a single dynasty beholden to a unified ideology and political culture. Yet if anything, the events of the past sixteen months—and more recently the Houla and Douma massacres—have demonstrated that the Alawites, not unlike other Syrian communal and ethnic groups, have yet to overcome their regional, sectarian and subnational loyalties for the sake of a uniform "Syrian nation." Historically speaking, there was never anything resembling this vision of a homogeneous Syrian entity, and there is precious little today that would justify this artificial construct remaining intact.
The grisly massacres running riot through the Syrian countryside are not mere sectarian outbursts or bouts of senseless killings and retaliatory counterkillings; they bear the telltale markings of what became known in Yugoslavia of the 1990s as "ethnic cleansing." Like their twentieth-century Balkan precedent, Syria’s massacres of civilian populations are deliberate, controlled and methodical, aimed at removing "from a specific territory, persons of a particular ethnic group . . . in order to render that area ethnically homogenous." The parallels don’t end there. As in the Balkans, geographic Syria—including today’s troubled Syrian Arab Republic—was once part of the Ottoman dominions. It remains at once a crossroads and a rugged mountainous refuge where many linguistic families, multiple ethnic groups, and bevies of religious and sectarian communities—among them Kurds, Turks, Armenians, Arabs, Shias, Sunnis, Greek-Orthodox, Druze, Syriacs, Alawites, Maronites, Jews and others—have for centuries lead an uneasy existence and a tenuous coexistence. The conditions that led to the twentieth-century rending of the Balkan states into multiple ethnic formations may be different from those responsible for Syria’s travails today. But the ingredients are hardly dissimilar: restless ethnic, religious and linguistic mosaics forcibly brought together under the banner of a homogenizing authoritarian pan-national idea.
And so today’s strings of wanton murders, sexual assaults, torture, arbitrary detentions, targeted bombings and destruction of neighborhoods—and what they entail in terms of displacements, deportations and population movements—are nothing if not the groundwork of a future Alawite entity; the grafting of new facts on the ground and the drafting of new frontiers. No longer able to rule in the name of Arab unity (and in the process preserve their own ethnic and sectarian autonomy), the Alawites may retreat into the Levantine highlands overlooking the Mediterranean. The area in question is a sanctuary that the Alawites called home for centuries and which the French helped them create and protect as an autonomous “ethnic state” during the first half of the twentieth century.
By no means will the population of this new Alawite state be homogeneous, but its Alawite element will be an overwhelming majority that is well prepared to stand up and be counted. What’s more, the largely Christian coastal regions of Tartous and Latakia have remained “neutral” throughout the uprisings—and have in effect signaled (even if tacitly) their acquiescence in an Alawite-dominated state. Furthermore, the buffer zones of Masyaf and Cadmus to the east are home to a large Ismaili community, which has thus far remained loyal to the Alawites. Heading northeast, beyond the Turko-Syrian border town of Idlib, the Syrian branch of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) seems to have already begun establishing the foundations of autonomous rule, with Alawite blessings and encouragement. Though its industrial resources are quite limited, this projected Alawite region benefits from a well-developed infrastructure, rich arable highlands, fertile coastal plains, abundant water sources, Syria’s only deep-water harbors—Tartous and Latakia—and an international airport that would make an emerging state self-sufficient and supremely defensible.
When it comes to Syria, the earth is flat no more—and its current shape makes no sense to an empowered group unwilling to return to servility. It is high time prevalent images of Syria and its future—as a cultural and ethnic monolith—moved away from this cognitive dissonance. This is not a prescription. It is a gentle reminder that a model for the future can be found in Syria’s Ottoman and French-Mandatory past, and that a single, unitary Syria locked up in its current map is neither sacrosanct nor a law of nature. It is a historical anomaly that arose in 1936—a date prior to which, politically and geographically speaking, Syria as we know it today did not exist. Given these realities, diplomats and those invested in Syria and its people’s well-being should explore all possible solutions to the current crisis—not only those dictated by dominant paradigms and comforting ideological predilections.
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).