A Syrian Stalemate? By Frank Jacobs

it would not be the first time the Alawite homeland was endowed with its own borders. After World War I, now almost a century ago, France ran the show in part of the previously Ottoman-controlled Levant [7].

Even when defeat seems imminent, the losing side in chess has the option – or at least the hope – of forcing a draw. We don’t know whether Bashar al-Assad is an aficionado of the game of kings [1], but some sources say the Syrian dictator has an endgame in mind that would finish the fighting in his country without clear winners or losers: the Alawite Stalemate.

The Assad family, which has ruled Syria since Bashar’s father, Hafez, took power in the so-called Corrective Revolution of 1970, issues from the Alawite minority, which represents about 12 percent of Syria’s 22.5 million inhabitants. Members of that formerly disadvantaged Shiite sect have benefited greatly from the Assad regime’s hold on power, occupying crucial positions in Syria’s army [2], economy and politics.

The Alawite dominance of Syria’s now-crumbling government is such that the rebellion against it, recently reclassified as a civil war [3], could just as easily be labeled a sectarian conflict, pitching the country’s Sunni majority against the Alawites. And perhaps also against other national minorities [4], equally uneasy about the prospect of a new government energized by a more fundamentalist, orthodox version of Islam than has been allowed in Syria [5].

The sectarian angle should not be overstated – plenty of Alawites and other minorities are taking up arms against Assad, who ostensibly still commands the loyalty of a considerable number of Sunni Syrians. But it could explain at least some of the bloodbaths as ethnic cleansing in the worst traditions of 1990s Yugoslavia. Some of the massacres are said to involve the so-called Shabiha (literally “Ghosts”), an Alawite militia with its roots in Mafia-like crime syndicates in the Alawi homeland.

In an interview with Le Figaro, Fabrice Balanche, director of the research group on the Mediterranean and the Middle East at the University of Lyons II [6], said that the Assad regime has a worst-case plan, years in the making, for just such a conflict: The “defection of Sunni officers, marginalized and frustrated, could finally force the regime to focus on its Alawite core … The Alawite minority can defend a redoubt along the coast, where it is in the majority. The Alawite-dominated army would then be defending its own territory, not merely a corrupt regime.”

If Assad should indeed pull back to the coast, it would not be the first time the Alawite homeland was endowed with its own borders. After World War I, now almost a century ago, France ran the show in part of the previously Ottoman-controlled Levant [7]. The French took the opportunity to extend the existing Christian protectorate of Mount Lebanon to that country’s present borders – thus severing it from Syria proper [8]. They also chopped up the rest of their mandate area into five distinct proto-states, also largely along sectarian and/or ethnic lines: Damascus, Aleppo, the Sanjak of Alexandretta [9], the Jabal Druse and the Alawite State. France’s ambition to divide and rule backfired: rather than accept their separation, these diverse groups were united in their hatred of and resistance to the French.

Joe Burgess/The New York Times

The Alawite State encompassed those areas of Syria where the Alawites were a majority: Syria’s coastal strip, reaching inland to the Alawi Mountains [10]. The relatively inaccessible mountain range was a convenient refuge for heterodox sects – not just the Alawite, but also the Assassins [11] before them. The parallel with Lebanon is obvious – and if the Alawites had been as keen on independence as Lebanon’s Christians, an independent Alawia might have been carved out of the Syrian coast quite a few decades ago.

But could a modern Alawite state be viable as a refuge for the elite of Syria’s current government and their co-religionists? Bien sûr, according to Mr. Balanche: the farming is good, there’s an airport at Latakia, a naval base at Tartus and an oil terminal at Baniyas. Several strategically located military bases could contribute to the state’s defense. “Assad could continue to count on support from Iran, and the Russian Navy would retain is docking rights at Tartus.” No doubt Israel wouldn’t mind either that its powerful, less-than-friendly neighbor would end up balkanized into a handful of identity-based statelets.

An Alawi state, either in a resurrection of its 1920s French borders, or based on the present distribution of Alawis, could become another Lebanon, which – depending on the snapshot you’re looking at – was once known as a Middle-Eastern extension of the French Riviera, or, during its decades-long civil war, as the earthly embassy of hell.

Some observers think the question is moot. Collapsing governments tend to have neither the time nor the presence of mind to entrench themselves according to plan. Often, blueprints for national redoubts are nothing more than safety blankets. Nazi Germany’s “Alpenfestung” [12] was a myth, meant as much to provide illusory comfort for the dying regime itself as to deceive the enemy.

Joe Burgess/The New York Times

Also, in spite of the Sarajevo-style resurgence of religious identity after decades of enforced secularism during the 20th century, it may be that Alawism is no longer as crucial to the communal identity. Although officially a Shiite sect, with reputed syncretist elements borrowed from Christianity and other confessions, persecution by mainstream Islam as heretical has made Alawis wary of declaring their innermost beliefs. Ironically, decades of dominance may have further weakened the communal identity; Assad père et fils have always striven to narrow the perceived difference between Alawism and mainstream Islam as a way of legitimizing their regime. This enforced “Sunnification” may have effectively erased much of the theological differences with other Syrians.

Perhaps the Alawi-Sunni divide does matter less than Assad’s endgame requires. If that is so, then maybe Mr. Assad really doesn’t have any pieces left to play on his side of the chessboard, and the Alawi State is his Alpenfestung.

If cornered, Assad might consider requesting asylum in Kalmykkia [13], the home republic of Kirsan Ilyumzhinov, the Russian envoy who visited him in the beginning of May. As controversial as he is flamboyant, Ilyumzhinov is the president of the World Chess Federation. Maybe he can teach the Syrian president a thing or two about endgames.

Frank Jacobs is a London-based author and blogger. He writes about cartography, but only the interesting bits.

[1] So called because crowned heads reportedly loved to play it, but surely also because of the central role of the king in the game: “checkmate” derives from “shah mat,” Persian for “the king is ambushed” (and not, as often mistranslated, “the king is dead”).

[2] The Syrian Air Force is an especially strong, traditional Alawite stronghold; Hafez al-Assad was its commander before the 1970 coup.

[3] On July 15, the Red Cross announced that it officially considered Syria’s internal conflict a civil war, based on the spread of intense fighting from relatively few isolated areas, mainly around the cities Homs, Hama and Idlib, to other areas, including the capital, Damascus.

[4] About 10 percent of Syrians are Christian, about 3 percent are Druse. The mainstream Sunni Muslims account for about 75 percent of the population, but they also include well over 10 percent of non-Arabs, mainly Kurds, Turcomans and Circassians.

[5] In 1982, the Assad government put down a rebellion initiated by the Muslim Brotherhood and centered on the Sunni-majority city of Hama. The resulting massacre by some accounts cost up to 20,000 lives, mainly innocent bystanders. This was the largest bloodbath inflicted by an Arab government on its own citizens in modern times.

[6] “Syrie: ‘Un mini-État alaouite, l’ultime recours pour Assad,'” Le Figaro, July 19, 2012.

[7] France and Britain divided the Middle East among themselves with the Sykes-Picot Agreement, discussed earlier on this blog here.

[8] “Greater Lebanon” won the local Christians territory, but lost them their majority. Lebanon eventually gained its independence from France in 1943. Lingering irredentism helps explain the tenacity with which Syria immersed itself in Lebanese politics, occupying parts of the country for three decades before its withdrawal in 2005.

[9] The Sanjak gained independence as the Republic of Hatay for 10 months between 1938 and 1939, after which it voted to join Turkey. Hatay is also known as an exotic (if highly fictionalized) setting in “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.”

[10] The mountains are also called the Nusayriyah Mountains, after another name for the sect.

[11] A Shiite sect that gave us the word for “hired killer,” as this was one of their main occupations.

[12] Another example, in the same general area but better prepared (although ultimately equally untested) was the “Schweizer Réduit.” For more on this Swiss Redoubt, see Strange Maps No. 109.

[13] An autonomous republic on the Russian shore of the Caspian Sea, and the only political entity in Europe where Buddhism is predominant.

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