Faisal Al Yafai writes: Perched on a hilltop in the far west of Syria is the stunning Krak des Chevaliers, the best-preserved Crusader castle in the world. From the 11th century, it served as the base for raids by European Crusaders into Syria – a place from which to launch attacks, and a place that kept the Mediterranean coast safe from the Arab empires that sought to reclaim it.
Could something similar happen in the west of Syria soon? As the uprising enters a decisive phase, another “Plan B” is being discussed – if the Assad regime cannot destroy the rebels outright – that would see Alawites retreat to a stronghold in the mountainous far west, centred on the coastal city of Latakia, where an Alawite state could be created. With the Russian base at Tartus, and with millions stashed away in foreign banks, the Assads theoretically could hold out long enough to build a state.
Could this really happen? It may be happening already. Recent attacks, such as the massacre on July 12 in the village of Tremseh, appeared calculated to push Sunnis in western Syria out of their traditional homes and east, away from potential Alawite strongholds. The theory runs that the Assad regime plans to push fearful Sunnis out of the areas west of Homs and Hama, which both remain Sunni-majority cities.
It is certainly the case that once President Bashar Al Assad falls, there will be reprisal attacks against Alawites, who make up a minority in an offshoot of Shia Islam, whereas Syria is a Sunni-majority country.
Syria is not fiercely sectarian, but whatever rebel leaders say now, it is all but certain that members of the shabbiha – the regime thugs who have carried out some of the worst massacres and rapes, and who are overwhelmingly Alawite – will be hunted down. In the face of that reality, and after Alawite domination of a Sunni country for four decades, it is natural for many Alawites to fear for their safety after the Assads fall.
And yet there are strong reasons to believe such an Alawite state would not be welcomed by ordinary Alawites, and would not succeed in any event.
The Assad regime, although composed mainly of Alawites, is not about one sect – it is about one family. Many Alawites have remained poor, even though they have received preferential treatment in the armed forces. If they could be persuaded that a Sunni-led Damascus would not threaten them, they would be unlikely to side with this brutal regime that, once secure in its own state in the west, would certainly continue its systematic repression. [Continue reading…]