The threat of ethnic cleansing in Syria

Joshua Landis writes: The likelihood of ethnic cleansing in the coastal regions is high. It will rise even higher should Assad’s troops begin to lose. The Sunni populations of the coastal cities will be the first to be targeted by Assad’s military, if it is pushed out of Damascus. Should the Alawites be compelled to fall back to the predominantly Alawite region of the mountains stretching along the western seaboard of Syria, the Sunnis of the coastal cities and eastern plan will be the first to suffer. Should Sunni militias, which are perched only kilometers from Latakia, penetrate to the city itself, Alawites may turn against the region’s Sunnis fearing that they become a fifth column. There are many precedents for this sort of defensive ethnic cleansing in the region. Zionist forces in Israel, cleared Palestinian villages of their inhabitants in 1948, rather than leave them behind Israeli lines. Armenians were driven out of Eastern Anatolia by Turks and Kurds, who claimed self-defense in their struggle against Russia in WWI. The Greek Orthodox Anatolians were driven out of Anatolia following the defeat of Greek forces which sought to conquer Anatolia in the early 1920s in an effort to resurrect the Byzantine Empire.

The Sunni cities of the Syrian coast — Latakia, Jeble, Banyas, and Tartous — had no Alawite inhabitants in the 1920s, when the French began taking censuses in Syria. Certainly, Alawite, servant girls, day laborers and peddlers may have worked in the cities, but they were alien to them. Sunnis and Alawites did not live together in any Syrian town of over 200 people, according to Jacques Weulersse, the French academic who published the most thorough and reliable study of the Alawites, Le pays des Alaouites, in 1940. Their demographic segregation was profound. The deep mistrust and hostility that separated the two communities was caused largely by religious differences. Alawites see themselves as the truest Muslims, who possess secret knowledge of God. Sunnis view Alawites to be not Muslim at all, and indeed, not even People of the Book. The many prejudices that were suppressed or attenuated during the modern national era have now reemerged and threaten to divide the two populations anew.

During the modern era, Alawites came down out of their maintain villages, migrating to the cities. Today, most of the coastal cities are only half Sunni because of the growth of Alawite neighborhoods and migration. But that population is new. Most is no older than 60 years and much of it is much newer. The same is true for Damascus, where in 1945 only 400 Alawites were recorded to be living in the capital.

Ethnic cleansing may turn against the Alawites, as easily as it may against Sunnis. If Sunni militias win in their struggle against the regime and penetrate into the Alawite Mountains, Alawites will flee before them, rather than be vanquished. This has already been the case in six Alawite villages north of Latakia. When rebel militias entered the towns, the Alawite families hastily grabbed their possession and fled, leaving dinners on the kitchen table. Not a soul was left in them. In all likelihood, they will run to Lebanon, which is no further than an hour’s drive, The border is open.

Western policy planners have gamed out these possibilities, making them reluctant to arm rebel militias for a total victory. Although opposition leaders plead for more and better weapons to bring them a speedy victory, Western leaders have held back. The fear that three million Alawites could flee into Lebanon, destabilizing the country for decades, undoubtedly plays a role in Western reticence. This sort of population transfer could be as disruptive to the region, as was the expulsion of Palestinians in 1948. Just as the Palestinians have not been permitted to return to their ancestral land, neither, in all probability, would the Alawites. [Continue reading…]

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