Throughout the second half of 1944 and first months of 1945, the Western Allies were convinced that Nazi Germany, after the fall of Berlin, planned to hold out in the Austrian and Bavarian Alps and continue the war effort from a formidable Alpenfestung in the mountains.
In reality, there was hardly ever a serious plan for a national redoubt. The rumors were successfully fueled by the German propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels who fooled even Dwight Eisenhower. It convinced the general to pursue a broad front strategy rather than advance on a narrow front toward the German capital.
Keeping Goebbels’ deception in mind as a cautionary tale, analysts of the present turmoil in Syria are speculating that President Bashar al-Assad and his loyalists might retreat to the Alawite heartland in the northwest of the country and persevere in the face of an increasingly violent uprising that has reached the capital Damascus. The possibility of Assad surrendering, even if the capital is taken by rebels, seems slim.
Michael Sharnoff, a senior analyst for Wikistrat, writes at the geostrategic consultancy’s blog that however successful the rebels may be in overthrowing Assad, “they probably cannot liquidate Syria’s entire ruling elite, government structure and security apparatus. It’s simply too deeply entrenched and expansive.”
John Allen Gay agreed in last month’s The National Interest where he warned that “the Assad regime is unlikely to vanish the moment Damascus falls.”
Instead, it will withdraw its forces and as many of its heavy weapons as possible to the Christian and Alawite homelands west of Hama and Homs. These homelands, centered on the cities of Tartus in the south and Latakia in the north, are a natural fortress separated from the rest of Syria by the rough terrain of the Jabal an-Nusayriyah range, which forms a barrier 3- to 4,000 feet high backed by a labyrinth of ridges and valleys.
Even if the rebels are successful in unifying Syria, writes Gay, “their reward would be continuing urban combat and holding operations against Assad’s last ‘dead enders,’ all amid an unfriendly population that sees them as conquerors, not liberators.” As the uprising in Syria has morphed into a sectarian war that pits majority Sunnis against minority sympathizers of the Ba’athist regime, Alawites, who comprise some 12 percent of the population, will likely fear retribution under the new order.
Well into the twentieth century, Alawites were treated as second-class citizens in what is now Syria. Sunnis generally thought of them as bandits. That changed when the Ottoman Empire collapsed and the French took over administration in the territory.
Joshua Landis, director of the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma, explained on NPR in June that “the reason that Alawites have come to power in Syria is quite simply because of the French occupation between the First and Second World War.”
The French faced an Islamic insurgency, a nationalist insurgency in Syria. The Sunni urban notables led an uprising. And in order to put them down, the French built a local army and they recruited minorities, largely. And the Alawites were heavily recruited into this army.
Although religious minority support for Assad should not be overstated — there are Alawites and Kurds among the opposition — a breakup of Syria along sectarian lines is quite probable in the near future.
Fabrice Balanche, director of the research group on the Mediterranean and the Middle East at the University of Lyons, told the French newspaper Le Figaro than an Alawite rump state on the Mediterranean coast would have everything it needs to prosper: fertile farm land, an oil terminal at Baniyas, the Russian naval facility at Tartus. “Assad could continue to count on support from Iran and the Russian navy would retain is docking rights at Tartus,” he said. Adds Frank Jacobs in The New York Times, “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.”
Writing for The National, Faisal Al Yafai is skeptical. “The Assad regime, although composed mainly of Alawites, is not about one sect,” he suggests, “it is about one family.” Even if they receive preferential treatment in the military, many Alawites remain poor.
What would make ordinary Alawites think that in a new state, where they would be completely reliant on the Assads’ protection, the family would be more willing to share the spoils?
Yafai believes that if an interim government post Assad “can persuade ordinary Alawites that their future is secure, it will be clear most of them do not want an Assad state in the mountains. They do not want an Assad state at all.”
Even if that’s true, the decision may not be ordinary Alawites’ to take. Rather it depends on regime insiders and loyalists in the armed forces if there is to be an Alawite stronghold as well as rebel leaders’ willingness to press on after seventeen months of uprising if Assad gives up most of his country in exchange for a coastal safe haven.
Unlike was the case with the German Alpenfestung, Alawite secession from Syria proper isn’t wistful thinking. The modern Syrian state is an artificial construct that has only been stable under dictatorship. If that dictatorship collapses, it is difficult to imagine the Sunni majority in the country accepting to the sort of power-sharing agreement that will be necessary to reassure Alawites, Christians, Druze and Kurds that their rights will be respected. Indeed, given the radicalization of the Syrian opposition movement after seventeen months of fighting, it is increasingly difficult to believe that whatever faction takes power in Damascus once Assad is deposed will even be secular.