x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 21 February 2018

Alawite state on the coast might be Assad's last resort

Under increasing military pressure from Syria's Sunni-dominated opposition, Bashar Al Assad may yet opt for a de facto statelet along the coast, abetted by regional forces.

In recent decades, we have seen the break-up of European states such as Yugoslavia, Czechoslovakia and the former Soviet Union. This phenomenon is not restricted to Europe. Few would have ventured just over a decade ago that there would be an independent South Sudan or an independent East Timor.

Could we see similar developments happening in the Arab world? As someone who has lived in the Balkans and the Middle East, and served the United Nations in both regions, I would not rule it out.

Looking back at the conflicts of the past three decades, there have been recurring patterns of war triggering or reawakening past identities that we thought were lost in history books. All too often they have assumed new "national" identities through a vortex of violence.

In one sense, this process started in the Middle East a few years ago with the formation of the Kurdistan Regional Government in northern Iraq with a capital, a flag, a national anthem and representative offices overseas. The KRG signs contracts with foreign companies, and most major countries, including the US, UK, France, Germany, Russia and Turkey, have consulates in Erbil.

Ironically, the semi-independence of Kurdistan is further enhanced by a growing relationship with its former arch foe, Turkey. Most of the KRG's imports come from Turkey. Under a planned energy deal, pipelines are to be built for Kurdish oil and gas exports to Turkey, independent of Iraq's national pipeline controlled by the government in Baghdad.

The autonomy of the KRG has been taken a step further as Turkish prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, increasingly sees his future, and that of Turkey, in a radical realignment with Kurdistan, but also with the insurgent Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) led by the still imprisoned Abdullah Ocalan.

As such a process inevitably weakens an already sickly Iraqi state, its neighbour to the west, Syria, savaged by civil war, shows increasing signs of national breakdown. The regime of Bashar Al Assad in Damascus is no longer in control of considerable areas of the country. Like other Arab states,Syria - with its modern national borders -is barely a century old and like the now defunct states of Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia, it was formed after the breakdown of the Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman empires at the end of the First World War.

In advance of the Versailles conference of 1919, France and Britain had already agreed to divide the former Ottoman domains through the Sykes-Picot Agreement, with Paris taking modern-day Lebanon and Syria and London laying claim to Palestine and Iraq. A year after Versailles, the French had created the Territory of the Alawis (Daulat Jabal Al Alawiyyin), with Alawites forming the backbone of the "troupes speciales", or special troops of the Levant, of the imperial power.

Faced with growing nationalist pressure, the French agreed reluctantly in 1925 to the formation of "the State of Syria", which excluded not only modern Lebanon but, strikingly, the Alawite State. Strategically, that state straddled the Mediterranean coast between Lebanon and Turkey and included the ports of Tartous and Latakia.Although the Alawite state was reincorporated into Syria in 1937, the French continued to allow the Alawites, as well as the Druze, considerable autonomy.

I suspect that the historical memory of that state may come to the fore in the circumstances of a disintegrating Syrian state and of an incoherent opposition that will face great difficulties in crafting a successor state to the Baathist regime.

Furthermore, territory now vacated by the regime is effectively ruled by three entities - the Free Syrian Army, the militantly Islamist al-Nusra Front and the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD), an ally of the mainstream PKK.

Since independence in 1946, the Alawites have continued to play a disproportionately large role in the Syrian state, especially in the army. The 40-year rule of the Assad clan has fortified that role. With Syria's civil war well into its third year, the Alawite grip on the state is being corroded. An option increasingly attractive to Alawites might well be independence. But as the Serbs did not give up Yugoslavia without a fight, the Alawites are even less likely to retreat from the Syrian Arab Republic.

But under increasing military pressure from a Sunni-dominated opposition, they may yet opt for a de facto statelet, abetted by other threatened minorities such as Christians and Druze. After all, these minorities have seen what has happened to their Iraqi equivalents in post-Saddam Iraq. Indeed Syria hosted tens of thousands of Iraqi Christian refugees who fled after the US invasion in 2003.

Such an eventuality might also find support among Turkey's Alevi community, which in the circumstances of weak Syrian and Iraqi states seem to be rediscovering its own identity. For its part, Hizbollah in Lebanon is now fighting in Syria alongside the regime forces, on a sectarian basis openly admitted by its leader Hassan Nasrallah.

Hizbollah is increasingly concerned that the demise of the Assad regime will not only imperil its critical supply lines from Iran but will also rupture the Axis of Resistance that until recently grouped the Lebanese "resistance" with Iran, Syria and the Palestinian Hamas.

Having already lost Hamas, which has cozied up to an increasingly Islamist Egypt, neither Iran nor Hizbollah can afford to lose its Syrian ally. Were the regime in Damascus to weaken further, they would have ample reason to find advantage in supporting an Alawite regime as a successor and ally.


Michael Williams is Distinguished Visiting Fellow at Chatham House and was UN envoy to Lebanon from 2008 to 2012. A version of this article will be published today in Chatham House's bi-monthly magazine, The World Today.