Assads' family rule makes an Alawite state impossible
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.
Moreover, the position of ordinary Alawites in that state would be terrible. The Assad regime has amassed an enormous amount of wealth: a recent report from Alaco, a London-based business intelligence company, estimated Mr Al Assad and his close-knit regime may own up to 70 per cent of the country's assets, land, licences and businesses. 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?
There is real fear among Alawites about reprisal attacks after the fall of the Assads, but just as much there also appears to be a recognition that the future of Alawites will remain in Syria. There have been demonstrations against the regime even in Latakia. Alawite soldiers have defected to the Free Syrian Army; one accused Mr Al Assad of fomenting sectarian war to stay in power. Already, Syrian rebels have tried to give assurances by saying they are preparing to protect Alawite regions from reprisals.
A majority of Alawites would probably side with a new Syria - if they could be persuaded that their safety would be assured.
Their decision would also take into account another factor: if the Assads did retreat to the coastal mountains, it would be a short-lived stand.
For one, although the command of the Syrian army is disproportionately Alawite, the rank and file is not. Alawites make up no more than 10 per cent of the military, concentrated in the elite Republican Guards. The regime's full strength has not been able to crush the lightly armed rebellion; 10 per cent of the military could not hold out for long against opposition armed forces that held the rest of the country.
Another critique of the possibility of an Alawite state, pointed out by the US professor and Syria analyst Joshua Landis, is that there is no infrastructure to support a state on the coast: "no international airport, no electric power plants, no industry". An Alawite "state" would swiftly find itself unable to pay its soldiers.
All of this, for the moment, remains conjecture. Mr Al Assad still holds Damascus and his army still seeks to put down the uprising. In a sense, an Alawite homeland in the mountains is a political fantasy from the days of western imperialism. The Crusaders who holed up in the Krak de Chevaliers were not Syrians; they were seeking to dominate Syria. The lands surrounding the castle were full of villages who did not want a Crusader presence, but were forced to pay tribute.
That is not the case with the Alawites today. They remain Syrians and would have to find their place in a democratic Syrian state. If the leaders of the uprising - such as they are - 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.
On Twitter: @FaisalAlYafai
Updated: July 24, 2012 04:00 AM