What is Syria’s leadership up to as it mounts a nation-wide armed onslaught against its own people? The simple answer, and it would be an accurate one, is that it is engaged in mass repression. However, we may be missing something more subtle, and more specific. The angry condemnation of the Assad regime’s brutality last week by senior Turkish officials could provide us with a clue as to what this is.
In recent weeks, the brunt of the onslaught has been conducted by predominantly Alawite units under the orders of Maher al-Assad, the brother of President Bashar al-Assad and commander of the regime’s praetorian guard. Action has taken place along two lines. After earlier concentrating its attacks on Tal Kalakh and Arida, located along the northern Lebanese border, the military shifted its attention to Jisr al-Shughur, near the Turkish border. At the same time, the Syrian army and security forces have pursued operations in a parallel corridor along the Homs-Aleppo road. The latest assaults have been directed against Maaret al-Naaman, between Hama and Aleppo.
According to eyewitnesses, the pattern of aggression lately has been similar. The army surrounds and bombards a town or village, or shoots at protesters, accusing the inhabitants of being members of “armed groups.” In a number of localities, the population, mainly Sunnis, has chosen to flee or has been forced out, before soldiers and security agents enter, accompanied by Alawite gangs unleashed primarily to sow terror. In Jisr al-Shughur, for example, refugees have reported rape, theft and the burning of crops.
If this sounds vaguely familiar, then perhaps you have a good memory for the tactics used during the wars of the former Yugoslavia. At the time the Serb-dominated Yugoslav army and the regime of Slobodan Milosevic sponsored a number of paramilitary groups, most notoriously the Serb Volunteer Guard under Zeljko Raznatovic, better known as Arkan. Working in conjunction with the army, these groups were responsible for ethnically cleansing swathes of Croatia and Bosnia in order to create a contiguous Serb-majority territory.
Might we be witnessing something similar in select parts of Syria? It’s very difficult to say. However, look at a map of northwestern Syria where the Alawites are concentrated, particularly the mountain range known as Jabal al-Nusayriyya, or Jabal al-Alawiyeen, that runs in a north-south direction from the Turkish border to the foothills above Lebanon’s Akkar plain. If you draw a meridian from Tal Kalakh to Jisr al-Shughur, it runs along the eastern edge of that range, where the plain begins and stretches further east toward Homs and Hama. To consolidate the Alawite heartland, the Assad regime needs to hold that meridian, particularly its northern and southern hinges at Tal Kalakh to Jisr al-Shughur, as well as a third hinge at Arida.
At the same time, over the decades Alawites have migrated into the plain, moving to areas around the mainly Sunni agglomerations of Homs and Hama, as well as to other places in Syria. It makes sense for the regime, in order to maintain its power, to regain control of the Homs-to-Aleppo passage. However, it is also true that if the Assads are thinking in sectarian geographical terms, this passage would be the first line of Alawite defense along an Alawite-Sunni fault line.
A good argument could be made that the policy of the Syrian regime has little to do with any scheme to establish an Alawite mini-state, the presumed outcome of any ethnic cleansing campaign. After all, dominating Arida and Tal Kalakh, like Jisr al-Shughur, may just be efforts to seal off potentially dangerous border transmission points to and from Sunni districts in neighboring Lebanon and Turkey.
But that only begs three other questions: Why has the Assad regime so heightened sectarian animosities by playing on alleged Sunni-Alawite differences, when anti-regime demonstrations have sought to avoid sectarianism altogether? Why has the behavior of the Syrian army, security agencies and irregular forces in some areas been plainly designed to cause panic specifically among Sunnis, thereby displacing populations and ensuring they would not soon return? And why has the regime, by most accounts, been arming Alawite villages?
In the statements of Turkish politicians last week, as well as those of American officials, there was palpable alarm with the potential sectarian consequences of the Assad regime’s measures to eradicate dissent. The Turks are understandably worried that if Syria were to break up into ethnic mini-states, Turkey would face not only the prospect of an Alawite entity across from the province of Hatay – which the Syrians call Alexandretta, where an estimated 300,000 to 400,000 Alawites live – they would also have to deal with the real possibility that Syria’s Kurds would go their own way, with dangerous repercussions for Turkey’s management of its own Kurdish minority.
While the Assad regime may not be pursuing a broad ethnic cleansing strategy, in and around Jisr al-Shughur and Tal Kalakh specifically it is doing something suspiciously similar. The plan beyond that, especially in the plains of Homs, Hama and Aleppo, may conceivably involve a two-stage process: first, to try to neutralize the situation on the ground through offensive action in areas with a large Sunni urban presence; and if that fails and the regime’s survival is threatened, to lay the groundwork for a defensive strategy leading to the eventual consolidation of a territory in which Alawites can protect themselves.
There are plenty of problems with this theory. Alawites are spread throughout Syria, and there are very substantial Sunni populations in Syria’s coastal cities that would, presumably, be integrated into any Alawite statelet. For now nothing suggests that the Assads have given up on re-imposing their writ over all of Syria. However, quite a few incidents in the northeast also suggest that the regime is calculating in sectarian terms and pursuing a sectarian strategy. Only time, and the continuation of the uprising, will elucidate the Assads’ endgame.
Michael Young is opinion editor of the Daily Star newspaper in Beirut and author of The Ghosts of Martyrs Square: An Eyewitness Account of Lebanon’s Life Struggle, which the Wall Street Journal listed as one of its 10 standout books for 2010. He tweets @BeirutCalling.