Echoes of Arkan in Syria

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.

  • kwm

    Thanks Michael. Yet another enlightening piece of real information ,

    June 21, 2011

  • Mladen

    There is one big difference between Syria and former Yugoslavia: While Assad had absolute power over whole of Syria few months ago Milosevic never had even nominal power over whole of Yugoslavia. In the matter of fact, ethnic cleansing in Bosnia started after Bosnia declared independence (after popular vote) and it had right to secede by constitution. When ethnic leansing started, Yugoslavia was already dead. So, if there is Alawite push for secession, there must be Sunni push to take over whole of country, probably not in the way to support full ethnic and religious rights. Apparently there is no no great level of anti-Assad push among Christians or Druse either (or even urban Sunni from main towns). But as army keeps upper hand, they do not need to take guns and fight just yet. There is three outcomes: if protesters don't come with credible democratic program, either will government crush protester or will be civil war.

    June 19, 2011

  • of course

    Somebody unfortunately gifted a ... an old computer with the caps lock on. The ... who till then wrote foolish slogans on walls using spray cans immediately took to publishing his foolishness on the world wide web.

    June 18, 2011



    June 18, 2011

  • susanrose

    Coz this is a very easy formula some people have ... create disturbances, kill people, create chaos ... and when the government takes action to bring the city back to normal ... hello! lets bomb the government now. That's no god damn solution. Tyria bad ... Tyria bad ... Tyria bad .... That's all they are going to run in the media ... only to get an approval to get to bomb it. Cant you clearly see the running of media, politicians and money making all together. Read more: http://godinthejungle.com/index.php/story-notes/389-wednesday-june-15-2011.html

    June 18, 2011

  • Philip

    Thank you Michael Young for giving us a realistic and detailed explanation of what is going on in Syria with reference to the ethnic situation in Syria. It helps great deal to understand things when these issues are explained as they affect developments. I wish more reporters and analysts would explain developments in the Middle East along such lines. Well done again and thank you!

    June 18, 2011

  • Zulfiqar Yarsani

    To the Allavi turkey once your government starts treating your fellow Kurds like human beings and respecting their culture and recognizing the Armenian genocide you can start talking about freedom and beating racists and tyrants, charity begins at home.

    June 17, 2011

  • ffauzia

    There authoritarian regimes will use all kinds of strategies ,;will do anything to stay in power !

    June 17, 2011

  • rea

    Didn't this Syria regime help Jumblat achieve something similar in the mountain back in 1983-84.

    June 17, 2011

  • Moe

    This article hits the nail right on the head with the hammer! The aliws are a small minority which in the times to come can be easily finished off by a growth in Sunni power in the region.If I was an aliwi I would be shacking in my boots too but really think about it doesn't Syria remind you of Rawanda a bit. I think its the same story repeating itself in a way.The French left Syria in this situation just as Belgium left Rawanda how do you give a minority so much power to always be on top of the majority?At the end the Sunnis will rise and trust me just like Rawandas Hutus majority take back whats theirs by any means.

    June 17, 2011

  • Henry

    Thank you Mr Young, at last somebody dared writing it so plainly. Now, if this is true, and the probability that it may be so is not negligible, then pray for Tripoli...

    June 17, 2011

  • atta

    Alevi in Turkey you forget the six hundred years of Ottoman rule rich with genocides, massacres, ethnic cleansing, famines, forces conscription, forced exiles, forced labor, mass deportations and not the least embarrassed by it, Tête de Turc as the French say.

    June 17, 2011

  • Georges Butros Estaphan

    It isn't just the Alawis in Hattay (just 300,000 souls), but more importantly the Alevi in Turkey nationwide, perhaps 15 per cent of the population? May God protect the Near East from European-style ethnic states of the type that cause massive destruction and genocide from 1780s to 1945 - Palestine in 1947-48 was the victim of their apartheid ethnic statism - merciless, racist, rubbish that has delivered untold suffering to millions of innocents purely because they are the wrong race and religion (Orthodox Christian, Sunni Muslim) for the "Jewish state". No way that Turkey or Iraq - or Arabia - will permit another apartheid state. On the contrary, Palestine, 100 years after the beginning of this experiement, was the one and only ethnic state permitted in the region - and it won't last another 100 years, because freedom always beats racist tyranny

    June 17, 2011