Last summer, I used this space to speculate that the regime of President Bashar al-Assad, if it sensed that it was losing power in Damascus, might contemplate retreating to the Alawite heartland in the coastal areas and mountains of northwestern Syria. Today, that option is very much alive, and according to several independent sources it is being discussed freely within the Alawite community.
That is not to say that Assad and his acolytes intend to surrender control of Syria if they can avoid it. The regime from the outset appeared to be working on two fronts simultaneously: paving the way for a prospective communal fallback plan by securing the northern and southern hinges of the Alawite area, at Kfar Kalakh and Jisr al-Shoughour, while also endeavoring to re-impose its writ nationwide.
These parallel objectives—preparing for an Alawite mini-state and ruling over Syria as a whole—have come together in the Homs plain and along the corridor northeast, between Homs and Aleppo. In order for Assad to subjugate Syria, he can afford little to lose control over that passage. At the same time, if the Alawites hope to make safe an eventual statelet, they cannot allow Homs to be controlled by their foes. That explains what we are seeing today, as the Syrian army prepares to recapture Homs from the opposition.
It was perhaps difficult for the Assad regime to do such a thing sooner. Comprehensive repression required taking back sprawling cities, which invariably meant provoking carnage. Nor does the Syrian army have enough men to militarily reoccupy all of Syria. It is also conceivable that Bashar al-Assad’s allies in Moscow set as a condition for their support that he avoid repeating the example of Hama in 1982.
If so, the mood on both the Russian and Syrian sides has evidently shifted with regard to Homs. As the regime began losing ground and greater numbers of soldiers began deserting, as Homs emerged as the centerpiece of a hardening protest movement, and as regional and international diplomacy escalated to isolate Assad, the Syrian president apparently decided he needed to act more decisively.
The Russians resupplied Assad with weapons several weeks ago, and when they vetoed a Security Council draft resolution that would have endorsed an Arab plan for his departure, he ordered the offensive on Homs. The regime apparently aims to force the opposition to negotiate and in that way implement a Russian-Syrian plan to end the uprising. What is this plan? Broadly, to intimidate then split the opposition by convincing more compliant opposition figures to accept and participate in a national-unity government. Meanwhile, the regime would press ahead with constitutional reforms so as to neutralize expanding discontent inside Syria, and more importantly to silence the protestations of the international community.
The fundamental principle underlying the scheme, however, is to leave the core of Assad rule untouched. The Syrian president has no intention of stepping down, and the Russians have not asked him to. The leadership’s calculation is that once a political process is on track, Assad will regain the initiative. Step by step the regime will then undercut reform and co-opt or repress its weakened opponents.
To make this possible, the Syrian regime and the Russians have sought to win Arab and international approval for Assad to move ahead with his project. That was a prime objective of Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov’s visit to Damascus this week. But there have been few takers. The Saudis all but finalized their break with Assad by persuading the Gulf Cooperation Council states to recall their ambassadors from Syria and expel Syrian envoys. And the Western states and Turkey have basically dismissed the Russian bid.
However, that doesn’t make Homs any less vital to the Assads. If a political solution works, fine; what better way to begin discussions with the opposition than to do so with the focal point of the resistance crushed? But if such a solution doesn’t work and the Alawites have to prepare a new line of defense, then control over Homs is equally valuable. The city hosts a sizable Alawite community on its edges and controls road access toward Alawite areas, the north and Damascus.
Some observers see a more profound rationale in recovering the Homs district. If the Alawites seek true security, they must guarantee two things: that there is continuity between their geographic areas and majority-Shia districts in Lebanon’s northern Bekaa Valley; and that they can isolate Sunnis in Syria’s northwestern coastal areas from their brethren elsewhere in the country. Controlling Homs allows both. And if the Alawites decide to engage in ethnic cleansing along the coast, Homs is a door that they can open and close at will.
Recently, in an interview with Le Figaro, Syria’s former vice president, Abdul-Halim Khaddam, warned that Bashar Assad was preparing to partition Syria. He predicted that the Syrian president would likely fall back on the city of Lattaqiyeh, adding “I am sure there are enough underground shelters where he and his clan can seek refuge.” A senior Lebanese politician recently told me that Iran was building a bunker network in the Alawite mountains similar to Hezbollah’s in southern Lebanon.
Khaddam’s political agenda may make him overstate his case. Yet a communal fallback plan is a serious option, and the Homs region has become the crucible defining Syria’s future. The barbarity of the Assads’ conduct has been shocking, but may be nothing compared to what could happen if Alawites withdraw to a mini-state. The tenuous strings holding other countries in the region together could snap.
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. He tweets @BeirutCalling.