Homs, anvil of Syria

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.


  • Hassan

    Can you imagine every sect on earth has weapons & want to impose power on the other? Religions & sects existed in some form or shape since the creation of the world. Somehow, we always managed to exist in harmony. That’s why God told us to treat each other as we wanted to be treated. Of course sometimes you have no other choice but to fight; there is a big difference by defending yourself from being the aggressor. History is always changing. If any country believes in peace with Israel, so be it, many did & doing it, but don’t lie to your people & tell slogans to deceive them. Does Iran has the right to own nuclear weapons like India, Israel Pakistan etc.? Yes they do. However stating you want to wipe people off the earth doesn’t give them the right to own it.

    February 14, 2012

  • Brandon

    Let an intl force go in, attack this thug Assad and his family and string him up in the main square of Damascus.

    February 13, 2012

  • james

    Is Syria a tonkin gulf for attack on Iran? News organizations and websites that have uncritically reported the atrocity stories from these "human rights" groups have helped set the stage for military action against Syria, and have been in fact part of the psychological preparation of the battlefield….. --- http://tiny.cc/11nfl

    February 13, 2012

  • Eliyahu

    To ...then the Alwaites. . .: Jews are a comfortable majority west of the Jordan River, even if the Gaza Strip is included. Don't believe your own side's propaganda. To Mark: You too believe in lies about Israel. It is true that Bashar Assad's grandfather was highly critical of Sunni Arabs and made some friendly statements about Jews and Zionists back in the 1930s. But there is no evidence of any alliance between Israel and the Alawites since 1948. The Assads helped the PLO fight Israel in 1982, losing much or most of their air force in the process. Since then Syria has helped Hizbullah shoot thousands of rockets at us, especially in 2006. Moreover, Israeli TV & Israeli official statements have been sympathetic to the Syrian rebels. Mark, pay attention especially to what Ehud Barak has been saying about Syria in the past year. .It is not wise to be paranoid.

    February 12, 2012

  • hacimo

    Oh if this is only true. Nothing could suit the Israelis more than a civil war in Syria and Lebanon. They would use this opportunity to strike Hezbollah and finish them for good. At the same time they would hit Iran and destroy their nuclear facilities. They would also use the chance to retake the Sinai and to "cleanse" the Palestinians from areas they want to keep in the final settlement. Who knows what the final shape of the middle east will look like buy if it comes to war the Israelis are in a good position.

    February 12, 2012

  • moderateGuy

    Like other "countries in the region" Syria is not a nation, and is being held together by repression, Russian machinations and idiotic wishful thinking mixed with condescension toward aspirations of non-European people in "western" foreign offices, primarily US State Department. Bottom line is nothing will change in the Arab world (or Africa) until the national aspirations of real nations, not state units cobbled by European colonialism, are given full recognition and are let free to assert themselves. That means, many "states" in those areas will have to "break up" the same way Austro-Hungarian Empire and more recently Russian Empire did (the latter still have ways to go). People must be free to live among their own kind (if they so chose, and most do); everything else is just a bunch of ignorant clap trap.

    February 12, 2012

  • What planet this guy on?!

    Like the new Sunni-led Syria, Sunni Arab World, Turkey are going to accept an Alawi state!!! If this is the master plan, then the Alawi civilians should start buying tickets to go to Brazil or India - there won't be any future in the region for ethnic base race based states. The one that was established in Palestine has passed its used by date and already has more "non Jews" than Jews living in its sovereiegn territory.

    February 11, 2012

  • leb patriot

    There's the Turkey element. I doubt it the Turks will sit back and watch the emergence of an Alawite statelet on their border. Remember Cyprus... Meanwhile God help Lebanon stay somewhat stable!

    February 10, 2012

  • Mark

    This is one of few articles that tell the truth about Syria. The Alawites are the allies of Israel since 1936 treaty between them. Wake-up and understand the difference between talk and real action of giving the Golan up, destroy the palestinian resistance and destoying and stealing Lebanon & Syrian economic resources to build up an Alawite State.

    February 10, 2012



    February 10, 2012