While the massacre of women and children in Houla last month has been rightly denounced by outsiders as a horrific act of brutality, few fully appreciate the cold-blooded calculus of Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad that gives rise to recent sectarian murders in Sunni villages.
Predictably, regime sympathizers were quick to cast doubt on whether in fact Assad was responsible for the atrocity, intimating that it must have been perpetrated by the opposition in order to invite outside intervention. Others suggested it was the work of “rogue” shabiha paramilitaries from Assad’s minority Alawite sect, but not an officially sanctioned attack. After all, the attack was seemingly irrational, serving only to further alienate the Syrian people and outrage the international community.
In fact, the killing was simply the most egregious installment in a pattern of deliberate sectarian killings (most recently in the town of al-Qubayr yesterday), the product of cold deliberation by Assad. The Syrian dictator is seeking to irredeemably tie the fate of the Alawites to his own, in a message aimed both at his sectarian community as well as at the international community.
To better understand Assad’s thinking, it’s important to situate these attacks in the larger context of the regime’s operations and the logic that’s been driving them. Like al-Qubayr, Houla possesses two important characteristics. On the one hand, it is adjacent to Alawite villages, from which the attacks were launched. On the other hand, these villages (and one could add Kfar Zayta to the list) straddle the eastern edge of the traditional region of Alawite concentration, along the north-south meridian that runs from Jisr al-Shughour in the north to Tel Kalakh in the south.
Those who have lived through or studied Lebanon’s 1975-1990 civil war will immediately recognize what’s going on. The early stages of the war witnessed mass killings in towns like Nabaa-Tel az-Zaatar, Quarantina and Damour as the rival camps began fortifying their sectarian cantons, clearing out enemy outposts and securing strategic routes and points of access—a sign that they were in it for the long haul.
As noted by Michael Young, the Assad regime has been pursuing something “suspiciously similar” to ethnic cleansing along the northern and southern tips of the Alawite ancestral stronghold (and within it, as we saw yesterday in Haffeh, near Lattakia). While it’s hard to say whether the Syrian regime is preparing a fallback plan of an Alawite mini-state, it’s clear that Assad is pursuing a policy of Alawite inner consolidation.
The Assad regime’s Alawite-dominated forces are already little more than a sectarian militia. By arming Alawite villages and using them as launching pads for attacks against Sunnis, as he did in Houla and al-Qubayr (and possibly Haffeh), Assad is hardening the sectarian boundaries and implicating the entire Alawite community in the murder of Sunnis, further bonding its fate to his. If the Sunnis retaliate, as he surely must have counted they would, all the better.
Some commentators have speculated that by perpetrating these massacres, Assad was trying to reinstate fear in the hearts of his opponents. However, at this point in the game, we are well past that. This is no longer about putting the Sunni genie back in the bottle. Rather, this is about sealing Alawite solidarity and widening the target of Sunni animosity.
By covering the collective hands of the Alawite community with Sunni blood, Assad is creating total identity between his family and the broader sect, while simultaneously heightening its existential fears and feeding its primordial hatreds. “It is natural,” one Alawite woman told a reporter from The Telegraph recently, “[T]hey have to defend their sect.” “We have no future, at least not one that is worth looking forward to,” explained an insightful Alawite blogger known as Karfan in 2005. That is exactly what Assad sought to enshrine with the Houla massacre.
The killings are also a message to the outside world. When Assad hears daily consternation from Washington about the horrible specter of sectarian civil war in Syria, he recognizes that accentuating these anxieties is likely to deter, not trigger, international action. Indeed, judging from the underwhelming international reaction to the Houla killing, his reading was vindicated. This is why the pattern is now being repeated in other villages.
Tony Badran is a research fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. He tweets @AcrossTheBay.