The partition of Syria?

Since as far back as June 2011, some have speculated that the embattled Syrian regime is trying to cement control over a neat enclave along the country’s coastline, extending westwards from the outskirts of Aleppo to Homs to the sea. The area is the Alawite heartland, the sect to which the Assads belong and from which they enjoy strong support.

This would not be wholly unprecedented. During the French mandate, an Alawite “state,” that was administratively separate from Syria from 1922 to 1942 existed in a similar geographical area. In fact, President Bashar al-Assad’s grandfather Suleiman Assad was a notable in the community who lobbied extensively for a separate Alawite state.

In a June 1936 memorandum addressed to the cabinet of French Prime Minister Léon Blum, for example, Suleiman held that “The spirit of hatred and fanaticism imbedded in the hearts of the Arab Muslims against everything that is non-Muslim has been perpetually nurtured by the Islamic religion. [A united Syria] will only mean the enslavement of the Alawite people and the exposure of the minorities to the dangers of death and annihilation [by Arab peoples].”

Journalist Michael Young, a regular contributor to NOW Lebanon, wrote last month that the regime may be preparing for an Alawite mini-state if it senses that it is losing power in Damascus, concurrent with its principal objective of ruling over Syria as a whole.

Michael Weiss, director of communications at the UK-based Henry Jackson Society, agrees. “If you were Assad and you were playing an end game because you recognized that you weren’t going to hang onto Syria, at least in its current incarnation, for very much longer, what would you do? Essentially you would move everyone that is loyal to you to the same area, arm them to the teeth, and then plan to fight the civil war from there. It’s just easier to control.”

Weiss also believes that the regime could try to extend the mini-state northwards to Alawite neighborhoods in Idlib in order to curry sympathy among the Alevi ethic group, who number some 15 million within Turkey and belong to a sect of Shia Islam similar to that of Syrian Alawites. They are largely supportive of the Assad regime, according to Weiss.

“He’s been playing this game since the beginning,” said Alia Mansour, spokeswoman for the opposition Syrian National Council (SNC), who believes that the idea of partition is a scare tactic employed by the regime. “He wants to convince the international community and the Syrian people that this is a sectarian revolution that endangers the minorities, that he is the great protector of the minorities, and that this revolution will ultimately divide the country.”

But would such a state be viable? And what would it look like?

As recently as 2002, Alawites made up 70 percent of the population in northwestern Syria, with Christians, many of whom also back the regime, forming the second-largest group at 14 percent. Naturally, Latakia would be the likely capital of this region as it is seen as the Alawite center, contains Syria’s largest port and has an airport. However, the city contains a slight Sunni majority, the group most opposed to Assad’s rule. The area also includes another large port city, Tartus, which hosts the naval base of Syria’s staunch ally, Russia. Precise external boundaries of such a state are, for obvious reasons, mere guesswork at this point.

English: Map of the autonomous areas under the...
Image via Wikipedia

On its own, the economic viability of such a “state” is difficult to determine. According to Thomas Schellen, regional editor of the Executive business magazine, while the coastline does contain some of the more promising assets—such as the tourist resorts, the maritime traffic and the offshore gas reserves—Damascus is home to the bulk of the financial services sector. Moreover, the Syria’s oil industry, which contributes at least half of state revenues, is based in the east of the country.

But with two port cities, and powerful allies such as Iran and Russia, it is impossible to discount the viability of such a state. Essentially, as Schellen put it, “There is no formula for deciding whether a state is economically viable or not.”

But politically, experts interviewed agree that such a state would not be tolerated, neither internally nor externally.

Mansour said a move to divide the country would be strongly resisted by the opposition. “The country does not belong to the regime; it’s not their decision to divide it.” Weiss too believes that a mini-state would be untenable: “If, say, 15 percent of the country is carved out as a sort of a rump kingdom of sovereign Syria, it will just be destroyed, it will be retaken.”

The international community is also unlikely to tolerate it, let alone recognize it as a separate state if it splinters from greater Syria. Regional powers with separatist minorities are likely to be the most vehement of opponents, especially Turkey. Oytun Orhan, a Middle East expert at the Ankara-based think tank ORSAM, told NOW Lebanon that Turkey would do its utmost to prevent the breakup of Syria because it might trigger heightened calls by minorities within Turkey, most notably the Kurdish population, for their own state.

Assad Democracy!
Assad Democracy! (Photo credit: FreedomHouse2)

Of course, at this stage it remains impossible to predict an outcome with any certainty. But it doesn’t seem unthinkable that, should Assad’s grip on power slacken further, the self-styled bastion of pan-Arabism may revert to the petty tribalism of his most vociferously anti-Arab grandfather.

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