Coastal Retreat

Is Assad preparing a last stand in Syria’s Alawi mountains?

Jerusalem Post, 21/12
The beleaguered regime of Bashar Assad in Syria suffered further setbacks this week. The Syrian rebels are slowly clawing their way into Damascus. A fierce fight took place in the Palestinian refugee camp of Yarmouk in the capital. The battle pitched the rebels of the Free Syrian Army against fighters of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine – General Command. The PFLP-GC is a proxy of the Assad regime, commanded by a superannuated former Syrian army officer of Palestinian origin – Ahmed Jibril.

The fight ended with the rebels in control of the camp. The Hajal al-Aswad district of Damascus also fell to the rebellion in the last days.

Ahmed Jibril’s next move, following the defeat of his fighters in Yarmouk, offers a clue as to the possible next phase in the Syrian civil war. The PFLP-GC leader and his son vanished from Damascus. Various sources have now reported that Jibril has turned up in Tartous, on the Mediterranean coast, deep in the heart of the majority Alawi Latakia Governate.

If these reports are correct, the veteran Palestinian leader’s move is the latest indication that while the battle for Damascus continues, the loyalists of the Assad regime are already planning for the next phase, after the city falls. For months now, there have been signs that the regime has been laying the foundations for a defendable Alawi-dominated enclave in the mountains of Latakia province.

Senior members of the Syrian security and political elite have begun to send their families from Damascus to this emergent stronghold. Assad’s most loyal Palestinian client may have just become its newest resident.

The problem with this enclave, from Assad’s point of view, is that any conceivable, defensible boundaries it could have would take in an area which currently contains a large Sunni population. Indeed, the main city of the governate, Latakia city, has a 60% Sunni majority. This means that there is a very real prospect of ethnic cleansing in this area, as the dictator’s hold on Damascus becomes more tenuous.

The Alawi enclave would stretch from the Mediterranean coast to the Orontes River valley, just west of the majority Sunni cities of Homs and Hama.

The establishment of such an entity would be a last roll of the dice for Assad.

The viability of a Latakia-centered Alawi would depend on its receiving recognition and support from Russia and Iran. This is not inconceivable. In the event of a rebel triumph in Syria, both Moscow and Teheran are likely to pay a very heavy diplomatic price.

Both countries have been staunch allies of Assad throughout the uprising. This has not gone un-noticed by the rebels. An FSA officer interviewed by this reporter earlier this year said that ‘if the revolution succeeds, we will neither depend on, nor have relations with, nor take weapons from Russia.’ The same man also said that the Syrian revolution would “break the dream” of Iranian domination of the region—and more specifically, Tehran’s strategic ambition to create a contiguous line of pro-Iranian states stretching from Iran’s western borders to the Mediterranean Sea.

The Iranians are surely aware of this, too. They are also aware that their main investment in the Levant – Hezbollah – stands to be the next domino in the path of the Sunni Islamist juggernaut if Assad falls. The Russians, meanwhile, wish to preserve the last of their regional clients, and the naval facility at Tartous.

Could all this be sufficient for these countries to maintain the lifelines necessary to enable an Alawi stronghold on the coast to survive? The Russians and Iranians may themselves not yet have decided the answer to this question. It must surely be uppermost on the minds of the regime’s inner core at the present time.

But most crucial is the question of whether such an enclave could stem the advance of the Sunni rebels long enough to even begin the discussion of its viability and continued existence. The Syrian rebels are fully aware of the danger posed to Syria’s future territorial integrity by the existence of putative minority enclaves. As such they see snuffing out any nascent Alawi statelet on the west coast as a task no less important than is the capture of Damascus itself.

So the rebels are now trying to push further into the western coastal area and take the city of Latakia. Without this port city, no Alawi statelet could possibly be viable.

As of now, rebel forces have succeeded only in pushing at the boundaries of the putative Alawi stronghold, taking control of a few Alawi villages on its periphery. It is worth remembering that, their gains notwithstanding, the Syrian rebels have yet to take complete control of any of Syria’s major cities. So Assad’s men have some time left to embark on the establishment of their enclave. The rebels have still to complete the conquest of Aleppo, and are presently engaged in seeking to take the city of Hama, as well as focusing on the crucial battle for Damascus.

The timing cannot be predicted. But keep watch in the days ahead for more pillars of the regime such as Ahmed Jibril taking to the road from Damascus to Latakia. The concentration of such figures in the western coastal area could be the best indication for the direction of events in the next phase of the Syrian civil war.

About jonathanspyer

Jonathan Spyer is a Middle East analyst, author and journalist specializing in the areas of Israel, Syria and broader issues of regional strategy. He is the director of the Middle East Center for Reporting and analysis (MECRA), a research fellow at the Jerusalem Institute for strategy and Security (JISS) and a Fellow at the Middle East Forum.
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