Friday, December 21, 2012

The Syrian endgame

The question that everyone seems to be asking these days is when Bashar al-Assad’s regime will fall, and how this will occur. Understandably, Assad is in no hurry to answer the question. However, it’s hard to see the Syrian president reasserting his authority over Syria after tens of thousands of people have been killed by his soldiers, and after he has lost large swathes of territory.

There has been much reference lately to an idea first discussed last year, namely that once Assad feels he can no longer hang on, he will leave Damascus for areas of Alawite concentration along Syria’s northwest coast. The sense is that the president is nearing that stage. His armed forces have been trying for weeks, indeed months, to clear rebels out of the Damascus suburbs, to no avail. Earlier this week Assad’s aircraft bombed the Yarmouq Palestinian refugee camp, which afterward fell squarely into the hands of the opposition. As a result, Ahmad Jibril, who heads the pro-regime Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command, fled to Tartous.

It seems that whatever Assad does, the consequences end up being precisely the opposite of what the president intends. He thought that he could repress the rebellion in blood last year. Instead, he gave it new life. He tried to intimidate Yarmouq. Instead he lost it completely. At every stage, the brutality of his crack units and militias has disturbed his supporters and swelled the ranks of his enemies.

We’re in the presence of a dying regime that is lashing out madly in each and every direction. But Assad has one more historical mistake to make, and seeking refuge in Alawite districts is it, for several reasons. The most obvious is that along the coast, Alawites do not necessarily form a majority. As Hussein Ibish wrote this week, the city of Latakia has a Sunni majority, and for Alawites to safely relocate there may require ethnic cleansing on a monstrous scale.

Indeed, a number of observers believe that this is where the fight over Homs comes in. The city is the door from Damascus to the coastal areas, to be opened or shut depending on the regime’s objectives. If the Alawites decide to remove Sunnis from the coast, the road from Homs may be closed until enough crimes are committed to provoke a mass exodus, when it would be opened to allow civilians to flee.

However, this seems too easy by half. Rebels are operating in the vicinity of Latakia, and don’t expect hundreds of thousands of people to stay idle while the Assad regime plots their massacre or exile. The Alawite homeland plan is more likely than ever before, and the difficulties more apparent than ever before. If the recent past is anything to go by, the plan, if implemented, will only accelerate the Assads’ downfall and seal the fate of Alawites in alarming ways.

There is a second aspect of the retreat-to-the-coast project that cannot be ignored. Namely, the reaction of the Alawites themselves. After decades of ruling over Syria and migrating to other parts of the county, above all to Damascus, Alawites will not take kindly to being forced to return to their mountain of origin. For this they will surely blame the Assads and could seek some form of retribution against the family that has visited so terrible a calamity on the community.

Once Bashar al-Assad escapes from Damascus, he will no longer be able to pretend that he is the prime defender of communal interests. After that realization sinks in, Alawites may be tempted to look for alternatives to protect themselves in a post-Assad Syria. If Assad evacuates the seat of his power, the unwritten contract between the ruling family and Alawites will stand no more, for the president will be blamed for having brought on communal marginalization.

That is perhaps one reason why Assad is likely to stick it out in Damascus for as long as he can, and use this period to negotiate a transition in which he plays a role. That’s not easy given the insistence in the West that the president must go first, and the Russian and Iranian failure to alter that idea. Moreover, the Syrian military has little helped Assad, having been unable to make gains on the ground that would bolster the president’s political aims.

At this stage, Assad’s only realistic substitute for a fallback plan is to engage in negotiations over his departure. But that also would alarm his Alawite entourage, as it fears the aftermath of the president’s exit.

So the choices for Syria’s president are diminishing: negotiate over a transition to rebel rule, and terrify the Alawites; quit Damascus and move to the coast, thereby angering the Alawites; or fight until the bitter end in Damascus, so that the chances that Assad will end up like Moammar Qaddafi become be very real. He would be butchered, just as he has butchered others, without pity and without remorse.

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