Now that it has become crystal clear that Bashar al-Assad has missed all the warning signs of the nine-month-long demonstrations in the Arab country, losing all credibility and legitimacy to lead change in Syria, we have one last exit strategy left for the Syrian regime to turn to before all hell breaks loose in the multiethnic and multi-religious country, which could plunge into an all-out civil war. This last strategy is a “military quo” within the Alawite family led by a group of people who do not want to bet their future on Assad’s fragile stay in power.
The Arab League’s decision to slap sweeping sanctions on Syria, one of the founders of the organization, over the weekend, only to be followed by Turkey, Syria’s largest trading partner, may embolden factions within the Alawites to stage a coup against Assad. With the demise of the regime, most Alawites are fearful that the runaway train led by Assad may end up robbing the privileges they have enjoyed for so long. Though some hold onto the ever tightening stranglehold Assad and his family maintain over 22 million Syrians, other Alawites are not so sure and have been questioning the wisdom of putting everything into Assad’s basket.
In the game of survival, a palace coup is increasingly likely considering that 3.5 million minority Alawites who have ruled the country with an iron grip for five decades do not want to face a strong backlash from the Sunni majority who despise the Assad family enterprise. Some in the ruling elite have realized that the only way to avoid the wrath of the Sunnis and hang on to power at least partially is to collaborate with the opposition by removing Assad and his family from power. The question is whether or not there is a strong Alawite group that can successfully mount a challenge against Assad. Many analysts say there is.
It is no secret that some in the Alawite ruling establishment despise the Assad family’s overbearing existence in vital political and economic positions in the public and private sectors. They think that the Assad family’s ill-advised policies have exposed them to the hatred of many groups in Syria, including the Sunni Muslim majority, and made them vulnerable. They also have little respect for Assad, a former doctor-turned-president. Unlike his father, Assad junior has not fully consolidated his powerbase in Syria, including the Alawites. He was never a key player during his father’s reign in power for many years and became president by chance when his older brother, who was in line to assume power, died in a traffic accident.
It appeared from the beginning that he could not command the loyalty of all four main pillars the Alawite regime is based on: The minority Alawites in the establishment, the Alawite-dominated army, the security branches, and the political vehicle Baath Party. The divergence among these groups can easily be seen in different remarks and contrasting actions coming out of Syria despite pledges of reforms and a halt to the violence. Assad has been out of sync with key power bases from time to time and was forced to accept policies imposed on him in some cases.
The key to unlock the way to a palace coup is the breakup of the “Alawites unity” as they dominate the army, intelligence, security, business elite and the government — all the key pillars of the regime. Just as the Alawites co-opted Sunni military leaders during their rise to power in the ’60s, the Sunnis need Alawite leaders to ensure the fall of the Assad family from power. The army was dominated by the Alawite officers who compose some 80 percent of the officer corps. In the last nine months, Assad has also engaged in a purge campaign of Sunni officers on a wide scale, fearing that they might revolt. Some of these joined the Free Syrian Army operating bases in Turkey and have launched attacks against Assad’s army.
Conscripted soldiers are mostly Sunnis and make up a 300,000 strong force in the Syrian army. Sunnis dominate the second corps in the army and are led by Circassian Sunni Muslim, while the remaining two corps in the land forces are led by Alawite commanders. Even if the ranking officer is Sunni in one division, the deputy is always an Alawite who has the real power and say in that division. The elite force called the Republican Guard is an all-Alawite force led by Assad’s younger brother Maher al-Assad, who has been cracking down on the opposition. He also commands the Fourth Armored Division and the Presidential Guard. The bulk of the security and intelligence apparatus in Syria is controlled by Bashar al-Assad’s uncle, cousins, brothers-in-law and nephews.
Assad knows that once the unity among Alawites is in disarray, his fate will be sealed. That is why he has even called upon retired Alawite generals to work for him in order to secure their support and to prevent them from joining forces with the opposition. Assad’s nightmare scenario comes from the amplification of tribal and sectarian fighting within the Alawite community. The secretive community is divided along sectarian and ethnic lines, with four major sects as well as four main tribes. They are further divided into clans. For example, Assad comes from the Numaylatiyya clan of the Matawira tribe. The historical bitterness and rivalry among tribes and clans may potentially produce figureheads to challenge Assad’s family.
The Syrian opposition groups have been courting some Alawite groups to broaden the base for a coalition against the Assad regime with little success until recently. But a sharp turn of the events with the Arab League’s decision to slap comprehensive sanctions on Syria, supported by Turkey, may sway some Alawite groups over to the opposition side. We might even see defections from powerful Alawite army commanders when they secure pledges from the opposition that their safety will be ensured in the post-Assad period. The Alawite generals who join in the coup may be a good vehicle to transform the Syrian regime with real reforms while punishing those responsible for the murder of protesting civilians. This would ensure the national reconciliation and defuse the hatred among ethnic and religious groups.
Among the Alawite community, we also see outreach efforts by some Alawite religious and community leaders towards the opposition, including the Muslim Brotherhood, the most powerful movement that has been waging an undeclared war against the Assad regime for decades. The position of other minorities like the Christians, the Druze, the Kurds, the Circassians and the Shiites will also determine the future shape of the conflict in Syria. So far, Assad and his gang were able to use these groups to weaken the opposition, but there are increasing signs that they might join the anti-Assad camp for the sake of their survival in the new Syria. The Syrian National Council (SNC), formed in İstanbul, is intensely lobbying to secure the minorities’ support in the fight against the regime.
If a palace coup fails, we will see an armed Syrian opposition taking on the regime forcefully with the backing of foreign governments. It could escalate into a civil war, one that may engulf the regional powers in a proxy war on Syrian soil.