Turkish concern over specter of Alawite state in Syria

It is not being discussed out in the open yet in the Turkish capital but even the remote possibility of an emerging “country of Alawites/Nusayris” in the Mediterranean after the breakup of Syria along ethnic/sectarian lines has become a source of real concern for Turkish policy makers these days. The fear is that embattled and cornered Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, an Alawite himself, and his cronies may very well attempt to establish a safe haven for his minority Alawite sect in Syria, numbered at around a little over 2 million, or 12 percent of the Syrian population.

What appears to be a last resort for the Assad regime is to push hard for the dismemberment of the Arab republic into Sunnis, Kurds and Alawites in order to not let the minority Alawites be placed under Sunni majority rule, which seems to be an inevitable conclusion of the current crisis of governance in the country, now in its second year. Assad believes establishing a small but independent state on a territory roughly equal to the size of Lebanon under the patronage of major powers like France and Russia will save his Alawite comrades from the possible wrath and reprisals of Sunni Arabs who have been subjected to decades-long repression, humiliation and alienation.

There were already signs indicating that Assad was preparing for such a contingency. When mapping out the operations conducted by the Alawite-dominated elite force, the Republican Guards, they can be seen as mopping-up operations of Sunnis in Alawite cities and neighborhoods with the purpose of forcing them to emigrate in droves. In a way, Assad is clearing and cleaning up Sunnis in places he thinks will constitute the future territory of his Alawite country. This sweep by the regime forces is not limited to places where Alawites have traditionally lived, in the mountainous region along the Mediterranean coast of Syria, which includes cities like Latakia, Banyas and Tartous (home to the Russian fleet in the Mediterranean), but also covers the plains around Jisrash-Shughur, Idlib, Hama and Homs in the north of Damascus all the way down to Daraa in the southwest near the Jordanian border.

Clearly Assad has been carving out a large piece of Syria to eventually settle for less in the coastal area from the Turkish border up in the north all the way down to Lebanon in the south. The main battleground for Assad at this juncture is to control Sunni-dominated Homs, which is located at the critical juncture along the northeastern corridor between the two largest cities, Damascus and Aleppo. It will be a key for the future viability of an Alawite state to not let Homs be controlled by their arch-enemy, the Sunnis. That is why we have been seeing most of the fighting taking place in this northwestern city between Assad loyalists and the opposition.

An Alawite regime also realizes that the port city of Latakia on the Mediterranean represents the heart of a future Alawite state, so its Sunni elements must be purged from the city. Using navy vessels and tanks, the heavy shelling of Sunni neighborhoods by government forces in Latakia last year during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan was clearly intended to prompt a mass exodus of Sunnis from the city. The game plan is to crystallize the division along sectarian lines in important cities, including Latakia. When I visited Homs on a government-guided tour back in January, I gleaned this strategy during a visit to an Alawite neighborhood in the Akrame district, where a cheering crowd of some 100 people were chanting pro-Assad slogans and holding pro-army placards. They were all asking for the army’s help to clear Sunnis from the city.

Alarmed by the scenario of the partition of Syria by Assad, Turkey’s top political leaders, including the president, the prime minister and top military commanders, discussed in detail how Turkey would and should respond to the possibility at Monday’s meeting of the National Security Council (MGK). Even reading between the lines of the public statement issued by the MGK, it was obvious that Turkey was determined to prevent the breakup of its southern neighbor. The written statement said that “the bloodshed in Syria must be ended and a democratic transition process should start immediately.” The MGK stressed the need to protect the Syrian people as well as sending humanitarian aid to people in distress. Aside from humanitarian concerns, the MGK messages were clearly indicative of deep-seated concerns in the Turkish capital that Assad may have been trying to change the facts on the ground by boxing in Sunnis in landlocked territory. The urgent plea for a humanitarian corridor from Turkey was an indication of a policy that is aimed at helping Sunnis hold their ground and prevent them from leaving their homes in search of safety, shelter and food.

As far as I know, the only time Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu spoke of the possibility of an Alawite state in Syria was on the return flight from Tunisia on Feb. 28 after attending the Friends of Syria Group meeting. He said if there were such a plan to divide Syria, Turkey would try to prevent it from happening. “If some people have such a thing [an Alawite state] in their mind, all of our efforts will be devoted to not letting that happen,” he told reporters onboard the plane. One such effort made by Turkey was to increase the representation of Alawites in the İstanbul-based opposition group, the Syrian National Council (SNC). Turkey also ran a public relations campaign stressing that not all Alawites support the regime. For example, the defection of an Alawite colonel to Turkey was one talking point often raised by Turkish officials as proof of that assertion.

The International Strategic Research Organization (USAK), an Ankara-based think tank, warned in its report published in May of last year that the Assad regime does not trust the army to protect the Alawites as it is mostly made up of Sunnis. It said the Syrian minority government believes that suppression of large-scale uprising across Syria is eventually doomed to fail. That is why, it predicted, the regime will provoke the Alawite community into acting aggressively against Sunnis in order to set off a sectarian clash so that a separate Alawite state can be created along coastal areas. To counter that policy, Turkey advocates the idea that the post-Assad-era government should represent all ethnic and religious groups in Syria, adding that reconciliation rather than revenge must guide the vision of a new Syria.

We all must remember that creating an Alawite state is not something new. There is even a historical precedent for an Alawite state during French colonial rule in Syria after World War I. The state of Latakia was set up in 1922 and Alawites enjoyed a semi-independent country with broader political and legal autonomy until 1936. In return, the Alawites sided with French occupational forces when the rest of the country was up in arms against the French mandate. When most Syrians boycotted the French-sponsored elections of January 1926, Alawites turned out in large numbers. They even helped the French by enlisting Alawites in the Troupes Spéciales du Levant, special infantry units set up to quash rebellions seeking Arab unity. If Assad secures a new Alawite state, the French may again be tempted to throw their support behind it, further straining ties with Turkey.

Establishing an Alawite state along the coastline will open Pandora’s box for everyone in the Middle East. The Sunni-dominated Syria will be cut off from access to the Mediterranean. But this will also shatter Iranian landline access to the sea and Hezbollah in Lebanon, tearing apart the Shiite crescent. Lebanon may very well break into pieces, with some Alawites wanting to merge with the newly established Alawite state while Sunnis may unite with their Arab brethren in the new Syria. From an Israeli perspective, there is good news and bad news. For one, they will have to watch over their shoulders for a Sunni-controlled Syria including the Golan Heights, yet it will find a perfect ally, the Alawites in the west, united in the common goal of combating the Sunnis.

More worrisome news for Ankara is that such a secessionist movement may disturb the peace within Turkey’s own Alawite community in Turkey’s southern provinces, especially in Hatay on the border with Syria. It is estimated that some 300,000 Alawites live in Turkey, mostly in provinces close to Syria. The government’s Syria policy against Assad is already very unpopular in these provinces and there have even been pro-Assad rallies in Hatay province as well as in the country’s largest city, İstanbul. Realizing the risks in the border provinces, the Turkish government had to reshuffle some of the refugees among camps set up in different places in order to prevent a clash between local residents sympathetic to Assad and refugees who hate him.

Secondly, if Syria breaks up, some 2 million Kurds in Syria may also declare their own independence in the region from ar-Raqqah to al-Qamishli in the northeast, presenting further complications for Turkey’s own Kurdish problem. Therefore, when Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan says time and again that Syria is an internal problem for Turkey, he is talking about all these potentially catastrophic consequences of a civil war in Syria. He believes that Turkey has a huge stake in Syria and that the government has every right to be concerned over what is going to happen there. I tend to agree with him.

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