It is difficult to see how President Bashar Assad will prevail over the growing protests demanding an end to his regime. More than two months of carnage by the Syrian army and security forces have failed to shake the demonstrators’ determination, and surely will not.
There are many scenarios for what might happen in Syria. Lebanese should pay attention to one in particular. As it dawns on the Assads that their days in power are numbered, we should consider the option that they and the minority Alawite community will move to an alternate plan. Unable to subdue Syria, the regime may contemplate falling back on an Alawite-dominated statelet in northwest Syria.
There is little certainty surrounding such a scheme. In recent weeks the army and security services have been active in Idlib province along the Turkish border, after their assault near the Lebanese border, particularly in Talkalakh – accompanied by an ongoing campaign to pacify the Homs to Aleppo axis. Even if the Assads’ priority is to reimpose their writ over Syria in its entirety, the actions in these areas may, simultaneously, serve another purpose: to consolidate Alawite control over the margins of a future mini-state.
Alawites are concentrated in the mountain region and cities of Syria’s northwest, even if they have moved elsewhere during the past decades. Notably, they have moved into the plains of Homs and Hama, where they generally live around the main cities. If the community sought to establish a statelet, it would have to implement a three-tiered process. This would involve preparing a forward defense line near areas of Sunni urban concentration, along the Homs-Hama-Aleppo road. It would also entail strengthening Alawite control over the community’s heartland further to the west, particularly over the coastal cities, while arming Alawite villages.
The third stage of the process would necessitate securing a parallel line of defense along the eastern edge of the Alawite mountains, above the plains leading toward Homs, Hama and Aleppo. Not coincidentally, perhaps, the northern hinge of this boundary is at Jisr al-Shughour, while the southernmost hinge is at Talkalakh. These are places allowing the regime to close off access to predominantly Sunni districts across the borders. However, the terror tactics adopted by the Syrian army, security forces and irregular pro-regime militias are disturbingly similar to those of the Serb-dominated army and Serb paramilitaries during the conflict in the former Yugoslavia. Is the aim to cause permanent population displacement? That’s unclear. However, there is a geographical rationale behind the Assads’ strategy, and its repercussions cannot but affect sectarian relations.
As Lebanese watch developments next door, how might they react? If the Assads manage to retreat to an Alawite fortress, the repercussions in Lebanon (not to say Iraq) could be frightening. Attention would be drawn to Lebanon’s Shiites, but also Christians, to see if they might envisage a similar route toward communal self-preservation.
The Shiites are far less likely to be tempted by the idea of forming a communal statelet than are the Christians, for obvious reasons. The areas of Shiite concentration are not contiguous. Dispersed among the northern Bekaa Valley, the western Bekaa, southern Lebanon and Beirut’s southern suburbs, the Shiite community would be unable to bind these regions together into any sort of cohesive whole.
In reality, the hazards lie elsewhere. If the Assad regime were to collapse, this would represent, potentially, an existential setback, for Hezbollah. The party would strive to defend itself, and its options are limited. Some have speculated that Hezbollah might try to tighten its grip on the state and weaken its adversaries decisively, perhaps through a military strike broader than that of May 2008. However, that would almost certainly fail, instead provoking civil war.
Hezbollah must be aware of this. The party is immensely potent as an armed force, but the only real solution to its dilemma if Assad rule were brought down is a far-reaching domestic political compromise. The party would be reluctant to engage in one, however, at least from a position of weakness. The reason is that any serious internal dialogue would necessarily have to address Hezbollah’s disarmament, which the party’s leadership will not sanction.
The ensuing deadlock could push Hezbollah to do two apparently contradictory things: maintain its presence in state institutions at all costs in order to protect its interests; but also, facing an invigorated Lebanese Sunni community bolstered by an invigorated Syrian Sunni community, further separate territories under its influence from the rest of Lebanon, both physically and psychologically. In other words, even as it rejects a Lebanese sectarian breakup, Hezbollah may be compelled to pursue that very path to survive. And this could be accompanied by an impulse, even a political need, to collaborate with other friendly sectarian entities, an Alawite entity above all.
Which leads us to the Lebanese Christians. There is profound alienation among many Christians from post-Taif Lebanon, and from the idea of coexistence with the country’s Muslim communities in the context of the centralized state that emerged after independence in 1943. This has been debilitating for Christians, accelerating the community’s isolation and sense of decline. Yet virtually all mainstream Christian political groupings deep down aspire to a Lebanese state – federal, confederal or otherwise – that allows a majority of Christians to govern themselves and live among their own.
This mad project is more likely to lead to communal regression and suicide. And yet many Christians will look closely at a Alawite statelet, if one were to take shape, and see how it might serve or buttress their own aspirations. And if this were to come at a moment when the Shiites themselves were experimenting with some de facto scheme of disconnection from Lebanon, it could intensify the centrifugal forces in the country and even eventually prompt a sizable number of Christians and Shiites to join efforts against a perceived Sunni threat.
For now, and hopefully well beyond, this may be political fiction. But ours is not a healthy national mood to defend the Lebanese entity as we know it. Even during the war, Lebanese unity was, paradoxically, more solid than today. The fire lit in Syria could feed Lebanon’s divisions. Unless we’re sensitive to the risks, Lebanon could burn.
Michael Young is opinion editor of THE DAILY STAR and author of “The Ghosts of Martyrs Square: An Eyewitness Account of Lebanon’s Life Struggle” (Simon & Schuster), listed as one of the 10 notable books of 2010 by The Wall Street Journal. He tweets @BeirutCalling.