Is the Alawite state real?

June 27, 2013

By Nuha Shabaan and Kristen Gillespie

 This is the first of a two-part series exploring whether the Syrian government is attempting to create an enclave or pave the way for a future state in the Alawite homeland around Syria’s coast.

AMMAN: The theory of the Alawite state has been floating in Syrian circles for at least a year following a series of regime invasions into Sunni villages along the coastal area in Latakia and neighboring Homs province, the historic homeland of the Alawite minority that comprises an estimated 10 percent of Syria’s 25 million population.

Massacres in al-Bayda, Baniyas and Halfaya, Sunni towns and cities that neighbor Alawite ones, some Syrians say, point to a carefully orchestrated plan to ethnically cleanse Sunnis from the coastal region, where the French government formed a semi-autonomous Alawite state in 1920 under its mandate that lasted until 1946.

Alwaite State

The government’s actions “make it seem like the endgame for those left standing after the regime [falls] is an escape to the Syrian coast,” says Larisa, 23, an anti-regime activist who heads the Latakia Media Center.

Preparing the groundwork for a statelet provides an exit strategy in the event that Damascus falls, she says. “This is clear from the concentrated shelling on the coastal cities and on areas in Homs.”

Residents flee, abandoning their villages out of fear of massacres, adding to the more than two million internally displaced, according to UN estimates.

Activists say that while Syrians will not accept a minority-dominated enclave on its coast, it does not mean the regime is not trying. “There is an agenda that the only solution is in division, but it will not work,” says Sakher al-Zaidi, 24, an industrial institute graduate from Aleppo province who is now an FSA fighter.

A range of nearly two dozen fighters, activists and political figures interviewed for this article agreed that Syria’s division would destroy the country. The targeting of the Alawite sect in general for repercussions will only encourage the notion of breaking apart as a political solution, they say.

Muhyi al-Din Lazikani has not been to Syria for more than 30 years because of his anti-Assad activism, beginning with Hafez al-Assad, who seized power in 1971.

Now 61 and a writer living in London, Lazikani, a self-described liberal Alawite, says that “an Alawite state means division and this is what the regime is attempting to establish, but they will fail.” He points to an existing Sunni population of more than 40 percent along the coast, despite moves to ethnically cleanse areas of Homs and Latakia province of Sunnis.

In March, a group of Syrian Alawites opposing the rule of President Bashar al-Assad organized a conference in Cairo that included Sunni politicians such as former SNC president Borhan Ghalioun. The meetings concluded with the “Cairo Declaration,” stressing the separateness of the Alawite sect and the regime of Assad.

“Our historic responsibility requires having the courage to tell our families and relatives that their future and safety will only be secured by siding with the Syrian people in their revolution and rejecting the regime’s attempts to hijack the sect,” the statement read.

An Alawite state “doesn’t have the capacity to survive,” Lazikani and other activists say, pointing to not only the demographics but the need for international legitimacy as well as internal Syrian acceptance.

A semi- or fully autonomous state may be difficult to envision, activists say, but a historically consistent Alawite enclave serving as a safe haven in case the regime falls remains a possibility.

While the coastal areas are heavily mixed ethnically, “perhaps when the regime falls in Damascus, they will head to the Syrian coast with their sect, just like Qaddafi did when he felt the end and moved to his hometown of Sirte,” says Ayman al-Hussein, 28, an activist who from Outer Damascus province who remains in hiding because he is wanted for military service.