As the Syrian conflict reaches its crucial turning point, with the defeat of the government in the country’s major cities now virtually inevitable, the war has almost completely descended into the gruesome logic of tit-for-tat atrocities.
The war has divided Syrian society along sectarian and political lines simultaneously. All sides seem convinced they are in such mortal, existential peril that almost nothing is off-limits.
Government forces have been committing massacre after massacre, including, apparently, residents of a “disloyal” Alawite village. International fecklessness has, predictably and inevitably, led to the rise in the opposition of extreme “Jihadists,” who have brought their own brand of inimitable brutality with them from their last stomping grounds in Iraq.
The video of a young child apparently being tutored in the art of beheading captured “enemies” in the self-styled Salafist-Jihadist manner only demonstrates the extent to which the situation in Syria has deteriorated. At this stage, is mass communal “cleansing” of key areas really still simply a remote possibility?
This is the way the regime wanted to shape the battle from the very start. When, at the outset, they faced nonviolent protests, the Damascus propaganda machine immediately invented a fiction, fully intended to become a self-fulfilling prophecy: The infiltration of al-Qaeda-style terrorists into Syria and a mortal threat to sectarian minorities.
The government was determined that this must be a sectarian war, even though some of its core Alawite constituents have resisted and rejected that narrative.
But almost everything has helped the Assad regime make its once fictional scenario into a terrifying reality. The Salafist-Jihadist element of the armed Syrian opposition is numerically small but hyper-empowered by its extensive support network, while more moderate factions have been inexcusably neglected by the West.
The latest to be drawn into the gruesome logic of massacre are the typically forsaken Palestinian refugees in the Yarmouk camp in Damascus. At least 25 Palestinians sheltering in a mosque were killed by regime military bombardment.
It’s reported that at least half of the population of the camp, which is where most of the Palestinian refugees in Syria lived, have fled, many to Lebanon. The villainous Ahmad Jibril—head of the so-called Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command (PFLP-GC), a small but notorious movement for the Assad regime—has also left.
It’s instructive that Jibril has reportedly fled to Tartous, a strategic port city that houses a major Russian military base in the coastal Alawite stronghold area.
Prospects of a last-ditch effort by the regime and its constituency to create an ethnic enclave in the Alawite mountain villages, connected to the outside world through the Tartous port and Latakia—the site of an airport that has been turned into a military base with Iranian support—have been transformed from remote to much more plausible.
There’s almost no chance the regime of Bashar al-Assad can survive, as even its Russian sponsors are beginning to publicly admit. The de facto resurrection of some version of the Alawite mini-state of the 1920s and 30s seemed a deeply implausible option at the outset of the conflict. But as the government has enforced the logic of sectarian and communal massacre, atrocities and fanaticism, prospects for such an outcome are no longer so far-fetched.
If such an arrangement could preserve Russia’s military base in Tartous and other interests, it could well get Moscow’s support. If the Syrian conflict continues to degenerate into ever-deeper bestiality, the idea might even be sold to the West as the only way to avoid Balkan-style communal slaughter and save the Alawite community from revenge massacres.
However, there is still a Sunni majority in Latakia, which would surely be the de facto capital of such a mini-state. This demographic reality was one of the key reasons why, unlike Lebanon, the Alawite mini-state wasn’t able to achieve independence under the French mandate, and was reincorporated into Syria in the 1930s.
This means that if the current Alawite power structure does resort to trying to impose such a Plan B, it will almost certainly involve significant atrocities and communal cleansing, particularly in Latakia and its surroundings.
There are precedents for the West, including the United States, turning a blind eye to such actions if they are quick, and perceived as decisive measures that are considered the only way of avoiding continued conflict and massacres. The West ignored what was possibly the largest single act of ethnic cleansing during the Yugoslav War: the systematic displacement of virtually the entire Serbian population of Krajina over a few days in August, 1995.
Nothing the international community has done thus far during the Syrian conflict suggests it is inconceivable it might react to a mass displacement of Sunnis from an Alawite enclave with anything more than a similar shrugging of shoulders, shaking of heads and clucking of tongues.