In the “strange bedfellows” department, the embattled dictatorship in Syria—which in the past has rarely felt that it needed Israeli permission for anything, whether it was funding Hezbollah in Lebanon, harboring Palestinian militants, or continuing to claim the Golan Heights—has, it turned out, gone to the Israeli government hat in hand recently to ask its support for setting up a post-civil-war “rump state” in the coastal area of the country.
This was revealed earlier this week by the English newspaper the Guardian, which reported that Syria’s dictator, Bashar al-Assad, had asked an unnamed diplomat “to approach the former Israeli foreign minister, Avigdor Lieberman, late last year with a request that Israel not stand in the way of attempts to form an Alawite state, which could have meant moving some displaced communities into the Golan Heights area.” (At the end of last year, I listed Syrian Alawites as one of “10 Separatist Movements to Watch in 2013.”)
Alawites, who are Arab, practice a form of Shi’a Islam and make up about 12% of Syria’s population, but after the humiliation of defeat by Israel in the Arab–Israeli War of 1967, Hafez al-Assad, the current dictator’s father, deposed the Ba’athist Arab-nationalist regime that represented the just-over-two-thirds of the country that is Sunni Arab and made his own Alawite community into the political élite. The Alawite version of Islam, though secular and liberal by many standards, is Shiite nonetheless, thus putting Assad’s Syria in an axis of fiercely anti-Western Shiite régimes that include Iran and Lebanon’s Hezbollah, as well as radical Shiite Arabs in southern Iraq who have recently found themselves part of the political majority. The Syrian civil war which began in 2011 began as largely political until it drew an influx of Salafist Sunni fighters. Many of them sympathetic are foreign fighters sympathetic to al-Qaeda, they tend to regard Shiism in general and the Alawite in particular as heresy, and they have become a prominent part of the opposition. That, more than anything else, has helped sectarianize the Syrian conflict. It is now one of the fronts in the wider historical conflict between Shiites and Sunnis that has become a feature of the recent rise of Islamist politics—along with Lebanon, Yemen, Bahrain, and of course Iraq. There seems no way that Muslim Brotherhood or Salafist elements would not demand, and probably get, a prominent role in a post-Assad régime.
|Like father, like son|
It is no secret that Assad, for all his bluster, is making contingency plans for possible rebel victory in Damascus, other major cities, and the vast center and east of the country. Observers have noted what appear to have been attempts to create a régime-controlled corridor between the Alawite region and centers of régime control in the interior. And tensions in the Alawite region have risen dramatically. This has been, for obvious reasons, the least rebellious part of the country, but there have been reports of attempted pogroms of Alawites by Salafist Sunnis. Other Sunnis are fleeing the area for points east or abroad, despite the fact that is the area least affected by the war.
|The flag of the French-era Alawite State. Presumably if it were restored it would lose the tricoleur.|
|The state of play at the moment, according to the Economist|
|Strange bedfellows indeed: is the Israeli government about to join this cheering section?|
|Syrian Kurds celebrating the establishment last year of a de facto West Kurdistan Autonomous Region.|
Some call that moment simply the first crack in the break-up of Syria.