Time to Put an Alawite State on the Map

Obama’s visit is an important opportunity for Israel to lobby for a grand agreement between the U.S. and Russia to protect and disarm the Alawite minority in Syria after the fall of Bashar Assad's regime.

AFP

Over 80,000 people have been killed since the beginning of the civil war in Syria, tens or hundreds of thousands have been wounded and more than a million Syrians have become refugees, most of them Sunnis. The implosion of the Syrian state and the formation of a separate Alawite mini-state, a possibility entertained by very few observers when the civil war began two years ago, is now, in the eyes of the majority of analysts, the most plausible outcome of the conflict.

The almost inevitable collapse of the Assad regime is likely to provoke tremendous acts of revenge by Sunnis against their former rulers, the Alawites, with massacres that will put the comprehensive violence that has already happened in the shade. The open and growing threats by Sunni Islamist opposition leaders are a prelude to the coming catastrophe.

The Alawite leadership is aware of this impending threat, and has prepared for a retreat to an “Alawite Fortress” in the Mediterranean coast region and the Alawite Mountains; to create a neutral "buffer zone," the regime has already ethnically cleansed the Sunni rural areas near the big cities bordering their enclave.

Lebanese observers have mentioned a plan to build a territorial corridor between the Alawite statelet and the Shia regions in Lebanon that are controlled by Hezbollah and by sympathetic Christians, who fear a radicalization of the Lebanese Sunnis more than all else. It is possible to see the battles that some 1500 Hezbollah fighters are waging in Syria, near the north-eastern border with Lebanon, as contributing to this plan.

It appears that Iran, too, is becoming involved in the Alawite Fortress project. Iran’s active involvement in Syria is intended not only to defend the Assad regime but also aimed at bringing this future Alawite mini-state under Iran’s protection. The Assad government could transfer its huge non-conventional weapons arsenal to this territory to serve as an ultimate insurance policy against a massacre of the Alawites.

A radical Alawite state with non-conventional capabilities, with the presence of an Iranian expeditionary force, a territorial link to Hezbollah strongholds in Lebanon, plus a Russian strategic military umbrella in Tartous is a recipe for a permanent threat to the rest of Syria, Israel, Lebanon and Turkey and for continuing instability in the region and beyond.

Many pundits, including American officials, are aware that a solution to the Syrian quagmire implies close cooperation with Russia. The two powers are already discussing the best approach to avoid chaos in Syria, emphasizing possible loss of control over the Syrian chemical arsenal.

To hamper the formation of such a clearly dangerous Alawite entity, the United States and Russia need to agree a “grand bargain”. Such an agreement would need to include the following:

The U.S. and Russia guarantee the security of an Alawite statelet as well as the safety of the Alawites elsewhere in Syria;

The two powers guarantee Lebanese territorial integrity;

No Iranian/Hezbollah military or para-military presence would be allowed within this statelet;

All Syrian non-conventional weapons (chemical, nuclear and biological) that may have been transferred to this statelet will be removed and destroyed under international supervision (in the same manner as the Gadhafi regime’s chemical weapons were destroyed after the regime’s fall);

The United States and NATO will recognize the legitimacy of the Russian military presence within the future Alawite territory;

As a quid pro quo, Russia will recognize the independence of Kosovo, already recognized by most Western powers.

What are the clear advantages of this agreement for both the U.S. and Russia as well as other countries in the region?

Such an agreement will strategically weaken Iran and Hezbollah. The agreement could go some way toward improving the atmosphere of cooperation between Russia and the United States concerning the Iranian nuclear project and could help coordinate the necessary political and operational measures to hamper the formation of jihadist enclaves in Syrian territory.

Turkey is likely to strongly oppose the formation of an independent Alawite state, because of the possibility that the Syrian Kurds will form an additional autonomous entity, thus influencing the Kurds in Turkey and threatening Turkey’s internal stability. But Turkey must take in consideration that – in any case - it will probably not be able to prevent the formation of this Alawite entity. Moreover, Ankara has to consider that the Alawites in Turkey (some 500,000 people) and the Alevis (more than 15 percent of the population), who even now are opposed to Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s policy on Syria, would blame him for grievous inaction if he blocked the formation of enclaves now and stood by while their Alawite brethren were massacred.

Israel also has an interest in opposing the formation of a radical Alawite mini-state under Iranian protection, but Jerusalem would still benefit from the neutralization of the non-conventional weapons that threatened it under the Assad regime.

U.S. President Barack Obama’s visit is an important opportunity for Israel to lobby for a grand agreement that would save many lives in the region, while advancing critical multilateral cooperation.

Ely Karmon is the Senior Research Scholar at the Institute for Counter-Terrorism at The Interdisciplinary Center (IDC) in Herzliya. He is also the Senior Research Fellow at The Institute for Policy and Strategy at IDC.