News / Middle East

Can Assad Regime, Kurds Create Safe Havens in Syria?

President Bashar al-Assad stands with his military generals, most of whom are Alawites, at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Damascus, October 6, 2011 President Bashar al-Assad stands with his military generals, most of whom are Alawites, at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Damascus, October 6, 2011
x
President Bashar al-Assad stands with his military generals, most of whom are Alawites, at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Damascus, October 6, 2011
President Bashar al-Assad stands with his military generals, most of whom are Alawites, at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Damascus, October 6, 2011
David Arnold
As the civil war intensifies in Syria, officials and experts in the region are increasingly concerned the fighting could lead to redefining the nation’s political boundaries, possibly including autonomous regions or safe havens for Alawite and Kurdish factions.

Origins of the Alawi and Kurds of SyriaOrigins of the Alawi and Kurds of Syria
x
Origins of the Alawi and Kurds of Syria
Origins of the Alawi and Kurds of Syria
Those concerns have increased in recent days as the Sunni-dominated Free Syrian Army on an urban corridor in the west and Kurdish rebels in the north have scored one success after another against President Bashar al-Assad’s army and his Alawite followers.

Neighboring Turkey is paying especially close attention, worried that the success of Syria’s Kurds might further enflame separatist sentiments among its own Kurdish minority.
 
Aram Nerguizian, a Syria expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, says the concerns are not ill-founded. He says if the safety and the interests of Syria’s Alawi and Kurds are not addressed, “they will opt at least for the effort to produce some kind of autonomy and if not, a territorially contiguous space where they feel they have command and control.”

Restless Kurds unite on the Jazirah Plain

Syria’s Kurdish militias have been especially successful, taking advantage of the Assad government’s military emphasis on battling the Free Syrian Army fighters in Damascus and Aleppo. In recent weeks, the Kurds have taken control of at least five towns on the Jazirah Plain in the north - Efrin, Kobani, Amuda, Sari Kana and Derek – though Syria government forces continue to hold Qamlishi, the largest Kurdish city.

But Ercan Citioglu of Turkey’s Bahcesehir University told VOA’s Kurdish Service that the government in Ankara is worried that if Syria’s Kurds establish an autonomous region in the area, it could be used to stage attacks on Turkish targets just across the northern border. That, he warns, would trigger a swift reaction from Turkey’s military.

The fate of Syria’s Alawite religious/ethnic minority could be even more problematical.

Security for Damascus Alawi elite in question

For centuries, the Alawites were a poor and largely uneducated minority living in the al-Alawiyin Mountains near the Mediterranean coast. That began to change when the Ottoman Empire collapsed during World War I. Under a post-war colonial mandate, the French recruited Alawites into the military, passing over many urban Sunni.

And when Hafez Assad rose to power 42 years ago, his Ba’ath Party put many Alawites on a fast track to scholarships, college educations and government jobs.

And though Alawites now make up less than 13 percent or so of Syria’s 22 million people, under the Assad family’s ruthless rule, they have dominated the government, the military and Syrian culture.

Every country surrounding Syria stands to be affected by this
Now, President Assad and his Alawite followers fear that if they lose control, they will be overrun by Sunnis, who make up more than 70 percent of the population.

“The fate of our people and our nation, past, present and future, depends on this battle," Assad said in a statement released as government forces began their attack on Aleppo last week. 

Could Bashar al-Assad retreat to al-Alawiyin Mountains?

For several months now, some Syrian experts have been saying that pro-Assad shabiha militias have been carrying out wholesale killings in Sunni towns along the Orontes River, suggesting they might be trying to carve out a safe zone in the area for the Alawi.

Joshua Landis, director of the University of Oklahoma’s Middle East Studies Center, says that if government forces lose, Assad and his followers might be tempted to retreat to their ancient Alawite homeland.

It’s not a point of going back because they’ve never lived there 
Landis, however, predicts such an effort – if it indeed takes place – would be unsuccessful. He notes that Alawi have for decades been moving out of the mountains to the cities and larger towns and that if the lose this civil war, they would be unable to defend themselves in the mountains. 

Syria scholar Nikolaos van Dam says most of the Alawites who migrated to positions in the military and the government in Damascus have been gone from their Alawiyin homeland for a couple of generations.

"It’s not a point of going back because they’ve never lived there," van Dam said of the Alawite elite in Damascus.

And van Dam said Alawite loyalties are more divided than many suppose. He says many Alawites in those the traditional Alawi areas have for years opposed the Assad regime and some remain “political prisoners” in their villages.

What will the neighbors say?

All of Syria’s neighbors are worried about the impact of an extended civil war with the growing burden of more refugees crossing into their territory.

“Every country surrounding Syria stands to be affected by this,” said Nerguizian of CSIS. “And frankly, the different actors at the regional and international level have not done enough to take stock of the fact these pressures and concerns within minority groups like the Alawite community are very real.”

You May Like

Anti-Terror Drills Highlight China’s Push Into Central Asia

China, Russia, several central Asian countries wrap up massive anti terrorism military drills in Inner Mongolia More

Erdogan’s First Step: Secure More Power in New Role in Turkey

Erdogan was sworn in as Turkey's first popularly elected president on Thursday; he picked former foreign minister Ahmet Davutoglu as PM More

Pakistan Army Fails to Break Political Deadlock

PM Sharif claims he didn't ask army to defuse crisis; military rejects claim More

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Ukraine Battles Pro-Russia Rebel Assaulti
X
Daniel Schearf
August 29, 2014 9:30 PM
After NATO concluded an emergency meeting to discuss the crisis in eastern Ukraine, the country is struggling to contain heavy fighting near the strategic port of Mariupol, on the Azov Sea. Separatist rebels are trying to capture the city, allegedly with Russian military help, and Ukraine's defense forces are digging in. VOA's Daniel Schearf spoke with analysts about what lies ahead for Ukraine.
Video

Video Ukraine Battles Pro-Russia Rebel Assault

After NATO concluded an emergency meeting to discuss the crisis in eastern Ukraine, the country is struggling to contain heavy fighting near the strategic port of Mariupol, on the Azov Sea. Separatist rebels are trying to capture the city, allegedly with Russian military help, and Ukraine's defense forces are digging in. VOA's Daniel Schearf spoke with analysts about what lies ahead for Ukraine.
Video

Video Growing Business Offers Paint with a Twist of Wine

Two New Orleans area women started a small business seven years ago with one thing in mind: to help their neighbors relieve the stress of coping with a hurricane's aftermath. Today their business, which pairs painting and a little bit of wine, has become one of the fastest growing franchises across the U.S. VOA’s June Soh met the entrepreneurs at their newest franchise location in the Washington suburbs.
Video

Video Ebola Vaccine Trials To Begin Next Week

The National Institutes of Health says it is launching early stage trials of a vaccine to prevent the Ebola virus, which has infected or killed thousands of people across West Africa. The World Health Organization says Ebola could infect more than 20,000 people across the region by the time the outbreak is over. The epidemic has health experts and governments scrambling to prevent more people from becoming infected. Zlatica Hoke has more.
Video

Video Asian Bacteria Threatens Florida Orange Trees

Florida's citrus fruit industry is facing a serious threat from a bacteria carried by the Asian insect called psyllid. The widespread infestation again highlights the danger of transferring non-native species to American soil. VOA’s George Putic reports.
Video

Video Aging Will Reduce Economic Growth Worldwide in Coming Decades

The world is getting older, fast. And as more people retire each year, fewer working-age people will be there to replace them. Bond rating agency Moody’s says that will lead to a decline in household savings; reducing global investments - which in turn, will lead to slower economic growth around the world. But experts say it’s not too late to mitigate the economic impact of the world’s aging populations. Mil Arcega has more.
Video

Video Is West Doing Enough to Tackle Islamic State?

U.S. President Barack Obama has ruled out sending ground troops to Iraq to fight militants of the so-called Islamic State, or ISIS, despite officials in Washington describing the extremist group as the biggest threat the United States has faced in years. Henry Ridgwell reports from London on the growing uncertainty over whether the West’s response to ISIS will be enough to defeat the terrorist threat.
Video

Video Coalition to Fight Islamic State Could Reward Assad

The United States along with European and Mideast allies are considering a broader assault against Islamic State fighters who have spread from Syria into Iraq and risk further destabilizing an already troubled region. But as VOA State Department Correspondent Scott Stearns reports, confronting those militants could end up helping the embattled Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
Video

Video Made in America Socks Get Toehold in Online Fashion Market

Three young entrepreneurs are hoping to revolutionize the high-end sock industry by introducing all-American creations of their own. And they’re doing most of it the old-fashioned way. VOA’s Julie Taboh recently caught up with them to learn what goes into making their one-of-a-kind socks.
Video

Video Americans, Ex-Pats Send Relief Supplies to West Africa

Health organizations from around the world are sending supplies and specialists to the West African countries that are dealing with the worst Ebola outbreak in history. On a smaller scale, ordinary Americans and African expatriates living in the United States are doing the same. VOA's Carol Pearson reports.
Video

Video America's Most Popular Artworks Displayed in Public Places

Public places in cities across America were turned into open-air art galleries in August. Pictures of the nation’s most popular artworks were displayed on billboards, bus shelters, subway platforms and more. The idea behind “Art Everywhere,” a collaborative campaign by five major museums is to allow more people to enjoy art and learn about the country’s culture and history. Faiza Elmasry has more.
Video

Video Chinese Doctors Use 3-D Spinal Implant

A Chinese boy suffering from a debilitating bone disease has become the first patient with a part of his spine created in a three-dimensional printer. Doctors say he will soon regain normal mobility. VOA’s George Putic reports.
Video

Video India’s Leprosy Battle Stymied by Continuing Stigma

Medical advancements in the treatment of leprosy have greatly diminished its impact around the world, largely eliminating the disease from most countries. India made great strides in combating leprosy, but still accounts for a majority of the world’s new cases each year, and the number of newly infected Indians is rising - more than 130,000 recorded last year. Doctors there say the problem has more to do with society than science. Shaikh Azizur Rahman reports from Kolkata.

AppleAndroid