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

Video Obama Announces Plan to Send 3,000 Troops to Liberia in Ebola Fight

At US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Obama details troop deployment and other pieces of US plan More

Video China Muslims Work to Change Perceptions After Knife Attacks

Muslims in Kunming say that they condemn the violence, it is not a reflection of the true beliefs of their faith More

Humanitarian Aid, Equipment Blocked in Cameroon

Move is seen as a developing supply crisis in West Africa More

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Enviropreneur Seeks to Save the Environment, Empower the Communityi
X
September 16, 2014 2:06 PM
Lorna Rutto, a former banker, is now an ‘enviropreneur’ - turning plastic waste into furniture and fences discusses the challenges she faces in Africa with raw materials and the environment.
Video

Video Enviropreneur Seeks to Save the Environment, Empower the Community

Lorna Rutto, a former banker, is now an ‘enviropreneur’ - turning plastic waste into furniture and fences discusses the challenges she faces in Africa with raw materials and the environment.
Video

Video West Trades Accusations Over Ransoms

As world leaders try to forge a common response to the threat posed by Islamic State militants in Iraq and Syria, there is simmering tension over differing policies on paying ransoms. In the past month, the jihadist group has beheaded two Americans and one Briton. Both countries refuse to pay ransom money. As Henry Ridgwell reports for VOA from London, there is uncertainty in the approach of some other European nations.
Video

Video Scotland Independence Bid Stokes Global Interest

The people of Scotland are preparing to vote on whether to become independent and break away from the rest of Britain, in a referendum being watched carefully in many other countries. Some see it as a risky experiment; while others hope a successful vote for independence might energize their own separatist demands. Foreign immigrants to Scotland have a front row seat for the vote. VOA’s Henry Ridgwell spoke to some of them in Edinburgh.
Video

Video Washington DC Mural Artists Help Beautify City

Like many cities, Washington has a graffiti problem. Buildings and homes, especially in low-income neighborhoods, are often targets of illegal artwork. But as we hear from VOA’s Julie Taboh, officials in the nation's capital have come up with an innovative program that uses the talents of local artists to beautify the city.
Video

Video US Muslim Leaders Condemn Islamic State

Leaders of America's Muslim community are condemning the violent extremism of the Islamic State group in Iraq and Syria. The U.S. Muslim leaders say militants are exploiting their faith in a failed effort to justify violent extremism. VOA correspondent Meredith Buel reports.
Video

Video Americans' Reaction Mixed on Obama Strategy for Islamic State Militants

President Barack Obama’s televised speech on how the United States plans to “degrade and destroy” the group known as the Islamic State reached a prime-time audience of millions. And it came as Americans appear more willing to embrace a bolder, tougher approach to foreign policy. VOA producer Katherine Gypson and reporter Jeff Seldin have this report from Washington.
Video

Video Authorities Allege LA Fashion Industry-Cartel Ties

U.S. officials say they have broken up crime rings that funneled tens of millions of dollars from Mexican drug cartels through fashion businesses in Los Angeles. Mike O'Sullivan reports that authorities announced nine arrests, as 1,000 law enforcement agents fanned out through the city on Wednesday.
Video

Video Bedouin Woman Runs Successful Business in Palestinian City

A Bedouin woman is breaking social taboos by running a successful vacation resort in the Palestinian town of Jericho. Bedouins are a sub-group of Arabs known for their semi-nomadic lifestyle. Zlatica Hoke says the resort in the West Bank's Jordan Valley is a model of success for women in the region.


Carnage and mayhem are part of daily life in northern Nigeria, the result of a terror campaign by the Islamist group Boko Haram. Fears are growing that Nigeria’s government may not know how to counter it, and may be making things worse. More

AppleAndroid