Behind the Lines: Coastal Retreat
By JONATHAN SPYER
Is Syrian President Bashar Assad preparing a last stand in Syria’s Alawi mountains?
The beleaguered regime of Bashar Assad suffered further setbacks this week. The
Syrian rebels are slowly clawing their way into Damascus. A fierce fight
took place in the Palestinian refugee camp of Yarmouk in the capital.
battle pitched the rebels of the Free Syrian Army against fighters of the
Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine – General Command. The PFLP-GC is
a proxy of the Assad regime, commanded by a superannuated former Syrian army
officer of Palestinian origin, Ahmed Jibril.
The fight ended with the
rebels in control of the camp. The Hajal al-Aswad district of Damascus also fell
to the rebellion in the last days.
Ahmed Jibril’s next move, following
the defeat of his fighters in Yarmouk, offers a clue as to the possible next
phase in the Syrian civil war. The PFLP-GC leader and his son vanished from
Damascus. Various sources have now reported that Jibril has turned up in
Tartous, on the Mediterranean coast, deep in the heart of the majority Alawi
If these reports are correct, the veteran Palestinian
leader’s move is the latest indication that while the battle for Damascus
continues, the loyalists of the Assad regime are already planning for the next
phase, for after the city falls. For months now there have been signs that the
regime has been laying the foundations for a defendable Alawi-dominated enclave
in the mountains of Latakia province.
Senior members of the Syrian
security and political elite have begun to send their families from Damascus to
this emergent stronghold. Assad’s most loyal Palestinian client may have just
become its newest resident.
The problem with this enclave, from Assad’s
point of view, is that any conceivable, defensible boundaries it could have
would take in an area that currently contains a large Sunni population. Indeed,
the main city of the governate, Latakia city, has a 60-percent Sunni majority.
This means that there is a very real prospect of ethnic cleansing in this area,
as the dictator’s hold on Damascus becomes more tenuous.
enclave would stretch from the Mediterranean coast to the Orontes River valley,
just west of the majority Sunni cities of Homs and Hama.
establishment of such an entity would be a last roll of the dice for Assad. The
viability of a Latakia-centered Alawi would depend on its receiving recognition
and support from Russia and Iran. This is not inconceivable. In the event of a
rebel triumph in Syria, both Moscow and Tehran are likely to pay a very heavy
Both countries have been staunch allies of Assad
throughout the uprising. This has not gone unnoticed by the rebels. A Free
Syrian Army officer interviewed by this reporter earlier this year said that “if
the revolution succeeds, we will neither depend on, nor have relations with, nor
take weapons from Russia.” The same officer also said that the Syrian revolution
would “break the dream” of Iranian domination of the region – and, more
specifically, Tehran’s strategic ambition to create a contiguous line of
pro-Iranian states stretching from Iran’s western borders to the Mediterranean
The Iranians are surely aware of this, too. They are also aware that
their main investment in the Levant – Hezbollah – stands to be the next domino
in the path of the Sunni Islamist juggernaut if Assad falls. The Russians,
meanwhile, wish to preserve the last of their regional clients and the naval
facility at Tartous.
Could all this be sufficient for these countries to
maintain the lifelines necessary to enable an Alawi stronghold on the coast to
survive? The Russians and Iranians may themselves not yet have decided the
answer to this question. It must surely be foremost in the minds of the regime’s
inner core at the present time.
But most crucial is the question of
whether such an enclave could stem the advance of the Sunni rebels long enough
to even begin the discussion of its viability and continued existence. The
Syrian rebels are fully aware of the danger posed to Syria’s future territorial
integrity by the existence of putative minority enclaves. As such, they see
snuffing out any nascent Alawi statelet on the west coast as a task no less
important than the capture of Damascus itself.
So the rebels are now
trying to push further into the western coastal area and take the city of
Latakia. Without this port city, no Alawi statelet could possibly be
As of now, rebel forces have succeeded only in pushing at the
boundaries of the putative Alawi stronghold, taking control of a few Alawi
villages on its periphery. It is worth remembering that, their gains
notwithstanding, the Syrian rebels have yet to take complete control of any of
Syria’s major cities. So Assad’s men have some time left to embark on the
establishment of their enclave. The rebels have still to complete the conquest
of Aleppo, and are presently engaged in seeking to take the city of Hama as well
as focusing on the crucial battle for Damascus.
The timing cannot be
predicted. But keep watch in the days ahead for more pillars of the regime, such
as Ahmed Jibril taking to the road from Damascus to Latakia. The concentration
of such figures in the western coastal area could be the best indication for the
direction of events in the next phase of the Syrian civil war.