Syria Update: Assad Targets Sunni along Syria’s Coast

Recent violence against Sunni communities in Syria’s coastal region raises new concern over sectarianism in Syria. It also suggests to some that Assad will move to form an Alawi state. In fact, these events are perpetrated to demonstrate force and to drive a sectarian narrative that strengthens Assad’s base. Assad’s support in Qardaha has weakened, an influx of internally displaced persons has transfigured the coastal region, and there are opportunities to exploit these fluctuations in Assad’s position there.

Since May 6, the predominantly Sunni villages of Bayda and Baniyas have witnessed a sharp escalation in Sunni massacres. The pictures and videos emerging from Bayda are appalling. Entire families have been slaughtered, including countless children. According to testimonies from Bayda, some 400 people were killed and 300 disappeared; of those, roughly 200 were buried in a mass grave in the presence of the pro-regime militias on Saturday. Of those buried, 150 were identified by name, while 50 bodies were difficult to identify because they were too disfigured or were of displaced persons from other areas. Similar numbers of people have reportedly been killed in the nearby city of Baniyas, and hundreds of residents have fled the area as the pro-regime militias continued to march from one Sunni village to another.[1]

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These reports of sectarian mass killings along the Syrian coast have reignited fears of ethnic cleansing in preparation for Assad’s envisioned future Alawi state. However, as Hassan Hassan has argued, sectarian cleansing is not being conducted for the purpose of establishing a potential state, but rather for other strategic purposes, including recruitment of Alawi fighters, deepening sectarian tensions in Assad’s favor, and ensuring a popular base of support.[2]

Many analysts have argued that the Syrian regime has been setting the stage for a retreat to Syria’s coastal mountains, the traditional homeland of President Bashar al-Assad’s Alawi sect, and that sooner or later Assad will abandon Damascus for the coast. This narrative followed reports that regime forces were conducting repeated clearance operations in coastal Sunni enclaves like Baniyas, Bayda, Tal Kalakh, and Latakia’s Rama neighborhood throughout the spring and summer of 2011, resulting in large-scale displacement of Sunni populations.[3] Stories of Alawi massacres of Sunni villages in the heterogeneous Sahel al-Ghab region reinforced this narrative and suggested that a degree of ethnic cleansing was occurring for the purpose of paving the way for a potential Alawi state.[4] Although Assad has attempted to consolidate the Alawites behind him and to fortify his position in the northern Alawi coastal mountains and Tal Kalakh in the south, conditions on the ground contradict assertions that Assad is creating an Alawi rump state.

Infrequently reported was the additional fact that, at the same time that these clearance operations were taking place, regime forces were also bombarding the city of Latakia in order to suppress anti-regime demonstrations that cut across sectarian lines.[5] Anti-regime protests in the area came to an abrupt halt as the regime shelled demonstrations in summer 2011. Pro-regime militias circulated videos of themselves humiliating protestors.[6] As demonstrations died down and a sense of normalcy returned to the area, the coast quickly became one of the few regions offering relative safety to Syrians. Thousands of Syrians, regardless of sect, have fled the violence in their communities and sought refuge in the coast. Communities have migrated to different locations according to the ebb and flow of violence across Syria, and for the most part, geographic displacement has not been systematized.

This geographic displacement has shifted demographics in the area considerably. For example, Tartous, which was reportedly 90 percent Alawi at the start of the uprising, had shifted to 75 percent Alawi by July 2012 and then dropped down again to a mere 60 percent Alawi following the intense fighting in Aleppo and Idlib provinces during the summer of 2012, which drove thousands of Aleppo’s upper classes to take residence in their often-lavish resort homes along the coast.[7] Similar trends exist for Latakia, where Alawites and Sunnis continue to live side by side. A recent publication by the International Strategic Research Organization reports that Sunnis comprise around 45 percent of the population in Tartous, 50 percent of the population in Latakia, and around 70 percent in Latakia’s outskirts.[8]

What distinguishes recent events in Bayda and Baniyas from previous massacres is the regime’s response. Unlike previous cases, the regime has not attempted to blame the opposition, nor has it condemned the killings. Though the regime has made no official comment on the gruesome proceedings, pro-regime sources have endorsed the killings. Some pro-regime Facebook pages have even posted pictures of slaughtered children, claiming they were militants. Moreover, in a video posted on YouTube, the leader of an Alawi militia in the coastal region, along with an Alawi religious leader, discusses plans to “cleanse Baniyas of the traitors.”[9] Previously, Alawi religious leaders had been careful to refrain from involvement in the conflict, even publicly distancing themselves from the regime's crackdown. Putting together a militia commander calling for the “cleansing” of Sunni areas and an Alawi religious leader was likely a calculated move by the regime, which has employed similar tactics in the past to reinforce a particular narrative.

Despite the fact that the regime has consolidated along the coast, rebels have made some significant gains around regime bases in Aleppo province and throughout the southern provinces of Deraa and Quneitra. As the rebels advance on regime strongholds, communities in the coastal area may begin to realize that a victory for the rebels is possible, and further that they could be pushed into reconsidering their allegiances. Particularly as the international community steps up its aid to the opposition and with reports that the U.S. is looking to arm some rebel groups, the massacres in Bayda and Baniyas are an important show of force for the Assad regime. Furthermore, they reinforce the type of sectarian polarization that shores up regime support. In so doing, Assad clearly draws a red line at the coast for rebel incursions while simultaneously reassuring the Alawi community that the regime remains a source of stability and security.

Anti-Assad stirrings among the Alawi community have also forced the regime into taking a more assertive stance in its coastal stronghold. Inter-Alawi clashes have occurred, particularly in Qardaha, the hometown of the Assad family, where an open rift has developed among the Alawi elite. Clashes first broke out in the fall of 2012 when a number of prominent Alawi families participated in anti-regime street protests, ultimately forcing the hand of security forces and leading to an exchange of gunfire in which many Alawites were killed.[10]

These tensions remain unabated, and many Alawites in the area resent the policies of Assad and his militias, or shabiha, who have tormented the coastal region. In recent weeks, these inter-Alawi disputes have been exacerbated as Rifaat, Bashar’s uncle who is notorious for his attempted coup in 1983, has sought to return to Qardaha for the burial of a family member. Those loyal to Rifaat have joined other prominent Alawi families in the city in challenging Assad’s leadership and joining in anti-regime protests. Although these demonstrations did not call for Assad’s downfall, the regime refused to tolerate open opposition from some of the most important Alawi families. In order to set an example, government forces reportedly burned their stores and arrested members of the family. The events in Qardaha combined with recent rebel incursions into the area have threatened the Alawi sense of security in the coastal area. Up until now, Assad has been able to rely on the Alawi community’s cohesiveness and support. However, Alawi discontent could well be surfacing under the stress of war and the fear of retribution.

It is understandable that speculation may occur about an Alawi enclave given reports about attacks on Sunni neighborhoods and villages along the coast. Moreover, efforts to build an Alawi state will no doubt be supported by certain groups, including Iranian proxies and Alawi militias, who would have interests in the establishment of such a state. However, a retreat to an Alawi stronghold would represent failure for the regime, and Assad has made it clear that he will live or die in Damascus.

These massacres coincide with a regime offensive in Homs and the neighboring town of al-Qusayr. Beginning in early March 2013, rebels launched a major offensive to retake parts of Homs city. Rebels managed to break through government lines in the north and west to loosen the months-long siege on their strongholds in the center of Homs, despite coming under fierce aerial bombardment. Several government positions fell to rebel fighters as regime troops were forced to flee to the regime-held neighborhood of Jobar.[11] The regime’s counteroffensive quickly stalled out and was only revived by Hezbollah’s intervention in al-Qusayr. Hezbollah sent significant forces to al-Qusayr, thus diverting rebel forces and helping to ease pressure on government positions in Homs. Since Hezbollah became involved, the regime has regained its position in Homs and is now threatening the rebels’ hold on al-Qusayr, with Hezbollah troops applying pressure from the south and regime troops attacking from the north. If the rebels lose al-Qusayr, the regime will regain a critical supply route from Damascus stretching to the coastal area that has been disrupted by the rebel presence in the area.[12] Although the regime has regained the upper hand in the area, government forces suffered heavy losses during the initial rebel offensive. They were unable to shield pro-regime portions of the population from rebel attacks. The need for Hezbollah’s overt intervention demonstrated some of the limits of regime forces and left a critical portion of the population in doubt over its ability to protect them. It is unlikely a coincidence that the events in Bayda and Baniyas came so quickly on the heels of the regime’s struggles in Homs province.

Understanding the regime’s strategy from the standpoint of an Alawi state or even from a sectarian framework fails to grasp some of the more important dynamics that are driving regime decisions and actions on the ground, specifically in the coastal regions. Syrian society is not polarized along sectarian lines only, and disaggregating the regime’s attempt to enforce a sectarian narrative from what is actually happening on the ground is an important part of creating the type of initiatives that could aid Syria’s long-term stability. Inter-Alawi cleavages could be seized by the opposition and the international community in targeting crucial regime support. Events such as the massacres in Bayda and Baniyas, which are appalling to both Alawi and Sunnis alike, could serve as a platform for cross-sectarian negotiation and mediation, specifically in areas along the coast where the two communities coexist.

Assad is clearly looking to exploit sectarian fault lines in his favor. Months of bloodshed have heightened sectarian tensions and ripped apart communities in ways that are reminiscent of Iraq, where violence in 2006-2007 effectively turned into real attempts at sectarian cleansing. However, Syria is not Iraq, and observers should avoid falling into the trap of the regime’s narrative. Instead, they should look beyond easy parallels in order to take advantage of important opportunities generated by local initiatives and internal fractures within the Alawi community.

[1] Ibid; Interviews with sources on the ground conducted between May 5-6, 2013 reported similar numbers to those documented in the article.

[2] Hassan Hassan, “Lessons from a massacre that Assad looks to exploit,” The National, May 8, 2013.

[3] Joseph Holliday, “The Assad Regime: from Counterinsurgency to Civil War,” Middle East Security Report 8, Institute for the Study of War, March 2013.

[4] “Syria condemned for Houla massacre and shelling by UN,” BBC, May 27, 2012.

[5] Michael Totten, “Assad Shells Alawite Stronghold,” World Affairs Dispatches, August 13, 2011.

[6] Hassan Hassan, “Syrian regime has raised ghosts that will not go away,” The National, June 7, 2011.

[7] Katie Paul, “Syria’s Alawite Refuge,” Foreign Affairs, July 18, 2013; Interview with regime insider on April 14, 2013.

[8] “Toward an Alawite State in Syria,” International Strategic Research Organization, May 7, 2013.

[9] “Leader of the Shabiha Resistance acknowledges massacres in Banias,” YouTube, posted on May 5, 2013.

[10] Tony Badran, “What’s happening in Qardaha,” Now Lebanon, October 9, 2012.

[11] Elizabeth O’Bagy, “Free Syrian Army,” Middle East Security Report 9, Institute for the Study of War, March 2013.

[12] Interviews with rebel commanders in Homs conducted via skype from March 26 – April 10, 2013.