This is an open letter to the Free Syrian Army and other fighters against the Assad regime in Syria.
What has happened over the past months of unrest is remarkable. Ordinary Syrians have joined the fight against the autocratic regime of Assad. Unfortunately, the regime has seen brutal crackdown as the only viable policy. By now, it has no legitimacy, either at home or abroad. United States and regional powers have concluded that they prefer the survival of the current regime to the emergence of a–potentially Islamist–autonomous regime in Syria. However, events have overtaken everyone.
Most Alawite have concluded that dealing with a, vindictive, revolutionary, Sunni-dominated regime is not an option. The massacres that are being reported are not merely random violence. The Shabiha is carrying out ethnic cleansing. The goal is to make the Alawite dominated Levantine highlands more or less homogeneous so that the Alawite may withdraw there and survive. Whence, the all the major sites are those on the “border”. They see this as the only possibility of survival. They are not about to subject themselves to a Sunni dominated regime. If they are kicked out of power, the Alawite and sundry core that has coalesced around the Assad regime is going to withdraw to their traditional home in the mountains overlooking the Mediterranean.
What we are going to see is that an Alawite state is going to survive in Lebanese form. They will manage to retain control of Christians and Druse, and other minorities that have flourished under the regime. In fact, it will probably end up as a mirror image of Lebanon, with the roles of Christians and Shi’i reversed. The other sects are going to be buffers for the new Alawite state. The necessity of the support of the Christians will mean that it would sharply reduce its military support to Hezbollah and deal with Lebanon on a more even level and not treat it like a vassal, which is not such a bad thing in itself. But:
The threat of this outcome to Sunnis and the general populace of Syria cannot be exaggerated. Cut off from the Mediterranean they would face declining incomes and isolation from the world-economy. Their rump state will look much larger on a map but would grow increasingly poor. There is no land locked country that is not desperate, with good reason. The natural state of an autarchic, isolated, economy is poverty. Syria will not only be a giant Gaza strip–starved of economic intercourse with the rest of the world–it would also be losing much of its human capital with the flight of the upper class and the minorities who prefer the known, cosmopolitan world of the Alawite epoch.
The most attractive option, that of a peaceful overthrow of the autocratic Assad regime, is now gone. With the United States busy with elections and the Europeans squabbling over money, there is no help coming. You are on your own, guys. If you want to create a viable state that is not a zone of instability and a playing field of regional powers, capture at least a bit of the coast.
The Battle of Latakia
If there is going to be a viable state of Syria without the Alawite, it has to have access to the open sea. Forget about areas with sparse Alawite population, building a functioning state apparatus after the collapse of this one is going to be a major challenge. For a long time, the capabilities of the state are going to be very limited. You are going to end up with the territory that you control on the day of the ceasefire. If you do not have access to the open sea, as seems likely, you are going to be mighty isolated.
Syria will never be able to challenge other regional powers. Turkey will interfere in the north to subdue the Kurds. The Saudis will fund and promote the Salafis. Iran will try to keep supporting the Alawite regime on the coast, which will itself be the biggest nuisance. Israel will routinely carry out air strikes and commando raids to capture juicy targets, and don’t forget the American drones. The Europeans and the Japanese will send maybe a billion dollars in aid and people to carry out photo shoots.
There are only two ways out of this future: a political settlement with the Alawite and the regime, or winning the battle of Latakia. The former is basically out of the realm of possibility at this point. The latter is still up for grabs.
I know you know that even the Economist thinks you are going to win. You are. The question in not whether, but when and at what cost. The strength and vibrancy of Syrian society and state depends on a complex web of human capital and institutional structures. Sectarian vengeance and conflict, and Islamism are going kill the goose that lays the golden eggs. Moreover, the former is going to promote the latter and general radicalization. As such, during a violent revolution, the voices of those with bigger guns is louder.
The revolutionaries must not only think of what ought to be achieved but also what can be achieved. To create a viable Syrian state, their efforts must be focused on what is necessary, rather that thinly spread out over what is desirable. The battle for access to the sea must be won. This will boil down to how many miles south of the Turkish border are under rebel control.
Fight for it.
P.S. Good work on this one:
[Read the next post on this topic: The gathering storm.]