The Daily Star Lebanon
Syria’s partition could crack Lebanon
July 01, 2011 01:38 AM
By Michael Young
The Daily Star
It is difficult to see how President Bashar Assad will prevail over the
growing protests demanding an end to his regime. More than two months of
carnage by the Syrian army and security forces have failed to shake the
demonstrators’ determination, and surely will not.
There are many scenarios for what might happen in Syria. Lebanese
should pay attention to one in particular. As it dawns on the Assads
that their days in power are numbered, we should consider the option
that they and the minority Alawite community will move to an alternate
plan. Unable to subdue Syria, the regime may contemplate falling back on
an Alawite-dominated statelet in northwest Syria.
There is little certainty surrounding such a scheme. In recent weeks
the army and security services have been active in Idlib province along
the Turkish border, after their assault near the Lebanese border,
particularly in Talkalakh – accompanied by an ongoing campaign to pacify
the Homs to Aleppo axis. Even if the Assads’ priority is to reimpose
their writ over Syria in its entirety, the actions in these areas may,
simultaneously, serve another purpose: to consolidate Alawite control
over the margins of a future mini-state.
Alawites are concentrated in the mountain region and cities of Syria’s
northwest, even if they have moved elsewhere during the past decades.
Notably, they have moved into the plains of Homs and Hama, where they
generally live around the main cities. If the community sought to
establish a statelet, it would have to implement a three-tiered process.
This would involve preparing a forward defense line near areas of Sunni
urban concentration, along the Homs-Hama-Aleppo road. It would also
entail strengthening Alawite control over the community’s heartland
further to the west, particularly over the coastal cities, while arming
The third stage of the process would necessitate securing a parallel
line of defense along the eastern edge of the Alawite mountains, above
the plains leading toward Homs, Hama and Aleppo. Not coincidentally,
perhaps, the northern hinge of this boundary is at Jisr al-Shughour,
while the southernmost hinge is at Talkalakh. These are places allowing
the regime to close off access to predominantly Sunni districts across
the borders. However, the terror tactics adopted by the Syrian army,
security forces and irregular pro-regime militias are disturbingly
similar to those of the Serb-dominated army and Serb paramilitaries
during the conflict in the former Yugoslavia. Is the aim to cause
permanent population displacement? That’s unclear. However, there is a
geographical rationale behind the Assads’ strategy, and its
repercussions cannot but affect sectarian relations.
As Lebanese watch developments next door, how might they react? If the
Assads manage to retreat to an Alawite fortress, the repercussions in
Lebanon (not to say Iraq) could be frightening. Attention would be drawn
to Lebanon’s Shiites, but also Christians, to see if they might envisage
a similar route toward communal self-preservation.
The Shiites are far less likely to be tempted by the idea of forming a
communal statelet than are the Christians, for obvious reasons. The
areas of Shiite concentration are not contiguous. Dispersed among the
northern Bekaa Valley, the western Bekaa, southern Lebanon and Beirut’s
southern suburbs, the Shiite community would be unable to bind these
regions together into any sort of cohesive whole.
In reality, the hazards lie elsewhere. If the Assad regime were to
collapse, this would represent, potentially, an existential setback, for
Hezbollah. The party would strive to defend itself, and its options are
limited. Some have speculated that Hezbollah might try to tighten its
grip on the state and weaken its adversaries decisively, perhaps through
a military strike broader than that of May 2008. However, that would
almost certainly fail, instead provoking civil war.
Hezbollah must be aware of this. The party is immensely potent as an
armed force, but the only real solution to its dilemma if Assad rule
were brought down is a far-reaching domestic political compromise. The
party would be reluctant to engage in one, however, at least from a
position of weakness. The reason is that any serious internal dialogue
would necessarily have to address Hezbollah’s disarmament, which the
party’s leadership will not sanction.
The ensuing deadlock could push Hezbollah to do two apparently
contradictory things: maintain its presence in state institutions at all
costs in order to protect its interests; but also, facing an invigorated
Lebanese Sunni community bolstered by an invigorated Syrian Sunni
community, further separate territories under its influence from the
rest of Lebanon, both physically and psychologically. In other words,
even as it rejects a Lebanese sectarian breakup, Hezbollah may be
compelled to pursue that very path to survive. And this could be
accompanied by an impulse, even a political need, to collaborate with
other friendly sectarian entities, an Alawite entity above all.
Which leads us to the Lebanese Christians. There is profound
alienation among many Christians from post-Taif Lebanon, and from the
idea of coexistence with the country’s Muslim communities in the context
of the centralized state that emerged after independence in 1943. This
has been debilitating for Christians, accelerating the community’s
isolation and sense of decline. Yet virtually all mainstream Christian
political groupings deep down aspire to a Lebanese state – federal,
confederal or otherwise – that allows a majority of Christians to govern
themselves and live among their own.
This mad project is more likely to lead to communal regression and
suicide. And yet many Christians will look closely at a Alawite
statelet, if one were to take shape, and see how it might serve or
buttress their own aspirations. And if this were to come at a moment
when the Shiites themselves were experimenting with some de facto scheme
of disconnection from Lebanon, it could intensify the centrifugal forces
in the country and even eventually prompt a sizable number of Christians
and Shiites to join efforts against a perceived Sunni threat.
For now, and hopefully well beyond, this may be political fiction. But
ours is not a healthy national mood to defend the Lebanese entity as we
know it. Even during the war, Lebanese unity was, paradoxically, more
solid than today. The fire lit in Syria could feed Lebanon’s divisions.
Unless we’re sensitive to the risks, Lebanon could burn.
Michael Young is opinion editor of THE DAILY STAR and author of “The
Ghosts of Martyrs Square: An Eyewitness Account of Lebanon’s Life
Struggle” (Simon & Schuster), listed as one of the 10 notable books of
2010 by The Wall Street Journal. He tweets BeirutCalling.
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily
Star on July 01, 2011, on page 7.