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Jul 20, 2012 | 16:58 GMT

3 mins read

Syria's Alawites Begin to Flee Damascus

Syria's Alawites Begin to Flee Damascus
BULENT KILIC/AFP/GettyImages
Summary

It appears to be a matter of time before Alawite-dominated forces fighting in Damascus begin their retreat. While Russia is negotiating an exit for Syrian President Bashar al Assad, the al Assad clan seems prepared to hold its ground in Syria at the moment. The question is whether the al Assad clan will try to do so in Damascus or, more likely, shift its efforts toward fortifying an Alawite stronghold along the mountainous northwestern coast.

The president’s exact whereabouts are unclear, but he is rumored to be in the Syrian port city of Latakia with his family. Maher al Assad, the president’s brother and commander of the Republican Guard and the 4th Armored Division, is rumored to still be in Damascus. Reports that his forces are fighting in the area support these claims, but it is likely that he too will retreat to Latakia if government forces fail to regain control of the capital.

Signs are now emerging that the regime’s minority Alawite constituency has lost faith in the sustainability of the al Assads. There are increasing reports of defectors crossing into Turkey and Lebanon, and the defectors now include Alawite troops. Alawites living in the Greater Damascus area are beginning to panic. The path from Damascus to the Alawite strongholds on the northwestern coast has a number of rebel-controlled checkpoints. The road from Damascus to the coast traverses Homs, a bastion of Sunni support where Free Syrian Army rebel forces are concentrated. 

Alawite Retreat to the Syrian Coast

Syria Alawite Retreat map

Many Alawites are opting instead to circumvent Homs by first crossing into Lebanon through the Al Masna border station in the central Bekaa Valley, heading north and then crossing into the Syrian coastal area through the Abbudisya/Dabussiya border station in northern Lebanon. Stratfor has received information that more than half of the 20,000 Syrians who have crossed into Lebanon in the past two days through Al Masna border station have been Alawites. About half of those Alawites have already crossed back into Syria at the Abbudisya/Dabussiya border crossing near the coast. For now, this appears to be the safest route for Alawites fleeing the Greater Damascus area, but traversing Lebanon has its own risks. As the flow of refugees increases, the threat of sectarian clashes will also rise.

The Alawite retreat to the coast is a step back in history. The province of Latakia, which provides critical access to the Mediterranean coast, is the Alawite homeland. Prior to the Alawite ascent in the mid-20th century, the Alawites were an impoverished lot, largely confined to this coastal region while wealthier and more privileged Sunnis dominated Syria’s urban centers in Damascus, Homs, Hama and Aleppo. With French backing during the 1920-1946 French mandate and the rise of the Baath Party in 1946, Alawites began to gradually integrate with the Syrian heartland. The 1960s in particular witnessed large migration flows of Alawites from the coast to the interior, setting the stage for the consolidation of Alawite power over the Sunnis through the 1970 coup led by Hafez al Assad.

With Damascus now likely to fall into Sunni hands, the Alawites are facing a severe crisis. In this environment, minorities (Alawites, Druze, Christians, Shia and Ismailis) will band together in an effort to cope with a resurgence of the Sunni majority. None of these factions are monolithic, and many cross-sectarian deals have been made throughout history to help ensure their survival, but the fragmentation of the Alawite-dominated regime in Damascus will enflame sectarian differences.

Military clashes have spread to the Greater Damascus area and are now moving closer to Aleppo, a key city in the north. Syrian army troops appear to be pulling out of many positions in the Idlib governorate in the north near the Turkish border and are heading south in a relatively disciplined military formation. Stratfor will be watching to see whether these troops will be used to reinforce the regime’s defenses in Damascus in a decisive battle over the capital, or, if the prospects look too grim, if the al Assad clan will try to deploy Alawite forces to the coast for a final retreat.

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