BY TONY BADRAN
How long will President Bashar al-Assad remain in Damascus? His regime appears to be reeling: A bombing last week claimed the lives of his brother-in-law and three other senior figures of his regime, military defections continue, and rebel forces have arrived in the country's largest cities. The prevalent view in Washington and many other foreign capitals is that the question is not if Assad will lose the capital, but when.
Assad has no intention of abandoning Damascus without a fight. Since last week's bombing, the Syrian Army's Fourth Division -- led by Assad's brother Maher -- has launched an intense campaign to retake control of the capital's neighborhoods from the rebels. To secure Damascus, the regime has redeployed troops from the Golan and eastern Syria. Control of the capital is critical to Assad for maintaining the pretense that he is not merely an Alawite warlord, but the embodiment of the state.
The Syrian despot, however, is fighting a losing battle. As heavy fighting rages on in the cities of Damascus and Aleppo, the regime is losing control over the Syrian interior and the Kurdish northeast. The predominantly Sunni areas of Syria are falling from Assad's grasp, and there is no realistic way for him to reassert his authority there.
But Assad has one card left to play: The Syrian regime has been setting the stage for a retreat to Syria's coastal mountains, the traditional homeland of the Assads' Alawite sect, for months now. It is now clear that this is where the Syrian conflict is headed. Sooner or later, Assad will abandon Damascus.
The Syrian regime's recent decline in fortunes has seemingly accelerated this process. With the sectarian fault line clearly drawn, reports are emerging of internal population migration as Alawites begin moving back to the ancestral mountains -- echoing the dynamics seen during the Lebanese civil war. Shortly after the assassination of the top Syrian security officials, opposition activists and Western diplomats reported that Assad had relocated to the coastal city of Latakia. This claim has since been contested, but Assad's whereabouts remain uncertain.
Despite the fact that the Syrian regime is a family enterprise, Assad has sought to present himself throughout the conflict as the sole legitimate interlocutor with the outside world. Regrettably, the international community has played along with this conceit. All diplomatic initiatives to solve the Syrian crisis have stipulated dialogue with Assad and refrained from calling on him to hand over power.
However, it has long been apparent that Assad's bid to control the entirety of Syrian territory was hitting against demographic and geographic realities. Contrary to all early assertions regarding his military, Assad's forces are little more than a sectarian militia. This limited manpower has, from the beginning, meant that Assad would not be able to re-impose his authority on the predominantly Sunni interior and periphery.
This sectarian geography has determined the regime’s behavior. As he dug in for a long war, Assad has had to consolidate the Alawites behind him and fortify his position in the Alawite coastal mountains overlooking the Mediterranean, in the region roughly between Jisr al-Shoughour in the north, near the Turkish border, and Tal Kalakh in the south, near Lebanon.
Assad has moved to secure all natural access points leading to this Alawite redoubt. In a move somewhat reminiscent of the Lebanese precedent, he also began to clear hostile Sunni pockets within the enclave and to create a buffer zone in the plain that separates the coastal mountains from the interior. This was the calculus behind the string of mass killings in villages like al-Houla, Taldou, al-Haffeh, and Tremseh -- all Sunni population centers either inside or on the eastern frontier of the Alawite enclave in the central plain.
The common denominator to all these places is their relevance to Syria's strategic and sectarian geography. The areas near Homs and al-Haffeh, for instance, are historical access routes into the coastal mountains. In addition, villages like Taldou and Tremseh mark the eastern faultline where outlying Alawite villages are sprinkled uncomfortably near Sunni ones. They also lie strategically on the north-south axis linking Damascus to Aleppo, and the rebellious governorates of Homs and Hama to Idlib.
Damascus, however, lies well outside this prospective enclave. In the capital, the regime does not possess a demographic reservoir of loyal Alawite communities with which to balance the power relationship with its rivals. The Syrian regime has responded to this problem by ringing Damascus with military bases stocked with loyal Alawite troops to control the main communication routes out of the city. As a result, French political geographer Fabrice Balanche has written, the capital has become an "encircled city." Moreover, as recent news reports have noted, the influx of mostly Sunni refugees into Damascus from other rebellious districts has further complicated the demographic equation in the capital.
It is therefore not only conceivable, but also rather likely, that these geographic and demographic factors will at some point lead Assad to abandon Damascus and fortify himself in his Alawite stronghold. As occurred in Lebanon, this could lead to a prolonged static war, where the support of external patrons -- namely Iran and Russia -- becomes increasingly critical to Assad.
Some will argue that an Alawite enclave is unviable in the long-term, but Assad has an insurance policy to protect his retreat. As the Assad regime just reminded the world, it possesses a large stockpile of chemical weapons. While most observers are worried about Assad passing these weapons along to third-party actors like Hezbollah, he is more likely to hold on tightly to them. These weapons are his last remaining and most formidable deterrent against his Sunni foes, and precious leverage to guarantee the quiescence of the outside world.
With this insurance policy, Assad could hang on as a warlord presiding over an Iranian and Russian protectorate on the Mediterranean. The past several weeks have dealt Assad a serious blow, but this is not yet the end of the Syrian conflict. It is rather the beginning of a new phase, the endgame of which is not in Damascus, but further west.
-This commentary was first published in Foreign Policy on 27/07/2012
- Tony Badran is a research fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies