Assume for argument’s sake that Assad can’t defeat the rebels, but neither can they ovethrow him. Say a year passes, and the rebels get better armed and organized, and maybe they gain actual control over large chunks of land — but the Alawites stand firm around Assad, Russia and Iran continue their support, and no foreign military power is willing to actually intervene with troops on the ground or air strikes. What happens then?
Could Assad gives up much of Syria in order to consolidate his people into a new, Alawite-dominated state along the coast? It’s largely forgotten today outside of Syria, but exactly such a state existed under the French Mandate, from 1922 to 1936. The French did it in order to break up and weaken Syrian nationalism, of course, but older Alawites remember that their parents and grandparents were perfectly content under L’Etat des Alouites.
How to make this work? Well, there are three possible scenarios. Let’s game them out.
Scenario #1: The Lion’s Share. So you’re Assad, and you’ve decided to split the country in two. You want to get rid of as many treacherous, disloyal Sunni Arabs as possible, but you also want to keep as much territory as you possibly can. In this scenario, you make territory a priority.
Starting in the north, you try to hang on to Aleppo if possible. Yeah, a lot of Sunnis there. You’ll have to either placate, pacify or expel them. But Aleppo is the country’s biggest city, strategically important in all kinds of ways, and the center of its industrial base. So, keep Aleppo. Now draw a line just east of the Homs-Aleppo rail line. The bone in the throat here is Hamah — large city, conservative, Sunni, traditionally hostile to the regime. So evacuate the few friendlies — mostly the few local Christians — then bomb and shell it to rubble, then drive everyone out. (Did I mention that this scenario involves some vigorous ethnic cleansing? Because it does. Very vigorous. But when it comes right down to it that’s what you have an Alawite-dominated army for.)
You want to swing south to include greater Damascus: more industry, plus legitimacy. (We hold the capital!) As with Aleppo, you’ll have to do a lot of cleansing: omelettes, eggs. Some Sunnis will stay, if not loyal, at least neutral. If they’re economically useful, keep them. Draw your border sharply south of Damascus, because honestly you don’t really care about the Golan — let the other guys take up that quarrel with Israel.
You can’t get everyone inside the tent, so don’t go crazy trying. Let the Kurds in the northwest go hang; you never liked them anyway. You may or may not try to rescue the scattered Christian communities around the country — they’ve been junior partners in Alawite rule for 50 years now, and will be understandably nervous of coming under a Sunni-majority regime that’s likely to be Islamist. If they’re loyal, grab as many as you can. In general, you really need as many as possible of the non-Sunni Arab groups — the Christians, Druze, Circassians and other odds and ends — on side to make this work, so outreach to them should be an integral part of your strategy.
Natural resources: You’re giving up all the oil and natural gas in the east, alas. But you’ve got the coast — if you’ve played this right, you should have all the coast — and the pipeline terminal. You’re giving up ~80% of the country’s area, but a lot of that is lightly populated scrubland or desert. And you’re keeping most of the good stuff — the ports, the biggest cities, most of the industry, most of the water. And your new country is still respectably large: say eight or nine million people in an area of maybe 30,000 square kilometers, about the size of Belgium. In round-ish numbers, it’s maybe 30% Alawite, 40% Christians-Druze-Turkoman-Circassian-whoever — basically, all the ethnic and religious minorities you could convince — and maybe 30% Sunni Arabs. Your ruling ideology will be firmly secular and probably kinda fascistic.
Does this work? — Well, honestly, probably not. One, Syrian nationalism is a real and potent force, so dividing the country won’t be easy. Two, there isn’t really a natural borderline — “a few kilometers east of the M1 highway” doesn’t really do it. You’re kind of trying to pull a Chiang Kai-Shek without the advantage of being on an island. Three, you’ll have to expel a lot of people — millions of people — to make sure your new state is properly Alawite-dominated. I’m honestly not sure the Syrian military and security forces have the capacity to carry this out. Moreover, attempts to do so would invite large-scale external intervention.
Okay, so let’s try Scenario #2: Road to Damascus. This is the same as above, but with this difference: you give up Aleppo. In fact, you give up everything north of Hama. (You can still bomb and shell it, of course.) Basically, you’re just trying to keep Greater Damascus, the ethnically mixed (and relatively regime-loyal) mountains and coastal strip, and a corridor between them.
The good news is, this scenario gives you a more Alawite-dominated rump Syria; Alawites are now around 40% of the population and are the largest single ethnic group. The bad news ... well, there’s a lot of bad news. The Sunnis now have over 80% of the land, most of the population, a fair chunk of the industry, and long land borders with Turkey and Iraq. This is a recipe for protracted civil war, and it’s a civil war you’ll have trouble winning. The major strategic problem is that Damascus is 250 km away from your Alawite homeland, and there’s no good road or rail connection between them. You’re trying to hang on to a long, broken-backed slice of territory that doesn’t make any sort of strategic sense. Perhaps this scenario could happen as the result of long war followed by a peace of exhaustion, but it’s not anything you’d actually try to make happen.
That leaves us with Scenario #3: The Alawite Redoubt. In this one, you pull back to the Alawite homelands — basically the coastal strip and the mountains behind it. As before, you bring in as many Christians and other friendly minorities as possible. Your new state will be majority Alawite, and it will make strategic sense and will be relatively dependable.
Unfortunately, it will also be small. Very small. Probably too small to be viable, given a hostile Sunni rest-of-Syria. Giving up Damascus means giving up international legitimacy — even the Chinese are probably going to switch sides once the rebels control the capital and 90% of the country. Your enemies will outnumber you four or five to one, and who will have most of the country’s resources and industry. NATO can blockade you until your enemies gather enough force to come over the mountains from the east and crush you once and for all. This could be the last phase of a civil war but, again, it’s not anything you should be actively trying for.
So, in summary, there are no good choices. Option #1 is perhaps the least bad, but it’s probably not within your reach.
What then should Assad do? Well, that’s a question for another post.