Is an Alawite mini-state Putin’s Plan B for Syria?

Friday 06/11/2015
Smoke rises after air strikes carried out by Russian Air Force in Hama, Syria

WASHINGTON - There is a great amount of confusion and de­bate in Washington as to what Russian President Vladimir Putin is up to in Syria.

Asked if Putin had a plan for Syria, US Director of National Intel­ligence James Clapper told CNN on October 29th: “What his long-term plan is, I am not sure. I think he is winging this day to day.” Clapper described Putin as “very impulsive and opportunistic”.

Earlier, US President Barack Obama, commenting on Putin’s military intervention in Syria, said Russia was headed for a “quag­mire” in Syria.

Figuring out Russian intentions is always a challenge but military and diplomatic actions over the past several weeks point to two discern­able strategies.

First, seeing the Syrian govern­ment as Russia’s only true friend in the Middle East, Putin is using the air strikes to shore up the Assad regime by hitting anti-government rebel forces so that the regime’s ground forces can go on the offen­sive. According to various reports, about 80% of the Russian targets are non-jihadist rebel groups, some of which are supported by the Unit­ed States. The remaining 20% are Islamic State (ISIS) and other ex­tremist groups, such as al-Qaeda-affiliated Jabhat al-Nusra.

Such a military strategy puts Rus­sia squarely in the middle of the Syrian conflict. On the one hand, Russia is showing it will do what it can to support its Syrian ally no matter what the United States and other countries say. On the other hand, Russia is showing solidarity with the international community by striking ISIS and other extrem­ists.

Russian officials have partially justified their military intervention by claiming that thousands of their citizens, primarily from Chechnya and Dagestan in the North Cauca­sus, are fighting with ISIS and could return to Russia, a fear European governments can relate to.

As a central player in the Syrian conflict, Russia has joined the Unit­ed States and other countries in the Vienna process, a diplomatic un­dertaking that began in late Octo­ber to find a political solution to the Syrian crisis. At a news conference after the first Vienna meeting, Rus­sian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov was seated prominently at the table with US Secretary of State Kerry, showing that Russia has “come in from the cold” after being ostra­cised over its policies in Ukraine.

Hence, Russia will likely pursue this dual military-diplomatic route for some time because it holds out the hope that the Assad govern­ment can be saved and it brings Russia a degree of international le­gitimacy.

But Russia’s military intervention in Syria may also be geared towards a more narrow goal: supporting an Alawite mini-state on the Mediter­ranean where Moscow can pre­serve its longstanding naval base in Tartus and airbase near the city of Latakia. This may be Putin’s “Plan B” if the first strategy does not suc­ceed.

Putin might be thinking that if Damascus cannot be saved from the rebels, which in his mind are all terrorists, the next best option would be to help the Alawites and their allies move from the major cit­ies to the Alawite heartland in Lata­kia province and help them consoli­date a mini-state there.

Russian air strikes around the cit­ies of Homs, Hama and Aleppo may be aimed at weakening the rebels’ military strength in these areas to facilitate setting up a cordon sani­taire to protect the Alawite heart­land. The air strikes might also be geared towards securing a land es­cape route from Damascus to Lata­kia, as the road between these two cities runs through Homs in central Syria.

Putin may calculate that an Ala­wite mini-state would have a good chance of surviving, as it would have access to the Mediterranean. Moreover, the Alawites, fearing ret­ribution from the rebels, would be grateful to the Russians for “sav­ing” them. Being dependent on Russia’s military protection, the Alawites would want the Russian bases to remain, securing one of Putin’s major strategic goals.

Under this scenario, Putin would have no qualms about sacrificing Assad in favour of another Alawite leader. Reports indicate that many Alawite villagers blame Syrian Pres­ident Bashar Assad for the morass that has become Syria and say his father, Hafez Assad, would never have let the situation deteriorate to this point.

With more and more Alawite young men dying on the battlefield, the rank and file in the community would be more than happy to see Bashar Assad leave the scene alto­gether.

This “Plan B” would not be opti­mal from Russia’s vantage point, as Moscow would prefer Damascus to remain in government hands. How­ever, if Syria cannot be put back together again, Putin might be pre­paring for the day when an Alawite mini-state is his best option.