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