by Michael Williams
Some months ago while clearing my late mother's house I came across a stamp album from my school days in the 1960s. There were stamps from 'Croatia', in reality produced by extremist groups in Argentina, but testifying to the existence of the Nazi puppet state of Croatia (NDH) in the 1940s. But to my surprise, I also found stamps from the 'Alawite State of Syria'.
An independent Croatia is now a reality and soon to become a member of the European Union. For that matter we also have states of Bosnia-Herzegovina, Montenegro and Kosovo. And the former Soviet Union has broken up into its constituent republics. Who would have imagined this as late as 1990? But maybe the break up of states, whether Yugoslavia or Czechoslovakia, and possibly the United Kingdom if Scotland opts for independence in 2014, is a purely European phenomenon?
More recent experience would tend to suggest otherwise. Few would have ventured just over a decade ago that there would be an independent South Sudan, or for that matter an independent East Timor. Like their Balkan counterparts, these too are now members of the United Nations, the ultimate recognition of statehood.
Could we then see similar developments in the Arab world? As someone who has lived in the Balkans and the Middle East, and served the United Nations in both regions, I would not rule it out. Looking back at the conflicts of the past three decades, there are recurring patterns of war triggering or reawakening past identities that we thought were lost in history books, folklore or in stamp albums. All too often they have assumed new 'national' identities through a vortex of violence.
In one sense this process started in the Middle East a few years ago with the formation of the Kurdistan Regional Government in northern Iraq with its capital in Erbil, a flag, national anthem and representative offices overseas. The KRG signs contracts with foreign companies and most major countries, including the US, UK, France, Germany, Russia and Turkey, have consulates in the Kurdish capital.
Ironically, the semi-independence of Kurdistan is further enhanced by a growing relationship with its former arch foe, Turkey. Most of the KRG's imports come from Turkey and under a planned energy deal pipelines are to be built for Kurdish oil and gas exports to Turkey, independent of Iraq's national pipeline controlled by the government in Baghdad.
The 'autonomy' enjoyed by the KRG has been taken a step further now that Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan increasingly sees his future, and that of Turkey, in a radical realignment with Kurdistan, but also with the insurgent Kurdistan Workers' Party, the PKK, led by the still imprisoned Abdullah Ocalan.
As such a process inevitably weakens an already sickly Iraqi state, its neighbour to the west, Syria savaged by civil war, shows increasing signs of national breakdown. The regime of President Bashar al-Assad in Damascus is no longer in control of considerable swaths of the country. Like other Arab states, Syria is barely a century old and like the now defunct states of Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia, it was formed after the breakdown of the Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman empires at the end of the First World War. But in advance of the Versailles conference of 1919, France and Britain had already, through the Sykes-Picot Agreement, divided the former Ottoman domains, with Paris taking modern-day Lebanon and Syria and London laying claim to Palestine and Iraq.
Within a year of Versailles the French had created a 'Territory of the Alawis' (Daulat Jabal al-Alawiyyin), with Alawites forming the backbone of the troupes speciales of the imperial power.
Faced with growing nationalist pressure, the French agreed reluctantly in 1925 to the formation of 'The State of Syria', which excluded not only modern Lebanon but, strikingly, the Alawite State. Strategically this 'state' straddled the Mediterranean coast between Lebanon and Turkey and included the ports of Tartous and Latakia.
Although the Alawite state was reincorporated into Syria in 1937, the French continued to allow the Alawites, as well as the Druze, considerable autonomy. I suspect that the historical memory of that 'state' may come to the fore in the circumstances of a disintegrating Syrian state and of an incoherent opposition that will face great difficulties in crafting a successor state to the Ba'athist regime. Furthermore, territory now vacated by the regime is effectively ruled by three entities -- the Free Syrian Army, the militantly Islamist al-Nusra Front and the Syrian Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD), an ally of the mainstream Kurdish PKK.
Since independence from the French in 1946, the Alawites have continued to play a disproportionately large role in the state, especially in the army. The 40-year rule of its leadership, the Assad clan, has fortified that role further. With Syria's civil war now well into its third year, the Alawite grip on the state is being corroded. An option increasingly attractive to Alawites might well be independence. But as the Serbs did not give up Yugoslavia without a fight, the Alawites are even less likely to retreat from the 'Syrian Arab Republic'.
However, under increasing military pressure from a Sunni-dominated Syrian National Coalition, they may yet opt for a de facto statelet, abetted by other threatened minorities such as Christians and Druze. After all these minorities have seen what has happened to their Iraqi equivalents in post-Saddam Iraq. Indeed the Syrian government gave refuge to tens of thousands of Iraqi Christian refugees who fled after the US invasion of 2003.
Such an eventuality might also find support among Turkey's Alevi community, which in the circumstances of weak Syrian and Iraqi states seem to be 'rediscovering' its own identity. For its part the Hizbollah of Lebanon's Shia are now fighting in Syria alongside the regime forces, on a dangerously sectarian basis openly admitted by their leader Hassan Nasrallah.
Hizbollah is increasingly concerned that the demise of the Assad regime will not only imperil its critical supply lines from Iran, but will also rupture the 'Axis of Resistance' that until recently grouped the Lebanese 'resistance' with Iran, Syria and the Palestinian Hamas.
Having already lost Hamas which has cozied up to an increasingly Islamist Egypt, neither Iran nor Hizbollah can aff ord to lose its Syrian ally. Were the regime in Damascus to weaken further they would have ample reason to find advantage in supporting an Alawite regime as successor and ally.
Michael Williams is Distinguished Visiting Fellow at Chatham House and was UN envoy to Lebanon from 2008 to 2012
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