There is seemingly no light at the end of Syria's tunnel... The massacres of civilians in two locations last week were particularly alarming, telling us something about the dismal direction of events in the country...
The massacres in the predominantly Sunni city of Baniyas and the nearby town of Bayda came after a relatively rare outbreak of fighting in the coastal region, the stronghold of the Alawite community. The coast is where Alawites may decide to fall back to and set up a mini-state if the regime of President Bashar Al Assad were to flee Damascus.
To grasp just what happened in Baniyas and Bayda, consider the context of the regime's continuing offensive in and around Homs and Qusayr, in conjunction with Lebanon's Hizbollah.
From the start of the fighting, the regime has regarded control over Homs and its surrounding area as a matter of strategic importance.
- Homs lies on the main communications line between Damascus and the coast. It is a vital passage to and from the capital for a regime that needs to reinforce the city militarily so as not to lose ground to the rebels; and
- it is an escape route if Mr Al Assad and his acolytes decide to withdraw to the coast.
- Homs is also on the motorway to Aleppo, along which troops there can be reinforced.
- It is the route through which Alawites along the coast can maintain secure land communications with predominantly Shia districts in Lebanon's northern Beqaa Valley.
- And it provides a door to the coast that can be opened and closed at will to cut off Sunni communities there.
If the Alawites ever decide to create a rump state, one of their objectives will be to ensure that Sunnis do not challenge this plan. That means Sunnis must either be terrorised into silence or, in the worst case, forced out of coastal areas. The Baniyas and Bayda killings, while extraordinarily brutal, seemed primarily designed to achieve the first aim. Thousands of Sunnis reportedly left the city in fear, but appeared to be heading toward other coastal cities, namely Tartous, south of Baniyas, and Jableh, to its north.
However, the massacres were a reminder that worse may come, especially if the regime makes headway in Homs and Qusayr, allowing it to seal a major Sunni evacuation route. Sunnis in the north-east increasingly feel isolated from their brethren elsewhere in Syria. That is how the regime wants it. The Sunnis' sense of vulnerability will make them more reluctant to side with the rebellion, and their presence as potential hostages will make Mr Al Assad's enemies think twice before mounting military operations in coastal areas.
This may be the best the Assad regime can hope to achieve, since wholesale ethnic cleansing would be a major endeavour. There is still a significant Sunni population in coastal cities such as Tartous and Latakiya, and in the latter, Sunnis form a majority. Even if they were driven out for some reason, the consequences could be disastrous for the city itself, which would lose not only a large portion of its population, but many of its most dynamic economic actors.
Perhaps Mr Al Assad can learn from his Lebanese Druze antagonist, Walid Jumblatt. In 1983 his community routed Christian militias in the Aley and Shouf mountain districts, expelling most Christians. Victory was complete, but it was also double-edged because the economy of the areas died. This Mr Jumblatt had to seriously consider since his Druze community is small, mostly rural and relatively poor. When the Lebanese war ended in 1990, he organised the return of Christians to the mountains, a natural facet of post-war reconciliation, but also an economic necessity for the Druze.
Sectarian cleansing is traumatic, but it can also be more damaging to the perpetrators than expected. In Bosnia and Kosovo, the Serbs have yet to recover from their reputation as architects of ethnic cleansing, to the extent that the fate of fellow Serbs pushed out from the Krajina district by the Croats in 1995 has been mostly ignored internationally. Syria's Alawites could not forever live in autarky, and appear to realise that it is better to keep Sunnis in a state of fear rather than to carry out a policy of mass eviction that may ultimately turn against the Alawites.
The Israeli attacks against Syria last week were based partly on worries that the Assad regime, if it carves out an Alawite territory, would collaborate with Hizbollah-controlled areas in Lebanon, under the guiding hand of Iran. This could allow for a transfer of advanced Syrian weapons to the Lebanese party, which may use them against Israel.
Moreover, an opening from the Beqaa Valley towards the Syrian coast would permit Hizbollah to be rearmed by Iran during any conflict with Israel if Lebanese ports and Beirut airport were blockaded.
Mr Al Assad has no plans to abandon Damascus. However, we are witnessing a consolidation of the Alawite statehood option as a fallback position. The Syrian conflict is entering a new phase, where long-term territorial plans and alliances are taking shape. And the ensuing violence can only increase as the stakes become higher.