Sectarian massacres in Syria may show militias nurtured by the authorities are a “Frankenstein’s monster” which will alienate allies, provoke foreign intervention and tear the country apart, hastening the downfall of President Bashar al-Assad.
As Washington raised an alarm on Monday about a “potential massacre” in Haffeh, analysts said they saw little military rationale for the government in the previous killings of dozens of Sunni Muslim civilians in two attacks on other villages in the northwest that only galvanized outrage against Assad abroad and among those in the Sunni majority who have supported him.
Some said “shabbiha” gunmen from Assad’s Alawite minority, long armed by the elite in Damascus, may be pursuing a campaign to drive out Sunnis to create a buffer zone around an Alawite safe haven of last resort along the coast. It raises the risk of a Yugoslav-style break-up of Syria that would set off tremors across the religious and ethnic faultlines of the Middle East.
“These massacres are a kind of ethnic cleansing,” said a prominent politician from the Christian community across the border in Lebanon, which saw 15 years of communal blood-letting up to 1990. “They are purging their areas like in Bosnia.”
Sectarian violence has mounted for months, with civilians from Sunni and Alawite communities being killed or driven from homes. But the massacres at Houla and Qubeir, near the cities of Homs and Hama, have raised pressure on foreign allies to abandon Assad, and fears of Syria collapsing into a bloodbath like Iraq.
By alienating the urban Sunni middle classes who had backed Assad as a bulwark of order over chaos, and by provoking Western unease and anger in the Sunni Arab states hostile to the Alawites’ Shi’ite Muslim sponsors in Iran, the shabbiha were now a “Frankenstein’s monster”, threatening their creators’ very survival, said Fawaz Gerges at the London School of Economics.
The Lebanese politician said only a bid to create an Alawite bastion along the western coastal strip, the sect’s heartland, could explain the killing of 78 Sunnis at Qubeir after that of 108 at Houla. Both incidents have been blamed by rights groups on Alawite militiamen following up after artillery bombardments, which suggested some level of approval within official ranks.
“This is the only explanation for this massacre which came … in spite of the international reaction,” he said, speaking anonymously because of the sensitivity of the issue.
“Militarily, there are no important victories the regime is achieving. It shows that they have entered the final stage, which is to start regrouping in their own areas.”
Paul Salem, director of the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut, said Assad’s entourage might be clearing a line of retreat in the Alawite heartland as a fall-back position, should they be unable, despite a big advantage in firepower, to hold on to territorial control of the entire country.
“Definitely they are preparing a Plan B,” Salem said of Alawite leaders, who have fanned fears among the minority group that they face bitter reprisals if Assad is ousted by vengeful Sunnis. “If they are forced to go there, they might need it.
The Lebanese politician, familiar with the pattern of that country’s civil war where populations that had been mixed then separated in violence, said the repetition of similar tactics, killing women and children, seemed designed to spread fear more widely among Sunnis living close to the main Alawite areas.
“This picture started to circulate after the repetition of massacres,” he said. “The first massacre happened, why the second? Why the torching of the houses, why the villages?”
Salem said Assad’s administration would not easily retreat: “They are fighting for the whole country but they don’t know if they will succeed,” he said. “They entered into a gamble.”
The area between the Lebanese and Turkish borders including Syria’s main port of Latakia is home to many of the 2.5 million people, some 12 percent of the population, who follow the Alawite traditions that emerged from Shi’ite Islam. In the 1920s and 30s, it was a separate territory under French rule.
Long seen as poor, rural and put upon by Sunni landowners and merchants, many Alawites have thrived since Assad’s father Hafez seized power in 1970. The shabbiha, Arabic for “ghosts”, emerged in the 1980s, running illicit trade to enrich Assad’s relatives. Though Sunnis also joined such groups, the shabbiha have become more exclusively Alawite as the 15-month-old conflict has taken an ever more sectarian turn.
“Those shabbiha are the new Frankenstein’s monster,” said Gerges, professor of Middle Eastern politics at the LSE.
“The regime created, mobilized and armed the shabbiha and they have now become a nightmare, a nightmare basically destroying the very fabric of the regime itself.”
The brutality of the violence – visible to Syrians through social media – has forced a hitherto passive Sunni merchant and middle class in the cities of Damascus and Aleppo off the fence.
Opposition to Assad’s rule has now reached menacingly into both, where traders in the major markets have been starting to shutter their businesses in response to urgings from the rebels.
“The massacres are expediting the process of self-destruction,” Gerges said. “If the regime is doing these massacres it is collective suicide, and if the new Frankenstein’s monster is doing them it means that the regime no longer controls the actions of one of its major militias.”
“Things are spiraling out of control. The shabbiha actions are undermining whatever legitimacy is left for the Assad regime inside and outside Syria,” Gerges said.
JOLT TO AWARENESS
The latest massacres, in which more than 120 women and children were among 186 people shot, stabbed and torched to death, have forced governments around the world to at least appear to do something for Syria’s bloodied civilians, to stop further atrocities, despite the risks in military intervention.
“Syria is under the radar,” Gerges said of the international apathy which was jolted by accounts of the latest atrocities.
“What massacres do is force the world community to act. Massacres, as U.S. General Martin Dempsey said, make intervention more likely because the pressure is overwhelming.”
While there are no imminent signs of external intervention – Western powers have little appetite for new military ventures – the latest massacres have certainly an international and regional outcry. Arab allies of the rebels have been looking for ways to reduce Assad’s overwhelming advantage in firepower.
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon described the killings as “unspeakable barbarity”. U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, calling them “unconscionable”, said Washington was willing to work with all permanent members of the U.N. Security Council, pressing Russia to join in efforts to push Assad aside.
The massacres, analysts said, have made it harder for Russia and China to maintain that Damascus, which denies any role in the killing, is responsive to entreaties for reform.
NO PARTITION PLAN
If anything, some analysts argue, the latest violence in the northwest shows a determination in Damascus to crush the entire uprising, which began in March 2011 with peaceful demonstrations for democracy and has morphed into something close to civil war.
Assad, analysts believe, is still fighting to regain control of the whole country and will not content himself with only part: “He is fighting for the whole thing. He thinks he can really destroy the opposition,” Gerges said. “I don’t think he is going to leave Damascus and retreat somewhere else in Syria. He is going to fight all the way. Once he leaves it’s over.”
Any partition of Syria, the creation of some Alawite homeland, would be regarded as a dangerous precedent and be strongly opposed by neighbors like Turkey, Iran and Iraq, wary of their own divisions along ethnic and sectarian lines.
“There cannot be a separate sectarian state in Syria. This will destroy the whole region,” Gerges said. “Neither regional or international powers will ever tolerate it.
“An Alawite state cannot survive in Syria.”
Were an Alawite statelet ever to emerge from an eventual partition of Syria, this would pull the trigger for the disintegration of multi-ethnic and pluri-confessional states across the Levant, he and other analysts said.
Turkey would fear attempts by its Kurdish minority to secede and combine with already autonomous Kurds in northern Iraq and their restive kin in Syria and Iran. The still fragile stability of Lebanon and its 17 sects would be at risk.
The increasingly raw conflict between Sunni and Shi’ite across the region would intensify if Syrian partition spawned a new Sunni state in Damascus to pitch into the sectarian contest.
Yet with the West still struggling to find a way of dealing with the ticking bomb of the Syria conflict without resorting to a new military intervention it does not want in the Muslim world, the prospect for the quick departure of Assad looks slim, short of some extraordinary turn of events.
“The regime definitely entered the final chapters but this will continue for many months or even a few years until something dramatic happens,” said Salem at the Carnegie Center.
Gerges said: “Not only is it a long haul, it is going to be a very bloody long haul. It is a protracted armed conflict. I don’t think there is a happy end. Will it end with the partitioning of Syria? No. Syria won’t be partitioned.”