If President Bashar al-Assad's regime is defeated in Syria's war, where will it go? One possibility is to the mountains -- to create a ministate of its own. RFE/RL correspondent Charles Recknagel reports.
Running along Syria's Mediterranean coast is a mountain range that cuts the rest of the country off from the sea.
For centuries, these northwestern peaks have been the stronghold of Syria's religious minorities. They are the homeland of the Alawites -- who number about 2.5 million in Syria and make up about 10 percent of the country's population -- as well as other Shi'ite sects, Christians, and Druze.
Now, the mountains could become a bastion once again. As the violence in Syria intensifies, there are signs that the Alawite-led regime might create a highland mini-state if it is forced from power in Damascus.
Already hundreds of thousands of Alawites are reported to have moved to the relative safety of the Alawi heartland. They say they fear retribution if their community loses power after decades of dominating the country's Sunni majority.
Just The Beginning?
According to Shahshank Joshi, a regional expert with London-based Chatham House
, that could be just the beginning.
"We may very well see an Alawite retreat," he said. "And we may see an attempt to carve out an area of Alawite territorial dominance that can be defended and that is a sort of sanctuary for the regime and its sectarian supporters and fellow travelers."
The precedent for an Alawi ministate has already been established.
That was after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire in World War I, when the League of Nations gave France the mandate to rule Lebanon and Syria. The French administered the Alawi territory separately from the Sunni areas, making it autonomous from the rest of Syria for much of the 1920s and 1930s.
But there are two key questions surrounding any would-be Alawi state today -- whether it could be economically viable, and if it could obtain foreign support.
The region has good farmland and infrastructure. But it has little industry and is far from Syria's eastern oil fields, making its energy supply uncertain.
Benjamin Jensen, an international security specialist at American University
and the Marine Corps Command Staff College in Washington D.C., says such a ministate could survive if it had a powerful patron:
"If you look, for example at other kinds of enclave, quasi-states like South Ossetia [and] Abkhazia, these regions aren't economically viable without a patron-client relationship with a larger regional power, like Russia," he said. "In the case of an Alawite state, one would tend to believe there would be a similar relationship with Iran."
Russia, embattled President Bashar al-Assad's other main ally, might also back a ministate in order to keep its naval base at Tartus in the event of a rebel victory.
Today, Jensen rates the creation of a ministate as a "low probability, high-risk outcome" for the Syrian crisis. But he says there are two things to watch for that could make it more probable in the future.
First is whether the rebels can hold a major city. That would convince the regime its power is weakening and create a need for fallback options.
Second is whether retribution killings become increasingly sectarian.
"Watch where reports of massacres occur," said Jensen. "To the extent they occur in mixed villages or mixed regions, areas that have both Alawite communities and especially Sunni communities living and butting up against each other, that is another sign that the sectarian spiral is increasing further and pushing in that direction [of forming enclaves]."
Many analysts now see the most pressing challenge for the international community as preventing the country from splitting along sectarian lines.
But the failure of UN peacemaking efforts has left the international community with little direct influence over the conflict.
In Joshi's view, that now places much of the responsibility for keeping Syria intact on the rebels.
"The only real way to do it [ensure Syria remains intact] is to make sure that all the rebel factions show a lot of maturity, restraint, and sensitivity in forming a new government," he said. "And make sure that it has broad representation, make sure that it has -- to the extent possible -- ways of sending forces to protect minorities."
If the country were to break up and an Alawi ministate were to be formed, the outcome would likely be prolonged war.
No new Syrian government could realistically countenance the loss of the country's coastline and ports. It would have to continue fighting the old regime to get them back.