Prime Minister Netanyahu meets Syrian being treated in Israel
Prime Minister Netanyahu meets Syrian being treated in IsraelFlash 90

Among Israeli security experts, there is near-universal focus on the danger of Iran and its allies Syria and Hezbollah. The Prime Minister has risked whatever remains of his relationship with Barack Obama in order to increase public pressure on the administration to not sell the world short in talks about the country’s nukes, which could change the strategic equation in the region. However, this thinking may have clouded the judgment of some thinkers, according to Professor John Myhill or Haifa University. In particular, there is a lack of consideration for a revolutionary option in Israeli strategy: turning Syria away from Iran and Hezbollah.

Getting a country to flip an alliance is hardly easy and almost always a surprise when it does happen. When Iran’s revolution swept away the Shah in 1979, Israel’s strategic calculus changed when the new government declared Israel an enemy. But the grounds for something like this lie in mutual enemies for Israel’s Jews and Syria’s Alawites.

“When we’re talking about Syria, it’s necessary to be precise,” explains Myhill, who has focused on the Syrian Civil War while teaching linguistics and literature at Haifa University. “The position of Syrian Alawites, Sunnis, Druze and Christians are all very different from each other in a general sense.”

“It is not necessarily accurate that the government’s positions and Alawites’ positions are the same.”

The Syrian government is primarily run by Alawites. It was a fluke of history, some might say, that the Alawites who were prominent in the Arab nationalist movement led the 1970 coup d’état that installed Hafez al-Assad as rule of the country (succeeded after his death by current President Bashar al-Assad).

Alawites, Druze, Ismailis and Christians have generally seen the country’s Sunni majority as a social threat, amplifying the sectarian element of the Syrian Civil War. The regime has integrated Alawites – mainly from the country’s coastal areas around the city of Latakia – into the military and political echelon. Despite that integration and clear preference for Assad, Myhill says that some of Assad’s political philosophy (and possibly some of his actions during the war) do lead many Alawites to long for a better political leader.

“The difference between the Assad regime and Alawites in general isn't on account of any non-Alawites in the regime, but the diverging visions of what Syria can be. The Assad regime, for the moment, is committed to the idea of holding Syria together. But to a large extent Alawites feel they’ve got to keep Sunnis in place but recognize it is not a long-term option.” 

In Myhill’s opinion, Syria is a conceptual fiction at this point that is destined to be fragmented. He cites the notion that eventually Alawites will increase the rate at which they flee from certain cities back to their ethnic stronghold along the coast.

This refers back to the long-held belief that were Syria to collapse, the regime would collect all its resources and retreat from Damascus to consolidate a hold over the Nusayri Mountains and coastal plain around Latakia. This could also be the reason for such an emphatic defense of the city by Hezbollah, according to Myhill.

"I assume they're not stupid and that they know as soon as Damascus falls, the concept of Syria won't exist anymore."

The subsequent Alawite state would spread from that entire coastal region, over the mountains buttressing the area, and out to the Syrian cities of Hama and Homs.

“To take Homs, they’ve had to clear out some 200,000 Sunnis from the city in order to make it part of an Alawite state. They’ve had to do ethnic cleansing and indeed they are doing it.”

“A couple of bombing attacks last September that killed over 60 Alawite school children was used as the predication to start throwing Sunnis out,” mentions Myhill, who feels that what has ensued in the city was planned long ago. “As far as I know, they have planned this from the beginning.”

Myhill’s familiarity with Alawite attitudes toward this civil war and more historic political concerns is borne out of his relationship with several students from the town of Ghajar along the Israeli-Lebanese border, who have over time become close with Myhill.

“It’s a very serious problem trying to get Alawites to speak openly (about certain things). There is an extremely strong resistance to being straight forward with non-Alawites.”

If Syria does collapse and the regime consolidates its hold on one corner of the country, there is a greater possibility the military would invest resources in the city of Aleppo than in Damascus. According to Myhill, the last several generations have seen a swelling number of Alawites who have outwardly converted to Sunni Islam in order to better integrate in urban areas. He refers to these people as “crypto-Alawites” in the same vain as “crypto-Jews” concealed their Jewish devotion from the Spanish Inquisition.

“You haven’t heard of a crypto-Alawite community because they are very concealed. Some of them know of their backgrounds and some of them don’t, but even those who do not still have a general idea of religious tolerance” not often seen in other Sunni sections of Syria, “specifically in the Aleppo province.”

Socially speaking, Alawites have always been historically closer to the other communities of the country than the Sunnis. Alawite men would often take wives from Christian, Druze or other communities. But that was never the case with Sunni Muslim women.

“When they started to come down the mountain (referring to the Nusayri Mountains where many communities have existed for centuries) they converted but after that they’d stay among themselves. If they would intermarry, it would never be with the Sunnis.”

“Bashar al-Assad’s marriage to a Sunni was beyond the pale and he only announced the marriage once he knew he would be president. It shows the difference between themselves and the Alawites. He believes he can manage the Sunnis.” 

If there is a chance for linking up a future, smaller Alawite state with Israel in an anti-Islamist alliance, it might depend heavily on a new head of state taking the place of current President Bashar al-Assad.

Alongside that is the long-standing alliance between the Alawite government and Shiite political movements. The Lebanese Shiite leader Musa al-Sadr endorsed Alawites as bona fide Shiite Muslims (all be it a very different branch of the religion) in 1975, somewhat as a matter of sanitizing the Assad regime for orthodox Muslims. The reliance on Shiite legitimacy dovetailed into a strategic alliance with Ayatollah Khomeini after the Islamic Revolution. But Alawites are not just far and away different theologically, but the majority of them are mainly secular.

“There has been open fighting between Hezbollah and Syrian soldiers just angry at each other. The Hezbollah fighters go there, criticize the standards of Syrian women and call them all ‘infidels.’”

Hezbollah has emphasized its Shiite character in its deployment, particular in “defending Shiite holy shrines” in and around Damascus. Their extreme sociopolitical views also sharply contrast with the largely Alawite members of the Syrian army.

The tension between the two armies has opened a chasm that Myhill believes can be exploited. It is not that contact between the two groups has ruined their political alliance, but long-standing doubts in each camp have been on display as the two fighting forces try to get along. At this point, Myhill feels Syria is far less desperate for the help Hezbollah and Iran have provided than they were in the past. There is a foundation for splitting the alliance.

“Alawites regard them with the same degree of hostility that the Israelis do.”