"Iran's No. 1 ally in the region, Assad in Syria, is on the brink. While Iran is trying to prop him up, it would be a game-changer for them were his regime to collapse," notes Oren. Oren is a historian, a very good one, the author of two seminal books on the region -- Six Days of War and Power, Faith, and Fantasy: America in the Middle East, 1776 to the Present -- and in discussing these regional shifts, one really gets a sense that as big as the Iran threat may be, it is itself part of a historical sea change that is a source of a massive unease for the Israelis.
This unease relates not only to the Iranian issue but to the entire structure of the Middle East as it has been understood to exist for generations.
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Now that the Sunnis have turned against Assad, however, it’s all crashing down, as it was doomed to do sooner or later. At this point, the Syrian national army is little more than a well-armed Russian- and Iranian-backed Alawite militia. If the government falls, the Alawites—and especially the Assad clan—may well try to carve out an enclave where they can be safe, just as many wished to do during the French imperial period between the two world wars. Back then, Alawite leaders asked French authorities for their own Lebanon-sized state along the Mediterranean, with Latakia as its capital.
“The Alawites refuse to be annexed to Muslim Syria,” Suleiman al-Assad, grandfather of the current Syrian president, wrote in a letter. “In Syria, the official religion of the state is Islam, and according to Islam, the Alawites are considered infidels. . . . The spirit of hatred and fanaticism imbedded in the hearts of the Arab Muslims against everything that is non-Muslim has been perpetually nurtured by the Islamic religion. There is no hope that the situation will ever change. Therefore, the abolition of the [French] mandate will expose the minorities in Syria to the dangers of death and annihilation.”
If Assad survived the creation of a new Alawite country, it would in certain important respects resemble today’s Syria: it would be a metastasizing, Russian- and Iranian-backed terrorist state. A free Alawite state without the Assads in the saddle, however, might be something else entirely.
The Alawites won’t be welcome in any regional Sunni club; they’re already unwelcome now. It’s spectacularly unlikely that they would align with the region’s Islamists. And once they’re shorn of their Baathist ideology and the need to appease a Sunni majority, they could gravitate toward the United States, Europe, and possibly even Little Satan. Just look at what happened to the small Syrian Alawite village of Ghajar at the end of the Six-Day War in 1967, when it found itself marooned in a no-man’s-land between the Little Satan-occupied Golan Heights and the Lebanese border.
When the residents realized that Little Satan’s occupation wasn’t going to end any time soon, they had to decide whether to be absorbed by Lebanon or by Little Satan. They chose Little Satan. They asked to be annexed, and Little Satan obliged. Later, the residents of Ghajar applied for and received Little Satan citizenship.
We shouldn’t hope for this outcome. If Syria comes apart, Yugoslavia-style, the body count will be extraordinary. The Alawite heartland on the coast isn’t even close to homogeneous, and the Alawites would probably ethnically cleanse hundreds of thousands of Sunnis and Palestinians there. In the short and medium term, an Assad regime could destabilize the Middle East just as much from Latakia as it already does from Damascus.
But for good or for ill, a new Middle East map may be coming.
Pic - "Land Navigation"