Michael Young’s latest piece in NOW Lebanon is a must-read for Syria watchers. There’s a lot to it and it’s impossible to summarize so you should read the whole thing, but here’s the bottom line:
Last summer, I used this space to speculate that the regime of President Bashar al-Assad, if it sensed that it was losing power in Damascus, might contemplate retreating to the Alawite heartland in the coastal areas and mountains of northwestern Syria. Today, that option is very much alive, and according to several independent sources it is being discussed freely within the Alawite community.
That is not to say that Assad and his acolytes intend to surrender control of Syria if they can avoid it. The regime from the outset appeared to be working on two fronts simultaneously: paving the way for a prospective communal fallback plan by securing the northern and southern hinges of the Alawite area, at Kfar Kalakh and Jisr al-Shoughour, while also endeavoring to re-impose its writ nationwide.
These parallel objectives—preparing for an Alawite mini-state and ruling over Syria as a whole—have come together in the Homs plain and along the corridor northeast, between Homs and Aleppo. In order for Assad to subjugate Syria, he can afford little to lose control over that passage. At the same time, if the Alawites hope to make safe an eventual statelet, they cannot allow Homs to be controlled by their foes. That explains what we are seeing today, as the Syrian army prepares to recapture Homs from the opposition.
[A] a communal fallback plan is a serious option, and the Homs region has become the crucible defining Syria’s future. The barbarity of the Assads’ conduct has been shocking, but may be nothing compared to what could happen if Alawites withdraw to a mini-state. The tenuous strings holding other countries in the region together could snap.