Russia is not being very helpful at all in the Syrian peace process and British Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond thinks he knows why.
Hammond told reporters, “Is Russia really committed to a peace process or is it using the peace process as a fig leaf to try to deliver some kind of military victory for Assad that creates an Alawite mini state in the northwest of Syria?”
In December, Turkey accused Russia of “ethnic cleansing” — forcing Turkmen and Sunni Muslims to leave northwest Syria. The Russians have a gigantic air base in Latakia province, and a naval base at Tartus in the same area. Ever since the Russians intervened in the conflict, there has been open speculation that Vladimir Putin was going to engineer President Assad’s exit by creating a safe haven for him and his Alawite co-religionists.
When Russia began air strikes in September, Putin tilted the war in President Assad’s favour, after major setbacks earlier in 2015 brought rebel groups close to the coastal heartland of his Alawite sect.
An oppressed minority for most of their history, Alawites suddenly cemented their control in Syria in 1970 when Assad’s father Hafez staged a coup that sidelined the Sunnis. He built a ferocious security apparatus based on fellow Alawite officers.
Alawites broke away from Shi’ism more than 1,000 years ago and retain some links to it, including the veneration of Ali, the cousin and son-in law of the Prophet Mohammad. Alawi literally means “those who adhere to the teachings of Ali.”
The Kremlin says the West is playing with fire by trying to topple Assad and Putin has promised to track down the Islamic State militants who downed a Russian airliner in October killing all 224 people aboard.
Russia says it targets a range of militants in Syria, not just Islamic State, although it insists it focuses on IS.
Earlier Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov scolded Hammond for criticising Russia’s military action in Syria, saying his statements could not be taken seriously.
“To make such accusations is not logical, it is not correct. It contradicts the essence of those efforts that Russia is making in Syria,” Peskov told reporters.
“Russia is making rather massive and consistent efforts to help the Syrians in their fight against international terrorism,” Peskov said.
When asked about the Russian criticism, Hammond quipped: “Sounds like I must be pretty much spot on.”
Hammond also said Russia was strengthening Islamic State on the ground by propping up Assad and bombing his opponents and thus driving moderate Sunnis into the hands of militants.
“There has to be a limit to the amount of time that the Russians can sit at the negotiating table posing as sponsors of the political track while at the same time bombing the people who we believe have to be the future of Syria,” he said.
One of the major stumbling blocks (among about a dozen major stumbling blocks) to achieving peace in Syria is to solve the question of what is to be done with the Alawites.
Needless to say, after more than 40 years of oppressing the majority Sunnis, as well as Kurds, Turkmen, and other minorities, the life of an Alawite in Syria wouldn’t be worth anything once peace is achieved. It would be like Iraq after Saddam on steroids.
But carving out an Alawite state has its own set of problems, including removing a large part of the Syrian economy from the whole. It may be the only viable solution to the war; a de facto sectarian division of Syria. Assad, protected by the Russian military, may rule his little rump state with the same ruthlessness he did Greater Syria. But at least he will no longer be a threat to the majority of Syrians.