BEIRUT (Reuters) - A century ago minority Alawites began a long journey from rural poverty in the mountains overlooking the eastern Mediterranean towards Syria’s seat of power in Damascus.
Now, with President Bashar al-Assad threatened by armed revolution, those mountains could offer a last sanctuary to his Alawite community if Sunni rebels were to overrun the capital.
Already hundreds of thousands of Alawites have moved to the relative safety of Tartous province, the southern of two mainly Alawite coastal provinces which are home to the mountain range which runs north to south, close to the sea.
The Alawite flight has led to speculation that Assad himself and his inner circle might fall back on their ancestral mountain fortress if they felt power was slipping from them.
That speculation was heightened when opposition sources said he had moved to the coastal city of Latakia last week after the stunning bomb attack which killed four of his top officials.
The reports were not confirmed and Israel later said Assad, who has launched a sustained counter-offensive against rebel fighters in Damascus, was still in the capital with his family.
But many suspect it remains Assad’s option of last resort.
“It wouldn’t be surprising if there were some contingency plans - a safe house, fortifying the presidential palace in Latakia, moving artillery to the mountains,” said Shashank Joshi of the RUSI defence think tank in London.
Assad has given no hint that he might consider such a move - any public suggestion that he was considering a withdrawal from the capital would be a clear admission of defeat in a war he appears determined to win at any cost.
“We’ve not seen any movement of big heavy artillery, or big armoured units (to the Alawite areas),” Joshi said.
“Although it would be a sensible option, they still feel able and willing to defend Damascus as the seat of government, for the short term at least.”
Over the longer term it is hard to see Assad regaining full authority over the country. His forces have lost control of several border posts, many thousands of soldiers have defected and the insurgency has reached Syria’s two main cities.
While the loyal core of his military forces still enjoy overwhelming advantages in firepower, they are unable to confront simultaneously all the rebels - who are scattered, lightly armed, poorly coordinated but growing in number.
“You’d have to be pretty desperate to leave Damascus, but the whole scenario of a retreat to the heartlands is a powerful one,” said a Western diplomat in Beirut.
“There are reports of Iranian armament of the Alawite mountains,” he added, saying that the ruthless crushing of rebels in the city of Homs, 50 miles (80 km) east of Tartous, may also have been part of a plan to defend the Alawite region.
The mountains which ring the eastern edge of the Mediterranean have historically offered refuge to other Levantine minorities. Further south they have been the sanctuary of Lebanon’s Maronite Christian and Druze communities.
Nearly 100 years ago, French colonial powers who carved out parts of the former Ottoman empire even established a short-lived state for the Alawites there - prompting suggestions that Assad might consider trying to repeat the experiment.
“The reason why I pay attention to this is that I don’t see the Assad regime falling over like leaders in Cairo or Tunis, or being replaced like in Yemen,” said Andrew Tabler, referring to Arab autocrats toppled last year in uprisings which swept the Middle East and North Africa.
“It will contract. Maybe first towards Damascus, and then perhaps to the coast,” said Tabler, a Syria expert at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “What’s left might not be a state - it might just be a regime area.”
“A lot of sects in the Levant will do what they have to do to survive, and they use mountainous areas - especially sects with stockpiles of chemical weapons,” Tabler said.
Even if he wanted to, few believe that a defeated Assad would be able to carve out a viable state in the rump Alawite territory, which is also home to many Sunni Muslims.
Economically it would be unsustainable if, as likely, it were under siege from Sunni Muslim forces controlling the rest of the country. It boasts little industry and holds none of Syria’s modest oil reserves, which are located in the east, and would have few allies abroad.
Regional powers, struggling with their own minorities, would be loath to endorse a separatist entity. “Turkey would be very much against forming an Alawite state. It has been concerned about Alawite grievances on its own territory,” Joshi said.
Russia, which has a naval maintenance facility at Tartous port, has supported Assad so far but would see any partnership with the Alawites as a liability rather than an asset if they no longer controlled Damascus. Iran and its Lebanese ally Hezbollah would also rethink their ties.
“What motivation would the Russians, Iranians and Hezbollah have in supporting what would at that point effectively be an Alawite resistance movement focused on survival and retaliatory attacks?” said Anthony Skinner of British political risk consultancy Maplecroft.
And Sunni rebels who have waged a bloody campaign to overthrow Assad would hardly allow their former tormentor to consolidate power in a small strip of the country.
Ideologically, a retreat to the Alawite heartland would also mark the abandonment of four decades of policy under Bashar and his late father Hafez to bring Alawites into the heart of Syria’s society, economy and political power.
The elder Assad seized power in 1970, cementing Alawite control after decades in which their community - an offshoot of Shi‘ite Islam marginalised by a Sunni Muslim majority and its wealthy elite - grew to gradually dominate the armed forces.
“The strategy for the Alawites since Hafez came to power was to be part of Syrian society and be accepted as rulers and break out of a localised minority,” said Volker Perthes, director of the German Institute for International and Security Affairs.
“An Alawite state or fiefdom would be a sign that Syria, the centralised state as billed by the Baath Party and the Assads, is kaputt. It would be a major defeat for the Assads.”
Inevitably, if Assad were swept away by rebel forces, his successors would struggle to impose the same centralised control which the Assad family has asserted over Syria for 42 years.
In that scenario, Syrian minorities such as the Alawites, Druzes and Kurds might all push for some degree of autonomy - though they are unlikely to enjoy the kind of freedom enjoyed by Kurds in Iraq, who had 12 years of Western protection to build a degree of independence from Saddam Hussein.
“It’s too early to say what a post-Assad Syria would look like,” said Ayham Kamel, a Middle East analyst at consultancy Eurasia Group.
“But regionalism will play a greater role... You will see more signs of autonomy in Kurdish areas, and probably in Alawite and Druze regions. But Damascus will be the centre with the gravitational pull.”
Editing by Giles Elgood