Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Israel Preparing to Resettle Syrian Alawites in the Golan Heights

Israeli Chief of Staff Benny Gantz said that Israel is preparing to resettle potential Alawite refugees in the Golan Heights, the valuable highlands which oversee much of northern Israel and the Syrian capital of Damascus.  If this plan is true and it is implemented then it will be one of the most odd, complex geopolitical schemes in Middle East history.

For background, Alawites are a religious-tribal minority in Syria comprising ten percent or so of the country's population.  They believe Ali, cousin of Muhammad, was God incarnate.  They also believe Jesus was God in the Trinity and Alawites practice Communion as the body and blood of Christ.  Orthodox Islamic scholars have traditional classified Alawites as a Christian sect, a Shia heresy, or a pagan religion that disguises itself in the majority religion.  Some modern scholars have declared it a strange sect of Islam, but there have been charges that these scholars are merely making propaganda for governments which desire closer relations with Syria.  However, a recent New Republic article claims that in the past decades Alawite religion has been Sunnized by the Alawite-controlled Syrian government

The Alawites have run Syria under the Assad family since the 1970s.  The regime has been secular, Arab (national) Socialist which regards religion as more of a private matter if not a threat when mixed with politics.  The battle between the Arab Sunni majority and the minority alliance of the Alawites and various Catholic/Orthodox Christians has been bloody before.  The late 1970s and early 1980s saw the Muslim Brotherhood rebellion which was brutally crushed by the brutal assault on Hama, the "Islamic capital" of Syria, which killed somewhere between 10,000 and 40,000 people.  Now, the Arab Spring wave has reached Syria and the old battle between Sunnis (the anti-government forces) and the minority alliance (pro-government) has reached the point of civil war.

The fear of ethnic displacement is very high in Syria, much higher even in post-Arab Spring Egypt.  The fear of ethnic displacement comes from the probability of the victimized Sunni Islamists seeking revenge on the Alawites if the Assad government falls.  The crackdowns against the Sunni Islamists in the past were so harsh that Syrian Muslim Brotherhood propaganda commonly features statements along the lines of "kill all Alawites" and attacks against Alawite civilians has become a new disturbing trend in Syria.

So as a bit of a propaganda coup, and perhaps geopolitical smartness, Israel is making it known that it is willing to resettle Alawites in the Golan Heights.  The propaganda coup portion comes from the fact Syria's Alawite-controlled government has been demanding the return of the Golan Heights, captured by Israel in the Six-Day War, for decades.  It would be deeply ironic for the Israel-annexed Golan Heights to be the Alawites' safe haven from Sunni Syria.

The intelligence of this geopolitical move is straight-forward: entrenching the Golan Heights with an anti-Syrian population.  Currently the Golan Heights' population is about 40,000 Druze (who in the past have been pro-Assad Syria and part of the minority alliance; however, they have been silent during the current Arab Spring uprising), 16,500 Israeli Jews, and about 2,000 Sunni Muslims (who would have good reason to support a Sunni Syria).  There are about three-and-a-half million Alawites in Syria.  Even if just one percent were to move to the Golan Heights that would be 35,000 new settlers who would be willing to make a pragmatic agreement with Israel to prevent Syria from retaking the Golan Heights.

It is a little bit of a leap though to assume that Alawites would first flee to Israel but that does not mean an eventual move is unlikely.  A potiential alternative would for the Alawites to flee to Lebanon, which has a small Alawite population.  However, any disruption in the delicate religious-ethnic balance in Lebanon would likely end in bloodshed.  Hezbollah, Syria's Shia friends in Lebanon, are unlikely to be accommodating to such a large influx of needy, non-Shia.  Neighboring Turkey has long had its own problem with respecting non-Turkish people.  So if ethnic displacement does occur it would likely be an internationally scattering with perhaps some realizing the Golan is their only chance of sticking together.

If that is the case then Israel's offer may pay dividends in its efforts to keep the Golan Heights.

See also:  Israel's Point-of-View of Vulnerable Geography

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