This question is taken up in two thoughtful articles by Hassan Hassan and Michael Young. Hassan Hassan argues that “sectarian cleansing is not being conducted for the purpose of establishing a potential state, but rather for other strategic purposes, including recruitment of Alawi fighters, deepening sectarian tensions in Assad’s favor, and ensuring a popular base of support,” (see Elizabeth O’Bagy). Michael Young sees them as a possible prelude to what may be coming if the Alawites begin to lose, but for the time being, he suggests that “ethnic cleansing” may not have been the intended result, but the massacres did serve as a shot across the bow of the Sunni population of the coast. (see extended quotes below)
Turkey’s Foreign Minister Davutoglu claimed that Syria’s army has begun ethnically cleansing Banyas because it is losing elsewhere in the country. But Assad’s forces are not losing. According to both Liz Sly of the Washington Post and Reuters reports Assad’s forces are gaining ground in Syria, at least for the time being. This can only be cold comfort to the Sunnis along the coast who speak of their fear of ethnic cleansing
The fighting in al-Bayda began when a bus carrying pro-regime militants, or Shabiha, was attacked, by rebel militiamen, killing at least seven and wounding more than 30, according to activists quoted by DPA. After the rebels attacked a bus, the village became “the scene of fierce fighting between the army and rebel battalions.” The brutality of the shabiha revenge on both al-Bayda and Banyas was depicted in a series of photos and videos that even by the standards of this war were shocking. The religious passions that have now colored every aspect of this fight ran out of control.
How likely is ethnic cleansing along the coast
The likelihood of ethnic cleansing in the coastal regions is high. It will rise even higher should Assad’s troops begin to lose. The Sunni populations of the coastal cities will be the first to be targeted by Assad’s military, if it is pushed out of Damascus. Should the Alawites be compelled to fall back to the predominantly Alawite region of the mountains stretching along the western seaboard of Syria, the Sunnis of the coastal cities and eastern plan will be the first to suffer. Should Sunni militias, which are perched only kilometers from Latakia, penetrate to the city itself, Alawites may turn against the region’s Sunnis fearing that they become a fifth column. There are many precedents for this sort of defensive ethnic cleansing in the region. Zionist forces in Israel, cleared Palestinian villages of their inhabitants in 1948, rather than leave them behind Israeli lines. Armenians were driven out of Eastern Anatolia by Turks and Kurds, who claimed self-defense in their struggle against Russia in WWI. The Greek Orthodox Anatolians were driven out of Anatolia following the defeat of Greek forces which sought to conquer Anatolia in the early 1920s in an effort to resurrect the Byzantine EmpireThe Sunni cities of the Syrian coast — Latakia, Jeble, Banyas, and Tartous — had no Alawite inhabitants in the 1920s, when the French began taking censuses in Syria. Certainly, Alawite, servant girls, day laborers and peddlers may have worked in the cities, but they were alien to them. Sunnis and Alawites did not live together in any Syrian town of over 200 people, according to Jacques Weulersse, the French academic who published the most thorough and reliable study of the Alawites, Le pays des Alaouites, in 1940. Their demographic segregation was profound. The deep mistrust and hostility that separated the two communities was caused largely by religious differences. Alawites see themselves as the truest Muslims, who possess secret knowledge of God. Sunnis view Alawites to be not Muslim at all, and indeed, not even People of the Book. The many prejudices that were suppressed or attenuated during the modern national era have now reemerged and threaten to divide the two populations anew.
During the modern era, Alawites came down out of their maintain villages, migrating to the cities. Today, most of the coastal cities are only half Sunni because of the growth of Alawite neighborhoods and migration. But that population is new. Most is no older than 60 years and much of it is much newer. The same is true for Damascus, where in 1945 only 400 Alawites were recorded to be living in the capital
Ethnic cleansing may turn against the Alawites, as easily as it may against Sunnis. If Sunni militias win in their struggle against the regime and penetrate into the Alawite Mountains, Alawites will flee before them, rather than be vanquished. This has already been the case in six Alawite villages north of Latakia. When rebel militias entered the towns, the Alawite families hastily grabbed their possession and fled, leaving dinners on the kitchen table. Not a soul was left in them. In all likelihood, they will run to Lebanon, which is no further than an hour’s drive, The border is open.
Western policy planners have gamed out these possibilities, making them reluctant to arm rebel militias for a total victory. Although opposition leaders plead for more and better weapons to bring them a speedy victory, Western leaders have held back. The fear that three million Alawites could flee into Lebanon, destabilizing the country for decades, undoubtedly plays a role in Western reticence. This sort of population transfer could be as disruptive to the region, as was the expulsion of Palestinians in 1948. Just as the Palestinians have not been permitted to return to their ancestral land, neither, in all probability, would the Alawites
The fear of ethnic cleansing has increased among all populations of Syria and with good reason. Sunnis claim today that the regime is effectively trying to clear many areas of its Sunni inhabitants. One only has to look at the overwhelmingly Sunni population of the refugee camps in Turkey and Jordan to see the reason for these claims. The Assad regime has devastated whole urban neighborhoodsPolicy Implications
The strong possibility of ethnic cleansing means that foreign sponsors of both sides are proceeding with caution. If Assad’s forces are pushed out of Damascus and toward the Alawite Mountains, they could ethnically cleanse the Sunni inhabitants of the coast. If rebel militias penetrate into the Mountain villages, Alawites would almost certainly be cleansed, if they did not simply up and flee to Lebanon
If Assad reasserts his control over rebel held parts of Syria, large populations of Sunnis would likewise flee. They would fear ruthless retribution and possible massacres
For this reason, Western powers are searching for a political solution. It is hard to imagine the politics of compromise prevailing in Syria any time soon. Both sides remain convinced of their rectitude and eventual victory. All the same, it is not impossible that a new ethnic balance will eventually emerge in the years, if not months, ahead
Much depends on whether rebel forces are able to unify their ranks. Their weakness is their profound fragmentation. Much too depends on external powers and their willingness to arm and finance their Syrian allies. Most Western and even some Middle Eastern leaders seem to be growing resigned to the necessity of a political solution, even as their rhetoric remains highly partisan. Erdogan, despite his bluster, seems poised to distance himself ever so slightly from Syria’s rebels. He is eager to allay Kurdish and Shiite discontent within Turkey, just as he fears any real head-butting contest with Russia and Iran over Syria
Doha, too, seems to have hit the pause button, but continues to supply salafist militias, according to some. Saudi Arabia and Kuwait are withholding arms from radical Islamist groups which have been the most effective fighters. When the Syrian rebellion first broke out, many western pundits urged Obama to intervene if for no other reason than to seize the opportunity to eliminate Iranian influence in Syria and to crush Hizbullah in Lebanon. But to do so, would necessitate defeating the Shiite population so completely as to make it vulnerable to ethnic cleansing. What is more, the US is perhaps wiser to allow a regional balance of power to emerge between Shiites and Sunnis. If the US presses down on the scales of power too dramatically in one direction, as it did in Iraq, bad things can happen. Because the Sunnis in Iraq were so thoroughly purged from state institutions and driven from positions of authority, they have gone on the warpath and remain radicalized. What is more, the US will withdraw, causing the balance of power to swing back toward a balance reflecting regional power arrangements. Better for America not to intervene itself, but to work through regional allies. In the case of Syria, these allies are Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Israel. They have more permanent interests in Syria and will balance Iran and Iraq out of necessity, rather than out of some momentary fit of anxiety or altruism
Mihrac Ural, sometimes called Ali Kyali, who has emerged as a leading Shabiha leader
Key to the heightened fear of Sunnis along the coast, is the growth and power of the Shabiha, or Alawite militias, which have been adopting a raw religious and increasingly Alawite nationalist rhetoric. No one stands out among the Shabiha leaders more than Mihrac Ural, or as he is often called, Ali Kyali, of late. He is a Turkish Alawite who fled Turkey around 1981 and was given Syrian citizenship by Hafiz al-Assad. He is credited to have introduced Abdullah Ocalan, the PKK leader, to the Assads and to have married a secretary of Rifaat al-Assad. The PKK’s first conference took place on Syrian territory in July 1981. Turkish authorities are accusing Ural of masterminding the recent bombing in Reyhanli, Turkey. He is in all likelihood, the leader of the Banyas incident as wellIn this video recorded a few days before the Banyas massacre, Mihrac Ural explains why Banyas is key to the defense of the coastal region and must be cleaned of rebel combatants
“Banias is the only route for these traitors to the sea,” he says in this video. “Jableh, due to the national forces surrounding it, cannot become a pathway or a coastal headquarters for the enemy. But Banias could, and the whole game in Banias is playing out based on this calculation.”
It is necessary, as soon as possible, to surround Banias, and I mean (someone in audience says “cleanse [tathir] sir”)…surround Banias and start the cleansing….
…The title of the Syrian Resistance is the “cleansing and liberation”, these two. We do not have any political or governing ambitions, as long as the state exists and the governing power exists. We don’t interfere in criminal or civilian matters…..
…The aim of the Syrian Resistance is the liberation of the country (watan) and if we’re needed within this week, we will join the battles in Banias and perform our patriotic duty. Everyone will see how the Syrian Resistance fights.
We fought from Amani, Kassab to Nabii Al Mir…Point 45, Qastal Al Maath, Al Mazraa. Mafraq Al Saraya, Al Mafrqah Al Bassit, Al Arjaa, Al Maydan, Bayt Fares, Al Rawda, Markaz Al Hataab, Borj Al Shaqra, Bayt Hnayn and I was ambushed in Bayt Hnayn along with my comrades and I’m still injured from that ambush. [These villages are situated to the north of Latakia]
Within this line (the cities he just listed), this is the front-line that’s always on fire. The Syrian resistance fought in all these places and collected realistic information from the enemy on the ground. It taught them a lesson. The resistance gave 27 martyrs.
Our plan has always been attack, attack, attack. Those who ask us “OK, so you entered the village, who’s going to hold it”, it doesn’t matter, our job is to cleanse and liberate and its up to the army to hold the ground, when the time comes when the army can’t hold the ground, then it will be a different story, and the Syrian Resistance will have to take additional measures….
You need to pay attention to the story of Banias, the only route from these traitors to the sea. It should be surrounded, liberated and cleansed as soon as possible, and al salam alikum.
Ali Kyali, or Mihrac Ural, the leader (secretary general) of a group calling itself The Popular Front for the Liberation of the Sanjak of Alexandretta – They call themselves The Syrian Resistance. It seems to be composed mainly of Syrian and Turkish Alawites and may have had some connection to the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine. This is their official Facebook page. This was the link to the original version of the video shown above. It is posted to the groups Facebook page, but the video was removed after it went viral on the internet, dated May 2nd, 2013. Here is the google cache version of the page showing the video posting. To the right is a picture of the original posting in case the Google cache page expires.
The importance of religion to Kayali who poses with Alawite religious leaders and defends Alawite religious shrines
Mihrac’s Turkish terrorism
According to “Terrorism, 1992 – 1995: A Chronology of Events and a Selectively Annotated Bibliography By Edward F. Mickolus, Mihrac Ural had become leader of the outlawed Turkish People’s Liberation Party Acilcier Organization. The group espouses a Marxist-Leninist ideology and holds an anti-U.S., anti-NATO position. It considers that the Turkish government is under the control of Western imperialism. He seeks to destroy this control by both violent and democratic means. The DHKP-C splinter group called Acilciler, or “Urgent Ones,” has about 500 members and operates from Syria under the name of the “Hatay Liberation Army.” Mihrac’s past connections to the Kurdish Marxist group, the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), is discussed here as well as his possible connection to the US embassy bombing in Turkey. He is now a wanted man and has $100k bounty on his head
Mihrac Ural is not an out and out Alawite nationalist. He is loyal to the rhetoric of Arab nationalism and defers to the “Syrian Army.” All the same, Turkish Alawites have a particular sensibility. They have not been imbued with Arab nationalist ideology and retain a less self-conscious connection to their religion and traditions. A number of my Turkish Alawite friends have a much deeper knowledge of Alawite religion than do my Syrian Alawite friends. Most Syrian Alawites have internalized the Syrian, Arab nationalism of the regime, such that they deny Alawite nationalist ambitions vehemently. They also cling to the notion that they are good Muslims, rejecting any notion that they believe in Ali as the supreme creator or have a separate religion. Most Turkish Alawites have fewer qualms along these lines. Some have turned away from religion altogether, embracing the secularism of Kemalism, but others have turned inward and embraced Alawite religion as a wellspring of their identity. This makes the emergence of Mihrac Ural particularly interesting. He embraces Alawitism, is proud to sit with Alawite religious sheikhs in his photos, and to defend religious shrines. Some of his photos show him sitting in front of a large library of books and are designed to depict him as a man of wisdom and deep learning. Turkish Alawites may play an important role in leading their Syrian coreligionists toward Alawite nationalism. If so, Mihrac Ural is a man to watch. There is no doubt that he speaks the assurance of a leader on a mission if not a prophet. The original Alawite founder of the Baath Party – Zaki Arsuzi – was from Alexandretta (Hatay). His conversion to Arabism was shaped by Turkey’s takeover of his region. It would be ironic if a Turkish Alawite led the spiritual and possibly nationalist awakening of the Alawites