If a full-scale civil war erupts in Syria – and the nine-month old uprising is veering in that direction – President Bashar Assad, his family and his still loyal generals are reported by DEBKA-Net-Weekly's exclusive sources to be planning to leave Damascus and head out to the northwestern Alawite (Al-Ansariyyah) Mountains.
This is the only densely forested region along Syria's Mediterranean coast. From there, the Assads will continue to fight for their survival.
The Al-Ansariyyah range averages 32 kilometers (20 miles) in breadth and a peak elevation of just over 1,200 meters. The tallest mountain, Nabi Yunis east of Latakia, is 1,562 meters (5,125 feet) high. The range slopes down from its northern tip to an average altitude of 900 meters (3,000 feet) and 600 meters in the south.
Our military and intelligence sources have discovered the Syrian engineering corps working in the forested areas of those mountains on the construction of a fortified encampment, partly inside caves and tunnels. They are enclosing its perimeter with anti-tank defenses armed with anti-air batteries.
When finished, the camp will be one of the most heavily fortified strongholds in the Middle East.
In support of the Syrian dictator, large groups of Alawite families began moving in the last week of November from the plains around Latakia, Hama and Homs to new homes in the encampment – apparently on a signal from Assad's intelligence and security services.
The Alawites who cannot leave their towns or villages for some reason are being moved into fortified precincts close to their homes.
Alawites split for and against Assad
This massive relocation encompasses some million Alawites, or a third of the 3.5 million members of this minority sect, a deviant offspring of the Shiite Muslim faith, which rules the country although numbering just over one-tenth of Syria's total population.
By reestablishing his headquarters in a mountain fortress, Bashar Assad hopes to achieve two goals:
1. To shelter his Alawite following in the event of a full-scale civil war. Rebel groups, especially Sunnis, are expected to seek revenge against this minority sect for controlling government through Assad father and son for 37 years.
2. Clustering them in protected canons will ensure these Alawites' loyalty to Bashar Assad and his clan.
There are four Alawite tribal confederations: Kalbiyah, Khaiyatin, Haddadin and Matawirah. Not all their leaders are prepared to throw in their lot with the president and his family or withdraw to the sites under his protection.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly's Middle East sources report the Alawite community is divided for and against the ruler, generating its first desertions in the nine-month uprising against the regime.
A dozen Alawite village chiefs in the restive Homs and Hama regions have struck deals with local rebel militia chiefs, including the Free Syrian Army, gaining guarantees of immunity from attack in return for their young men refusing to enlist in Assad's private, state-backed paramilitary Shabiha.
Assad was unable to stop three enclaves rising outside his authority
Assad and his henchmen were unable to stop this accord going through, an indication of the president's declining authority these days in the strife-torn country. That control is slipping out of his hands was shown also by the fact that apart from the fortified Alawite district, at least three more enclaves are under construction by communities who no longer defer to his authority or the Syrian army's jurisdiction. Indeed Assad's soldiers are barred entry to these areas which now occupy about 35 percent of Syrian territory.
Should the beleaguered president decide it is in his strategic interests to assemble a military corps for invading those enclaves, he still has the clout for doing so. But as time goes by, local governing bodies and militias are forming and stabilizing and the chances of central government in Damascus turning the clock back are ebbing.
The three principal segregated districts established thus far are:
The Druze enclave – Walid Jumblatt, the Lebanese Druze chief, who is accepted by the Syrian Druze community, came to an agreement with Syrian rebel leaders on behalf of its half-million members, who are concentrated mostly in the Jabal al-Druze mountain of southern Syria.
Syrian Druzes undertook to withdraw their support from the Assad regime and stop sending their young men to the Syrian army. The rebels, for their part, pledged not to fight the Druzes or operate from their villages.
Jumblatt this week voiced concern lest a civil war in Syria reach Jabal al-Druze and spill over into Lebanon. The Lebanese and Syrian communities would then be forced to fight their common enemies, Assad's forces and his Lebanese ally, Hizballah.
West and South out of Assad's control
The Western Euphrates Valley Enclave – Located in eastern Syria near the Iraq border, this district includes the towns of Deir al-Zour, Abu Kamal and Mayadin, as well as Syria's oil fields. It has a population of around three million. Syrian government institutions, the courts, army and security bodies were all driven out of this enclave in the clashes between the army and protesters, making way for the rule of local militias, mostly fighters of the Shammar tribes, which have branches in Iraq, Jordan and Saudi Arabia.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s military sources report that Assad ran out of military strength for holding onto this strategic region although it contains his oil fields and the intersection of the Syrian-Iraqi-Jordanian borders.
His armed forces were stretched beyond the limit when they had to be deployed on the Turkish and Lebanese borders to guard against a potential NATO-Arab invasion, crack down on revolts in the north and at the same time secure the regime in Damascus. Their strategists were forced to decide on priorities and so Assad gave up on the Western Euphrates region.
The Horan enclave – The uprising against Assad first erupted nine months ago in this part of southern Syria which borders on Jordan and Israel. It is home to 400,000 Syrians, mainly in the cities of Daraa, Bosra, Quneitra and As Suwayda.
By May-June of this year, Syrian security forces had brutally extinguished the flames of revolt here, but in late September the rebels regained control.
Assad has refrained from ordering the regular military units deployed on the Golan border with Israel to crack down on the resurgent revolt for fear that the soldiers, most of them Sunnis, will defy his orders.