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Feb 18, 2013 | 12:00 GMT

In Syria, a Possible Decision Point for Alawite Troops

In Syria, A Possible Decision Point for Alawite Troops
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Summary

A rumor is circulating in Lebanon that Hezbollah is recruiting specialized Syrian Alawite troops to leave Syria and join its organization. Meanwhile, Syrian rebel forces appear to be making tangible progress in their offensives against loyalist forces in the north around the city of Aleppo and in the south around Damascus. Though Alawite troops are well-equipped and dug in around the capital, they are outnumbered and facing an inevitable battle of attrition against an array of Sunni rebel groups.

At this stage of the conflict, Syria's remaining Alawite forces with the means to defect are each facing an existential choice: either stick with their fellow Alawites against growing odds in Syria or secure a personal exit strategy. Hezbollah's alleged poaching efforts suggest that individual interests may have begun to outweigh the collective interests of the Alawite and broader Shiite minority communities. Should specialized Alawite troops begin leaving for alternative careers in Lebanon, serious cracks in what is left of Syrian President Bashar al Assad's regime are likely to emerge, raising doubts about Alawite staying power in Damascus.

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Hezbollah has purportedly been reaching out to senior Alawite officers, including members of al Assad's Praetorian Guard from the Fourth Armored Division (commanded by the Syrian president's brother, Maher al Assad) and the Republican Guard. According to rumors, the Lebanese militant group has been offering housing in Beirut and employment within the organization should the Syrian regime face impending collapse, allowing such officers to avoid Sunni reprisal attacks, arrests and possible extradition to the International Criminal Court in The Hague. To support preparations for a Sunni challenge to its authority in Lebanon and possible Israeli strikes, the Shiite militant group is believed to be specifically targeting Alawite officers who would provide valuable expertise in operating advanced weaponry and communications systems, as well as lessons in fighting asymmetric conflicts.

Alawite Retreat to the Syrian Coast

Syria Alawite Retreat map

It is too early to tell how many Syrian Alawite officers have accepted Hezbollah's offers, but the alleged overtures highlight concerns about the al Assad regime's ability to stand its ground in Damascus. Hezbollah has already played a substantial role in helping Syrian Alawite forces repel Sunni rebels and sever opposition supply lines through Lebanon, but that support has come at a cost to the group's own capabilities and morale. Sunni militants in Lebanon, in coordination with local Sunni clerics, appear to be making progress in cutting off the Syrian regime's vital overland supply line through the Bekaa Valley along the Beirut-Damascus highway. Fighters from the rebel Free Syrian Army reportedly are operating in Sunni towns and villages in the Bekaa Valley, as well as in northern Lebanon, in support of these interdiction efforts. Sunni fighters have been particularly active in Mdairji, a town on the Beirut-Damascus highway in the western mountain range overlooking the Bekaa Valley.

Syrian and Lebanese Sunnis still face a substantial challenge in avoiding countermoves by the sizable pockets of Shiite and Christian forces that lack an interest in seeing a Sunni majority come to power in Syria. But the progress demonstrated by Sunni rebel forces in targeting regime supply lines between Lebanon and Damascus indicate that al Assad's minority allies in Lebanon are facing constraints in countering interdiction efforts, including the threat of some minority leaders striking deals with Sunni forces in pursuit of individual interests. One such leader to watch in this regard is Lebanese army commander Jean Kahwaji, a Maronite who is rumored to be considering a run for the presidency in 2014 and who may need to cooperate with local Sunnis.

Whether evaluating the motives of the Hezbollah leadership, a war-weary Alawite commander in the Republican Guard or a Lebanese army general, at this stage of the Syrian conflict, actions taken on the assumption that the Syrian regime will collapse will likely become more common. This perception could have a substantial impact on the morale of remaining Alawite forces that are digging in for an intensifying battle for Damascus.

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