BEIRUT, Lebanon — From afar, last Thursday's massacre of rebel fighters and residents in the small Sunni farming village of Tremseh, 20 miles northwest of Hama, may look like another burst of mindless violence in the battle for control of Syria.
But in interviews with GlobalPost, regime supporters, insiders and experts say the Tremseh killings — in which regime forces used overwhelming firepower to destroy much of the village and eyewitnesses described Allawite militiamen executing dozens — fit a geographic pattern of attacks by forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad that are attempting to carve out a breakaway Allawite state.
As the ruling minority, Allawites, an offshoot of Shiite Islam, fight an increasingly existential struggle against the majority Sunni opposition. Regime insiders said policy in Damascus is shifting from the failed attempt to crush the 16-month nationwide rebellion to Plan B: drive Sunnis away from Allawite land.
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“On the ground we’re seeing an increasing Balkanization of the conflict,” said a Western diplomat based in Damascus, referring to the wars that fractured the Balkan Peninsula into smaller, ethnically and religiously homogenous states.“The opportunity for a political solution is over. That train has left the platform. This will now be fought out militarily.”
From early assaults on Sunnis living in the traditional Allawite heartlands of the mountainous west coast of Syria, home to the ports of Lattakia and Tartous, Allawite militiamen known as shabiha have in recent months conducted a series of massacres further east along the plains of the Orontes River.
Experts say the regime increasingly sees the Orontes plain as a buffer zone between the Allawite-dominated region to the west and the two big Sunni cities of Homs and Hama, which have been strongholds of the opposition.
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“The massacres in the Sunni villages are to clean the west bank of the Orontes from Sunnis and the military operations in the area are to drive Sunnis eastward,” said Haider, a 30-year-old Allawite whose father is a senior security official based near Qerdaha, Assad’s home town.
Haider said he had been present as his father discussed recently with officials in the security services the “creation of an Allawite state from Lattakia and Tartous to western Hama and Homs.”
Rumors had begun circulating among Allawites of oil and gas wealth along the coastline, Haider said.
“These rumors are to tell us Allawites that we will live in a rich state in the future.”
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Abu Bakr, a leading activist based in Homs, a city once home to around one million people, told GlobalPost most Sunni neighborhoods remained under shelling and had been largely abandoned but for rebel fighters and a few families, while Allawite areas remained populated, protected by military checkpoints and armor.
In Qubair, 12 miles from Hama, 78 people, mainly Sunni women and children, were killed on June 6 when a military bombardment was followed by an assault and massacre by Allawite shabiha. In Houla, 15 miles northwest of Homs, 108 Sunnis were killed on May 25 in exactly the same way: Bombardment followed by a shabiha massacre.
Tremseh, Qubair and Houla are all Sunni-majority villages surrounded by Allawite-majority villages. In all cases the regime said those who died were “terrorists.” The villages have since been largely abandoned by their Sunni residents.
Ayman Abdel Nour, a former university friend of Assad who became his political advisor before defecting from the regime in 2007, said the idea of carving out an Allawite state was not new in regime thinking.
Mohammed Nasif, Assad’s former tutor and now one of his closest advisors, had outlined the idea of a breakaway Allawite state, Abdel Nour said, in a conversation with him in 1997.
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“At the time I laughed in my heart at the idea but now we can see how the regime has pushed the country into civil war. None of these massacres are a mistake. They aim to split Syria,” said Abdel Nour, who is now based in Dubai and edits the political news site All4Syria.
“Many officials now openly discuss the creation of an Allawite state,” said a Damascus-based Syria expert, familiar with regime thinking, who asked for anonymity to speak freely.
“For now Assad still talks about the Syrian state as that is his source of legitimacy. But officials increasingly think of an Allawite state as the fall back option.”
The mass displacement of Sunnis has even reached the borders of the capital Damascus. Following an intense week-long bombardment of Duma, once home to some half a million mainly Sunni residents, the International Committee of the Red Cross on July 1 evacuated only 26 people and delivered food aid to just 600 remaining residents, the city having been all but abandoned.
As casualties mount on both sides, the struggle between Sunnis, who form 74 percent of Syria’s population, and the minority Allawites, who make up just 13 percent but who dominate the ruling elites, is becoming increasingly bitter.
“We can’t stand them anymore in our country, all these terrorists,” said a young woman in her 20s from near Lattakia, referring to the Sunni opposition. Her brother, an officer in the military, added: “If they want to live under our rule, fine. If not, they can go back to Saudi Arabia or we’re going to wipe them out.”
In a rare public split with regime dogma, an official with the ruling Baath Party told GlobalPost that the massacres around Homs and Hama were by “fanatic Allawite shabiha.”
“In the 1980s the fight was between the Baathists and the Muslim Brotherhood. Today it is a Sunni-Allawite conflict,” he said.
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Radwan Ziadeh, a spokesman for the opposition Syrian National Council, said sectarian vitriol against Allawites on social media was a growing problem. He blamed international powers for “sending a signal to the Syrian people that it’s Assad or civil war” by failing to take action following recent massacres.
Fueling much of the chaos and violence now taking over Syria, Abdel Nour said, is Assad’s personal conviction that his leadership is beyond rebuke.
“He believes he is chosen by God to rule Syria, that he has permission to do whatever he wants, that he is above his people and doesn’t need advise,” he said.
“He thinks himself better educated than other Arab leaders, younger and more in touch. That’s why I left, because you need to work with a human, not a god.”
A GlobalPost journalist inside Syria contributed to this report.