The latest military developments in Syria are now generally understood as ushering in a new phase in the Syrian conflict. What’s less observed is that the minority Alawite regime’s mass killings of Sunnis and the intense fighting around the cities of Homs and Hama also seem to replicate significant moments of Syrian history. Specifically, Bashar al-Assad’s campaign against his Sunni adversaries recalls the strategy employed by the Crusaders, as invading European armies fortified themselves against various Muslim coalitions in the Levant, from the 12th to the 13th century. Indeed, the Crusader castles dotting the Western part of Syria may give us some sort of insight into the regime’s military thinking, and perhaps a preview of its future.
Although Syria’s present dictator may still think he can retake control of the whole country, the nature and locations of the fighting indicate that the regime is also preparing a Plan B: to consolidate the traditional Alawite stronghold in northwest Syria. There, Assad loyalists can dig in and conduct a long protracted fight, as they begin to lose the ability to hold territory in the interior.
The hottest flashpoints in the current stage of the conflict reveal a specific sectarian geography. They form the eastern frontier of the Alawite heartland along a north-south meridian stretching from Jisr al-Shoughour near the border with Turkey, to Tal Kalakh, on the border with Lebanon. To establish its control over this redoubt, the regime must secure access points into this territory, and clear all hostile pockets within it and along its perimeter, which are dotted with Sunni villages uncomfortably adjacent to Alawite ones.
This was the strategy the regime employed in Houla and al-Qubayr, when it used neighboring Alawite villages to launch murderous raids against the Sunni communities in those two areas. Similarly, Assad’s forces assaulted al-Haffeh, which lies east of the main coastal city of Latakia, in order to clear a Sunni foothold held by the rebel Free Syrian Army inside the Alawite enclave.
The regime’s sectarian logic corresponds with geographic and logistical factors that are best understood by looking at Syria’s past. Throughout history, Syria has been a buffer state between competing larger actors in the region, namely the surrounding historical power centers in Anatolia, Persia and Egypt. Furthermore, it has also served as an invasion route for these foreign powers going either north from Egypt or south and southwest toward Egypt from Anatolia or Persia and Mesopotamia, as well as for European powers expanding East.
But it’s the Crusader era that offers the most interesting parallels to the current situation. During this period, Syria was divided between the Crusader power, which commanded the coast and coastal mountains, and a hostile, if fragmented, Muslim population in the interior.
The strategic dilemmas facing Assad, as he seeks to carve out and then defend an Alawite enclave, are the same that the Crusaders faced. Syria’s coastal region was a critical route for armies advancing from the north and south, which the Crusaders needed to control in order to secure territorial continuity as well as communication and logistical lines between their various kingdoms in the Levant.
These lines were vulnerable to attacks from the Syrian interior, especially at key corridors and access points. To deal with this challenge, the Crusaders established a series of massive fortifications that straddled the length of the coast and the surrounding hills to the east.
One of these Crusader citadels, Saladdin Castle, lies just east of the aforementioned al-Haffeh, high up on a ridge in the mountains. Another is the Krak des Chevaliers, west of Homs and just north of the village of Tal Kalakh. These frontier defenses served to protect the Crusaders against foes from the Syrian interior looking to penetrate the coastal region.
The Assad regime has tried to set up a buffer between the interior and the coastal region in order to prevent similar incursions. Al-Haffeh, for instance, was vulnerable to a rebel group based in the Ghab plain in the eastern foothills of the Alawite mountains, northwest of Hama.
This plain separates the mountains from the Syrian interior. The regime’s forces have occupied the al-Madiq citadel, perched atop a hill east of the Orontes River overlooking the plain, and have tried to push further east to villages like Kfar Zaita and Khan Shaykhoun. Their plan was to establish a forward strategic position outside the mountain enclave, in an attempt to disrupt enemy movement and logistical lines. However, the regime can no longer retake and hold the villages beyond the al-Madiq fortress. In fact, recent reports from inside Syria inform us that large areas around Jisr al-Shoughour and the Idlib countryside are now effectively under rebel control.
The shrinking reach of Assad’s limited manpower has begun to transform how the regime is conducting the war. Increasingly, it is relying on attack helicopters and heavy shelling. In order to retake rebel positions, Assad’s armored and infantry units have had to deploy massive concentrated force, or risk sustaining heavy losses, as was the case in Kfar Zaita, and before it further south in the Homs neighborhood of Baba Amr. In fact, the regime’s tactical employment of tanks, and helicopters, has been quite poor. Much like the Lebanese Civil War, the conflict in Syria is gradually taking on the shape of static warfare between entrenched camps unable to overrun each other’s enclaves and hold them.
As the Assad regime retrenches into its consolidated redoubt, it will be increasingly reliant on the support of outside powers to continue holding out against its foes. Here again the Crusader precedent might be of relevance. Through their control of the port cities of the coast, the Crusader states were able, for a significant period of time, to rely on assistance from Europe, including important logistical support from Venice, Genoa and Pisa.
Assad’s potential canton would rely increasingly on the patronage and protection of Russia and Iran, effectively becoming a protectorate on the Mediterranean. With a hostile Turkey and a predominantly Sunni northern Lebanon the only other land borders of the mountain enclave, seaborne support will become vital, increasing the importance of the Tartus port. If Assad cannot control all of Syria, both Moscow and Tehran, each for their own reasons, would seek to maintain their foothold through regime continuity even in contracted form.
The prospect that Bashar al-Assad might eventually have no other choice than retrenchment in the coastal mountains is not without irony. His father Hafez always cited the “facts of history and geography” whenever he sought to justify his domination of Lebanon and Syria’s supposed claims in the wider Levant. How fitting that the realities of strategic geography would now spell the end of his family’s domination of Syria.