It remains too early to predict the collapse of the Assad regime, or the way in which it might end, although the possibility of 'catastrophic success' on the part of the jihadist opposition is weighing on minds in Washington.
What is clear, however, are grounds for serious concern about the potential mass flight of Alawites and other minorities from Syria should the Assad regime lose its hold on the Alawite heartland along the Mediterranean coast. Before that situation arises, the regime could also lose control in other areas where Alawites remain in large numbers, such as parts of Homs and Damascus.
Even if the number of deaths in such a situation were to prove less than feared, the anticipation of a genocidal threat is almost certain to cause Alawites and other minorities who remain in Syria to try to escape, mainly into Lebanon.
Unless the international community gears up contingency plans, and places a great deal of pressure on Turkey, the Saudis and others to address such a contingency through their clients, the humanitarian and regional consequences of regime collapse will be dire, especially for refugees and for Lebanon. Unfortunately, there is little evidence of effective leadership, either internationally or within the region, to address the need to avoid a further mass refugee migration. Nor is planning under way to deal with the likelihood of even greater humanitarian fall-out from the conflict.
Yet there is abundant evidence, both contemporary and historical, that a further humanitarian disaster could lie in store:
1. Jabhat al-Nusra
Discussing an interview broadcast on 27 May on Al Jazeera with Abu Muhammad al-Julani, the leader of Jabhat al-Nusra, the noted Syrian Sunni scholar Muhammad al-Yaqoubi made the following comments:
Q. (al-Julani) said that Nusra will not kill Alawites or Druze.
A. Druze and Alawites – 'if they don't fight us, if they don't work with Assad,' then they will not kill them.
Q. But he made changing their religion a prerequisite for this.
A. ...He (al-Julani) gave two conditions. The first was that they abandon Assad, or defect – and this is the understandable politics of war. But the second condition...when talking about the Druze villages in Idlib...(was) to correct their dogma or their Islam.' And he repeated that 'if (the Alawites) accept Islam, we'll be fine with them.' His approach to Druze and Alawites is that they should become Muslims and 'then we will accept them,' which differs from the long-established position adopted by Sunnis, such as the Hanafis and Malikis, who accepted these groups and made them equal to the People of the Book. Al-Julani's position means that Alawites can only choose between converting to Islam or being killed; they would not even be extended the option of deportation.
2. Abdullah al-Muheisini and Abu Osama al-Ansari
After the head of the powerful Salafist militia Ahrar al-Sham expressed the hope that the 'wave of purification' that swept the 'filth' from Jisr al-Shughour would reach 'the mountains of the Nuseiriyyah' (a derogatory term for Alawites), Saudi jihadist evangelist and fundraiser Abdullah al-Muheisini said that the religiously sanctioned principle of reciprocity did not allow rebels to kill women and children. Such killing was forbidden and the Prophet Muhammad himself was known to discourage it. Nor would killing Alawite women and children serve as a deterrent to the regime, which did not care about Alawite civilians. It would 'only increase the regime's criminality and barbarity.'
However, al-Muheisini did not rule out captured Alawite women's subsequent execution for apostasy, nor the killing of women and children who bear arms. And although he asserted the mujahideen may spare Alawite women and children, he said they would exterminate their men.
According to leading jihadologist Matthew Barber, al-Muheisini is not a fringe figure. He sat on the shari'ah committee of Jaish al-Fatah, the coalition of Islamist brigades that captured Idlib City in March. Though often seen as close with Jabhat al-Nusra, al-Muheisini maintains strong relations with several Islamist and jihadist factions. He is an influential dealmaker among hardcore jihadist groups exercising control of Syrian territory.
Nor does al-Muheisini represent the extreme view among non-ISIS rebels and jihadists on this issue. Jabhat al-Nusra official Abu Osama al-Ansari, for example, insisted that Alawite women had fought against the rebels and should be treated as combatants unless proven otherwise. He argued that al-Muheisini understated the degree of scholarly consensus on the execution of female apostates.
Al-Ansari also insisted that the prohibition on killing women was not because of the sanctity of their blood, but rather so as not to squander the interest of 'the Muslims' in taking them as slaves and selling them.
3. Media commentary
At the popular level, amid the breakdown of the authority of the state and the cumulative effects of the Syrian regime's violence against its opponents, Alawites are being depicted to Sunni audiences by some pro-rebel Syrian commentators as deserving mass slaughter. An appalling discussion on Al Jazeera in May is worth watching in that respect (it has English subtitles). Rebel sympathisers subsequently sought to play down the comments, correctly insisting that it unfairly and misleadingly reduced a complex situation to a simple sectarian conflict.
However, the discussion makes it clear that a bloodbath is definitely on the minds of some, and that is the threatening message which impacts at the popular level, with Alawites already fearful of where a major military reversal for the regime might leave them.
4. Lessons from Palestinian experience
The exodus of Syrians so far has followed a pattern similar to the Palestinian exodus of 1947-48. Those Syrians (of whatever sect) with the resources, skills and opportunity to move abroad have probably already done so. Although statistics are hard to come by, anecdotal evidence suggests Syrian Christians and other minorities have mostly moved to safer locations within Syria or have migrated to join diasporas abroad.
In the Palestinian case, most of the social elite (the 'notables') had departed before the mass flight of mid-1948, leaving a mostly illiterate, leaderless society at the village level. One end result of the 1948 conflict was the departure of around 725,000 people who were either forced to leave or who fled in fear under the pressure of the Israeli advance. The number of Palestinian refugees registered with UNRWA now exceeds 5 million.
In the Syrian case, the number of refugees now abroad already exceeds 4 million. Like the Palestinians, in a generation, their numbers will be significantly greater, possibly including a growing proportion that will be born stateless.
Moreover, as with the Palestinians before them, those Syrians with the least education and prospects for self-initiated or sponsored resettlement are now living in impoverished urban locations or designated refugee camps. Those few who can raise the funds to engage a people smuggler comprise the largest proportion (around 39%) of those seeking illegally to enter Europe by crossing the Mediterranean.
There is almost no chance of the Syrian refugee population now in Lebanon and Jordan being integrated into those societies. The situation in the Jebel Mohsen area of Tripoli between Sunnis, Shia and Alawites is particularly volatile. Jordan has its own problems with maintaining a political balance between its East Bank population and its citizens of Palestinian origin. There was recently even a suggestion by a former Jordanian intelligence chief that a corridor should be created to channel Syrian refugees into Saudi Arabia.
Whatever their ultimate destination, a rapidly growing body of Syrian refugees is going to be living in dire economic, social and political circumstances, and in a majority of cases below the extreme poverty line for the foreseeable future. Nor is there any prospect that significant numbers of those refugees, or those who have been displaced within Syria, will be able to return to their homes.
It is therefore imperative, both for humanitarian reasons and to avoid making an already complex political and security situation even worse, that all possible means of avoiding a further refugee exodus be explored as a matter of urgency.
Photo courtesy of Flickr user European Commission DG ECHO.