As fighting between the Syrian military and rebel fighters rages, concerns are growing about how the regime of President Bashar Assad might react if it becomes convinced it's about to lose power.
One theory involves the establishment of a breakaway region dominated by Syria's Alawite minority — which includes the Assad family — in the northwestern coastal mountains. Analysts say this would be a disaster both for Assad and the region, but it can't be completely ruled out.
Members of an offshoot of Shiite Islam, Alawites make up little more than 10 percent of Syria's population of 22.5 million; for a long time, they occupied the lower rungs of society. France created a short-lived Alawite autonomous region in the 1930s, but it was under four decades of Assad family and Baath Party rule that the sect came to have influence far beyond its numbers.
Today, some are wondering if an Alawite region will re-emerge should the regime's grip on power loosen.
Benjamin Jensen, who teaches at American University in Washington, D.C., and at the Marine Corps Command and Staff College in Quantico, Va., says the creation of what he calls a "rogue Alawite state" is a scenario worth pondering, though it seems unlikely at the moment.
"As a military observer, I think a lot of the claims that 'Oh, Assad is almost beat' are very premature," he says. "So we're talking beyond the battle for Aleppo now. And we're assuming the battle of Aleppo goes horribly wrong, and not only does the Syrian army get beaten as they try to retake Aleppo, but they prove unable in a successive counterattack to take it."
Aleppo, Syria's largest city, is the scene of deadly clashes between rebels and the Syrian military.
What A Retreat Would Mean
Should the conflict grind into a bloody stalemate, says Jensen, the chances of a retreat to the coast between Latakia and the port city of Tartous will grow.
Some Syrians who grew up in the coastal region believe that traditionally Alawite areas will be the last to abandon Assad.
"Latakia, it's the last bastion of the regime. Definitely," says Jamal Jadeed, not his real name, who is from the Latakia area. "They have their presence there. They have their weapons. The big families of the regime are living there."
Others, however, are skeptical that this would be a viable alternative for the regime. Analyst Yezid Sayigh at the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut says it's understandable to speculate about an Alawite enclave when daily reports come in about Sunni neighborhoods and villages along the coast being attacked, and residents fleeing.
But that, he says, has more to do with the regime desperately putting down threats wherever it sees them than with any policy of sectarian cleansing.
"It looks like it's carving out an Alawi region, but I don't think that's even the fallback of last resort," he says. "This is a regime that will die fighting for Damascus."
Sayigh says it's important to remember that for the regime, a retreat to an Alawite stronghold would represent failure, not least because without ties to Damascus and Aleppo, an Alawite enclave couldn't sustain itself.
"The moment it pulls out of Damascus it loses all reason to exist — in its own eyes, but also in the eyes of the Alawite community," Sayigh says. "Because if they end up with nothing more than a little carved-out area in the northwest that everyone understands has no chance of staying alive in the long term economically and so on, then I think the Alawites themselves will not accept to go on fighting for a regime that has given up on Damascus and the main cities."
Repercussions In The Region, Beyond
The same would go, analysts say, for the Assads' patrons in Tehran and Moscow. Despite their desire to maintain a presence along the Mediterranean, propping up an economically moribund regime clinging to a rump state would seem to hold little value.
On the other hand, says military analyst Jensen, the regime would make such a fallback decision in a time of desperation, and economic concerns wouldn't matter. He also says Russia would still have access to the port at Tartous, and Iran would still be able to project its influence in the region, especially if Assad brings enough firepower with him to the mountains.
"I would expect to see some consolidation — and you're already seeing some reporting of this," Jensen says, referring to chemical and biological weapons stockpiles, as well as movement of mobile launchers used to fire Scud missiles.
"Once you take those and haul yourself up along the coast in the mountains, you still have the threat to Israel, that's beneficial to Iran; you still have an ability to influence events in Lebanon — but not as much," Jensen says. "So that's what Iran loses if they fall back there, but it still is better than nothing."
Analysts may not agree on whether an Alawite enclave is in Syria's future, but they do agree that if one is established, it holds the potential to dramatically destabilize the region.
Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.