03/28/2014 12:32 pm ET Updated May 28, 2014

Alawites Under Attack: A Syrian Update

Some weeks ago there was an important victory for the Syrian Army in the civil war there, as the Alawite regime recaptured the Kalamoon area, a vital strategic territory dominating what was described as the last area along the Syrian-Lebanese border still controlled by the rebels, a fact which enabled them large-scale transfers/smuggling of arms from Lebanon. The victory was hailed by the Syrian government and some misguided commentators in the west as another indication that the Assad regime has the ascendancy in the civil war, being on the offensive against disunited rebel forces.

A mistake, as this assessment failed to take into account a fundamental element of the Syrian situation. The Syrian regime was greatly helped by the Hizballah sending hundreds of their elite units to the battle. It is significant, because it illustrates the fact that the ranks of the Syrian Army have been SO depleted, that they simply cannot conduct the fight simultaneously in various theatres of war, all by themselves, and their reliance on foreign Shi'ite forces, be them Lebanese, Iraqi, Yemenite or Iranian is becoming a life-or-death issue for the Alawites. According to an unverified and exaggerated rebel report, 125,000 Alawites were killed in the civil war. A gross exaggeration, but while the REAL number may be in the tens of thousands, it is still signaling a demographic catastrophe for a community numbering three million people.

In the absence of Sunni recruits to the military [according to reports, less than 5% of eligible recruits among the Sunnis are actually recruited], it is clear that it is not enough for the Syrian Army and their foreign allies to take over a territory, even significantly strategic, and then sit on their laurels. Maintaining such a territory in the face of a hostile population requires large ongoing military presence, exactly what the regime is lacking.

If we need a proof that this is THE military problem that the regime has to deal with, here comes the current battle in the Latakia region, which provides us with a clear indication that the war in Syria is far from over, the regime is in big trouble, and the attrition after three bloody years seems to hit the Alawites and their allies substantially more than it does the rebels.

Latakia is the main port city of Syria, alongside Tartus, whose port is a Russian naval base, but in the 20th century and onwards it became a significant place, mainly because its proximity to the mountainous Alawite region of northwest Syria. In fact, after so many years of Alawite rule, the demography of the city underwent a change, and now the Alawites constitute a significant part, alongside Sunnis and Christians. The city became the favored resort of the Assad family, as well as other prominent Alawite families.

Just few days ago, the rebels started a concerted and coordinated attack on the coastal area with Latakia in its midst, and while rebel reports usually have to be viewed with a large spoon of salt, it seems that a picture of the battle is emerging and it is NOT looking good for the regime.

To start with, the regime was caught by surprise. Second, the rebels took over some Alawite villages, maybe as many as 14, and that is causing havoc, as many thousands of Alawites fled to Latakia, and conditions there are becoming chaotic. The rebels can claim also a major strategic success by occupying the mostly Armenian-Christian town of Kassab, and with this have gained an outlet to the Turkish border -- not a mute point, as tensions between Syria and Turkey
may seem to be on the rise after the shooting down of a Syrian Mig-29 plane by the Turks. Following this incident, the Syrian Deputy Foreign Minister referred to Turkey's PM Erdoghan as a ''stupid'' man...

Not exactly a clever statement, but one which indicates some measure of nervousness in the corridors of power in Damascus. The rebels also claim control over a strip of land along the coast, and if -- and this is greatly questionable -- they can hang on to this, perhaps expand it, it may have important strategic implications. It was also reported that a senior Alawite general, Imad Ismayyi was killed.

Be that as it may, the regime is recalling the elite 14 Division from its current positions, including in the Kalamoon region, and also Hizballah are sending troops from there to the Latakia area. This is precisely how the Assad regime bleeds to the point where its ability to hold on to some areas in Syria, which it is still in control of, will prove untenable.

The war is NOT about Syria, as this blog keeps arguing; it is about Alawistan, and the coastal region, as well as parts of Damascus and Aleppo. Therefore, the regime will, in the short run, manage to hold on to Latakia, simply by mobilizing its remaining best units and weapons to stave off the current rebel offensive; but for how long, and with what human price paid by the dwindling Alawite community? Moreover, where will the rebels open the new front in what is becoming a cat and mouse struggle?

Bashar Assad is still VERY MUCH in trouble, he does not have the strategic initiative and the human toll of both sides is mounting, but let us remember a simple demographic fact: there are MANY MORE Sunnis than Alawites...