In times of state crisis, authoritarian Middle Eastern leaders take refuge in their tribes or sects. Take the infamous example of Saddam Hussein, arrested in Tikrit, his hometown. During Hussein's heyday, he had appointed key ministers and advisors from the Tikrit area. Similarly, Muammar Gaddafi was killed while trying to take refuge in his tribal homeland, Qadhadfa, which controls the geographical passage to Niger.
Now that the opposition is taking over swathes of Syria, it will be interesting to see whether Bashar al-Assad too takes refuge in his tribal-sectarian homeland, Latakia. Damascus has been a key city for Sunni Islam since it was declared the capital city of Islam by the Umayyad Caliphate, from the seventh to the eight century. Therefore, in a struggle against the opposition on the streets of Damascus, a regime known to be Alawite dominated stands little chance. Taking shelter in Latakia, the historical zone of the Alawite people and culture, might seem a wise strategy to Assad.
But can Assad survive in Latakia? The region is famous for hosting many non-state actors, like Hezbollah, or even the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO). As long as some sort of social support exists for it, any group can survive in the Middle East in the form of a non-state actor. Moreover, the role of the international community in the conflict is critical. It is worth remembering that Hussein was able to survive in one small region around Baghdad for more than 10 years of international inactivity. If global powers choose not to act, Assad may follow Hussein's example around Latakia.
The concept of a united Syria is a recent one, and one that has never been realized. To a large extent, it is the authoritarian rule of the Assads since 1971 that has kept Syria united. Yet the nature of this unity accommodates regional, ethnic and sectarian boundaries. Many have forgotten that modern-day Syria was established under the French mandate following World War I as six small states. One was the Alawite state, which survived for almost 10 years, opposing unification with other states, as Alawite leaders, such as Saleh al-Ali, believed that a united Syria would be Sunni dominated, which could be risky for the Alawite people. Therefore, when three other states (Damascus, Aleppo and Deir ez-Zor) founded the first nucleus of a united Syria in 1932, the Alawite state declined to participate.
It was the rise of Alawite officers in the 1963 coup that dramatically changed their position in Syria. The 1971 coup that instated then-President Hafez al-Assad formalized the Alawite dominance in Sunni Syria. However, the integration of the Alawites remained an unfinished job.
Should Assad move to Latakia, it indeed has a potential to transform the crisis into a sectarian war. The Sunni population in central Latakia is not smaller than the Alawite, and this should be noted very carefully. Central Latakia is potentially the most heated battleground of sectarian tensions, due to the almost 50-50 demographic share between Sunnis and Alawites. Meanwhile, in rural Latakia, the Alawites have an overwhelming majority, and, unlike in other parts of Syria, the rural Alawite population, if aligned with Assad, may stop the opposition.
The Sunni-Shia split will not be the only hot issue in a post-Assad Syria. The Kurdish region will be another. Will post-Assad Syria be able to create a mechanism for peaceful dialogue between Sunnis, Kurds and Alawites? If not, the Iraqi experience will be repeated in Syria.