Argument

Alawistan

Bashar al-Assad may be gearing up to create an Alawite statelet along Syria's coastal mountains. And he has the means to do it.

How long will President Bashar al-Assad remain in Damascus? His regime appears to be reeling: A bombing last week claimed the lives of his brother-in-law and three other senior figures of his regime, military defections continue, and rebel forces have arrived in the country's largest cities. The prevalent view in Washington and many other foreign capitals is that the question is not if Assad will lose the capital, but when.

Assad has no intention of abandoning Damascus without a fight. Since last week's bombing, the Syrian Army's Fourth Division -- led by Assad's brother Maher -- has launched an intense campaign to retake control of the capital's neighborhoods from the rebels. To secure Damascus, the regime has redeployed troops from the Golan and eastern Syria. Control of the capital is critical to Assad for maintaining the pretense that he is not merely an Alawite warlord, but the embodiment of the state.

The Syrian despot, however, is fighting a losing battle. As heavy fighting rages on in the cities of Damascus and Aleppo, the regime is losing control over the Syrian interior and the Kurdish northeast. The predominantly Sunni areas of Syria are falling from Assad's grasp, and there is no realistic way for him to reassert his authority there.

But Assad has one card left to play: The Syrian regime has been setting the stage for a retreat to Syria's coastal mountains, the traditional homeland of the Assads' Alawite sect, for months now. It is now clear that this is where the Syrian conflict is headed. Sooner or later, Assad will abandon Damascus.

The Syrian regime's recent decline in fortunes has seemingly accelerated this process. With the sectarian fault line clearly drawn, reports are emerging of internal population migration as Alawites begin moving back to the ancestral mountains -- echoing the dynamics seen during the Lebanese civil war. Shortly after the assassination of the top Syrian security officials, opposition activists and Western diplomats reported that Assad had relocated to the coastal city of Latakia. This claim has since been contested, but Assad's whereabouts remain uncertain.

Despite the fact that the Syrian regime is a family enterprise, Assad has sought to present himself throughout the conflict as the sole legitimate interlocutor with the outside world. Regrettably, the international community has played along with this conceit. All diplomatic initiatives to solve the Syrian crisis have stipulated dialogue with Assad and refrained from calling on him to hand over power.

However, it has long been apparent that Assad's bid to control the entirety of Syrian territory was hitting against demographic and geographic realities. Contrary to all early assertions regarding his military, Assad's forces are little more than a sectarian militia. This limited manpower has, from the beginning, meant that Assad would not be able to re-impose his authority on the predominantly Sunni interior and periphery.

This sectarian geography has determined the regime’s behavior. As he dug in for a long war, Assad has had to consolidate the Alawites behind him and fortify his position in the Alawite coastal mountains overlooking the Mediterranean, in the region roughly between Jisr al-Shoughour in the north, near the Turkish border, and Tal Kalakh in the south, near Lebanon.

Assad has moved to secure all natural access points leading to this Alawite redoubt. In a move somewhat reminiscent of the Lebanese precedent, he also began to clear hostile Sunni pockets within the enclave and to create a buffer zone in the plain that separates the coastal mountains from the interior. This was the calculus behind the string of mass killings in villages like al-Houla, Taldou, al-Haffeh, and Tremseh -- all Sunni population centers either inside or on the eastern frontier of the Alawite enclave in the central plain.

The common denominator to all these places is their relevance to Syria's strategic and sectarian geography. The areas near Homs and al-Haffeh, for instance, are historical access routes into the coastal mountains. In addition, villages like Taldou and Tremseh mark the eastern faultline where outlying Alawite villages are sprinkled uncomfortably near Sunni ones. They also lie strategically on the north-south axis linking Damascus to Aleppo, and the rebellious governorates of Homs and Hama to Idlib.

Damascus, however, lies well outside this prospective enclave. In the capital, the regime does not possess a demographic reservoir of loyal Alawite communities with which to balance the power relationship with its rivals. The Syrian regime has responded to this problem by ringing Damascus with military bases stocked with loyal Alawite troops to control the main communication routes out of the city. As a result, French political geographer Fabrice Balanche has written, the capital has become an "encircled city." Moreover, as recent news reports have noted, the influx of mostly Sunni refugees into Damascus from other rebellious districts has further complicated the demographic equation in the capital.

It is therefore not only conceivable, but also rather likely, that these geographic and demographic factors will at some point lead Assad to abandon Damascus and fortify himself in his Alawite stronghold. As occurred in Lebanon, this could lead to a prolonged static war, where the support of external patrons -- namely Iran and Russia -- becomes increasingly critical to Assad.

Some will argue that an Alawite enclave is unviable in the long-term, but Assad has an insurance policy to protect his retreat. As the Assad regime just reminded the world, it possesses a large stockpile of chemical weapons. While most observers are worried about Assad passing these weapons along to third-party actors like Hezbollah, he is more likely to hold on tightly to them. These weapons are his last remaining and most formidable deterrent against his Sunni foes, and precious leverage to guarantee the quiescence of the outside world.

With this insurance policy, Assad could hang on as a warlord presiding over an Iranian and Russian protectorate on the Mediterranean. The past several weeks have dealt Assad a serious blow, but this is not yet the end of the Syrian conflict. It is rather the beginning of a new phase, the endgame of which is not in Damascus, but further west.

LOUAI BESHARA/AFP/GETTYImages

Argument

Family Feud

Meet the president of Peru. His brother's in prison, his dad thinks he's a traitor, and almost everyone says his wife calls the shots. But he might still have a chance to turn the country around.

Roger Clinton and Billy Carter have nothing on Antauro Humala, the imprisoned brother of Peruvian President Ollanta Humala, who will mark his first year in office on July 28. Currently serving a 19-year prison sentence for instigating a failed military rebellion in a remote Andean town in 2005, Antauro has, according to reports, smoked marijuana, received unauthorized female visitors, used a cell phone, and left the facility a dozen times.

Such misbehavior prompted a series of prison transfers, ultimately landing him in a high-security naval penitentiary where Antauro joined four other notorious detainees: Abimael Guzmán, arrested in 1992 as leader of the ruthless Maoist Shining Path insurgency; Vladimiro Montesinos, Peru's disgraced spy chief during the 1990s; Victor Polay, former leader of another insurgent group, the MRTA; and "Artemio," another Shining Path leader captured just months ago.

The move to the latest prison has soured relations between the novice president and the rest of the Humala clan. Their extremely vocal father, Isaac, a lawyer who gave his children the complete works of Marx and Engels to read, has joined the fray, asserting that the relocation was personally authorized by Humala and involved a group of hooded men who physically abused the president's brother. He even vowed to file a complaint against his son with the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights of the Organization of American States.

Long associated with a bizarre, virulently nationalist ideology that favors the supremacy of "copper-skinned" Peruvians, Isaac had already become deeply disillusioned with his son's presidency. He and other family members, including older brother Ulises and sister Ima Sumac, feel betrayed by Humala's failure to follow through on his commitment to sweeping change. Although Humala's family had posed a problem for his political ambitions for some time -- in 2006, his mother, Elena, called for shooting a few gays as a way to keep the rest closeted -- the relationship has become notably adversarial in the past several months.

Although doubtlessly an uncomfortable distraction for the president, there is no sign that the other Humalas have influenced his decision-making. On the other hand, the sway of Nadine Heredia, the first lady, has no rival.

Not only does the president's wife and closest confidante tend to outperform her husband in the polls, but there is speculation that she might be contemplating a run for the presidency herself, despite some inconvenient laws preventing it. Her clout was evident when, during a recent press briefing, she asked in a fit of pique, "Where is my minister?" The education minister at her side quickly responded, "I'm here, Señora, here." The public musings over who actually calls the shots -- Ulises openly calls his sister-in-law the actual president -- represents yet another public relations headache for the administration.

Humala's family members aren't the only ones disappointed in him. The task of governing is turning out to be more difficult than the president may have expected. Things aren't necessarily going poorly, but Peruvians are continually pressing for improvements. Peru's economic performance this decade has been impressive. Not only has the economy been booming -- it grew nearly 7 percent in 2011 -- but there has been an appreciable reduction in poverty and inequality. Nevertheless, Peruvians remain unusually tough on their political leaders: Polls consistently reveal among the highest levels of distrust toward politicians in the region. And the deep social schisms reflected in geographic and ethnic differences that have long bedeviled Peru persist. Further complicating the situation is the state's limited efficacy and the virtual absence of real political parties, in contrast with personality-based cliques centered on aspiring caudillos. Moreover, Peru overtook Colombia last year as the world's largest producer of cocaine, and public concerns about crime and corruption remain high. In June, a reported 245 riots and protests took place in the country, most related to mining or oil and natural gas projects -- an increase of 31 since Humala took office.

Humala came into office promising not only to keep Peru's robust growth on track, but to resolve the country's deep-seated problems and quell broad discontent. He pledged to take advantage of the country's vast mineral wealth -- an expected $50 billion in new mining projects over five years -- to accelerate the redistribution of resources and more effectively meet the needs of the poorest Peruvians. He is seeking to avoid the fate of his predecessors -- Alejandro Toledo and Alan García -- who both left the presidency with rock-bottom approval levels and administrations widely deemed to be missed opportunities.

Humala initially tried to fashion a government of the left, though one more moderate than revolutionary. It is no accident that during his 2010 presidential campaign, he hired political advisors who worked with the Workers' Party of former Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva. As South America's star performer, Lula had demonstrated that it was possible for a man of the left adored by the poor -- whose lot improved markedly during his two terms -- to preside over a buoyant economy and a vibrant, democratic society.

Yet Humala was an improbable purveyor of the fashionable lulista, social democratic formula for good governance that has also seen success in Chile and Uruguay. As an army lieutenant engaged in fighting Peru's internal war against the Shining Path in the early 1990s, Humala was credibly accused of committing human rights violations. Before their falling out, he and Antauro led an unsuccessful revolt in 2000 against the government of Alberto Fujimori, who is now serving a 25-year sentence for corruption and human rights violations. In 2005, while based in South Korea, Humala initially supported (though later criticized) the uprising for which Antauro is now serving his sentence.

In 2006, having retired from the military and created the Peruvian Nationalist Party, he made his political debut as the consummate outsider and came remarkably close to winning the presidency. In that contest against García, he aligned himself with Venezuelan populist Hugo Chávez -- another leftist military veteran and onetime coup plotter -- and pledged a thoroughgoing reordering of Peruvian society. Fearing such a radical option, Peruvians opted for García. Following his narrow defeat, Humala quickly set his sights on the next presidential contest.

A win in 2011, he became convinced, required a move to the center. At first, to secure the left's support, he promised a "great transformation" (though more moderate than his 2006 platform) and then, in a runoff vote against Keiko Fujimori (the former president's daughter), shifted again to a more centrist "road map" stance in an appeal to more conservative voters. The blessing of establishment figures like Nobel Prize-winning author Mario Vargas Llosa and former President Toledo gave Humala the political cover he needed to secure victory.

Despite his campaign's right turn, many still expected that, given Humala's radical roots, his administration would evince a greater commitment to dialogue with poor communities and develop more robust and effective government services. Feeling left out of the resource bonanza that has disproportionately enriched Peru's middle class, these communities have recently mobilized to protest the environmental consequences of mining projects.

At the outset of the term, Humala did sign a popular law requiring the government to consult with local communities before approving extractive projects. He also created a new Ministry of Development and Social Inclusion alongside a pension program that benefits those over 65 who live in poverty. Still, for the president's key leftist allies -- including those in his own family -- such measures fall short of expectations. Echoing the complaints coming from the Humala clan, many feel betrayed by the seemingly unshakeable adherence to the prevailing economic model that prizes foreign investment, particularly in the mining sector, while other leaders across the continent practice a more radical form of "resource nationalism."

Such critics charge that Peruvians voted for change yet so far see only more of the same. It's true on a personal level too: Humala's economy minister, for instance, served as deputy minister under the previous government, and the Central Bank president is unchanged. A comment making the rounds is that some of Humala's new cabinet probably backed Keiko Fujimori in 2011.

As a result, many from the middle and upper classes who were nervous about a Humala administration -- Peru's stock market plummeted after his election -- have been largely relieved, or even pleased, that the president has not tinkered with economic policy or allied with Chávez and his comrades.

Disagreements have emerged over how to characterize these political transformations. Pragmatism is the most common term applied, though some describe it as unvarnished opportunism. Dubbing Humala the "Andean chameleon" after his victory in June 2011, for instance, the Economist noted the unique opportunity facing Humala to set Peru on a stable, moderate course on all fronts.

Peruvian political analyst Carlos Basombrío, meanwhile, has counted at least seven times since the early 1990s when Humala has reinvented himself on key issues. Basombrío and others recognize that the practice of "bait and switch" -- campaigning one way and governing another -- is hardly peculiar to Humala (and certainly not to Peru). Indeed, in their respective election bids, Fujimori, Toledo, and García positioned themselves in the center only to later pursue more orthodox economic policies. But in Humala's case, the shift has been particularly dramatic. As Basombrío noted, "a 180-degree change is something we have never seen before."

Humala's continuous adaptations are a product of both changing circumstances and trial and error. The key question is what this will look like over the remaining four years of his administration. In the face of uncertainty, Humala appears to rely instinctively on the institution he knows best and has shaped him most: the military. Indeed, he seems more familiar with the practices and priorities he learned as an officer than the give-and-take of democratic politics.

Less than five months into his term, Humala replaced the more politically experienced prime minister, Salomón Lerner, with Oscar Valdés, his old military academy instructor. In what is arguably shaping up as the severest test of his nascent presidency, the Humala administration responded to protests against the $5 billion Conga mining project in the northern region of Cajamarca by declaring a state of emergency in the zone, as it had previously done in December. In early July, five protesters died after several days of clashes with the police, upping the total to 15 casualties since last summer. Critics charged that the crackdown was excessive, though the government recently started a dialogue with the protesters mediated by the local archbishop. Yet the problem stems less from choosing between a hard or a soft approach than simply the need for deft political management of an extremely complicated situation.

Although it's too soon for a verdict on Humala's political capabilities, neither Peru nor Latin America offers many examples of democracies successfully led by a president with a military background. When asked in 2011 by CNN en Español to cite one, Humala was hard-pressed to respond. He eventually mentioned France and Charles de Gaulle.

Yet despite immense challenges, Humala's improvisations and adaptations in office have so far kept Peru on an essentially sound track. But with even his family in an uproar, the outlook seems less certain. Chiefly the result of his maladroit handling of the anti-mining protests, his approval level -- once stable at above 50 percent -- has fallen, and there are growing questions about his administration's political skills and savvy. To restore confidence, Humala recently announced his third cabinet, one that is more inclined toward dialogue with the opposition and has been positively received.

Although the economy continues to go strong, polls point to growing pessimism. Political difficulties are becoming more acute. Humala, with no previous experience in office, appears somewhat overwhelmed by the spreading social conflicts and his faltering alliances in Congress.

The president is well-meaning, disciplined, and pragmatic -- and Peruvians should certainly be glad that he's the Humala who eventually made it to high office -- but none of those qualities or a surging economy will be enough to succeed. To prove he's up to the job, Humala will surely face more formidable obstacles than family quarrels.

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