If President Bashar al-Assad and his Alawite minority lose Syria’s civil war to the Sunni majority, as Western governments have predicted for more than a year now, the real bloodbath begins. The Sunnis, in revenge for four decades of often-murderous Assad family rule, are sure to seek retribution for the 20,000 brutally killed by Assad in the last 18 months; for the 10,000 wiped out by Hafez al-Assad, Bashar’s father, in a chemical-weapons massacre that put down a 1982 rebellion; and for the countless indignities and injustices throughout the period when the Alawite minority ruled over the Sunni majority.
Anticipating wholesale slaughter — calls for genocide against the Alawites abound — many if not most of the country’s two million-plus Alawites would flee in panic. Because Syria’s immediate neighbours to the north, south and east have neither the capacity nor the desire to accept large numbers of Alawites — seen as heretics by Sunni and Shia Muslims alike — many Alawites will take to the sea in an attempt to get to the West. This would create the greatest refugee crisis for the West since the end of the Vietnamese civil war in the 1970s, which saw the West first detain and then ultimately resettle more than one million boat people in the 1970s and 1980s.