Robert Fisk: If Alawites are turning against Assad then his fate is sealed
And that's the point. While the drama of last week's assault on Bashar al-Assad's regime in Damascus stunned the Arab world, the sudden outbreak of violence in Aleppo this weekend was in one way far more important. For Aleppo is the richest city in Syria – infinitely more so than Damascus – and if the revolution has now touched this centre of wealth, then the tacit agreement between the Alawite-controlled government and the Sunni middle classes must truly be cracking.
As the birthplace of agriculture – the Euphrates is only 70 miles to the east – Aleppo is also the headquarters of the International Centre for Agricultural Research in Dry Areas (Icarda), one of the finest institutions of its kind in the world. It increases food production in Asia and Africa in an area containing a billion people, 50 per cent of whom earn their living from agriculture. Donors include Britain, Canada, the US, Germany, Holland, the World Bank – you name it. And its 500 employees are still operating in Aleppo.
Alas, its principal research station at Tel Hadya, 20 miles from Aleppo, was raided by gunmen who stole vehicles – to use them as "technicals" mounted with machine guns – along with farm machinery and computers. Mercifully, Icarda's gene bank is safe and has been duplicated outside Syria. The Syrian government moved a military checkpoint closer to Icarda's property at Tel Hadya – the Syrian ministry of agriculture was always one of the more progressive offices in Damascus – but what use this will be in the coming days, we shall see.
Across all of Syria, the revolution has spread. Tragically, there now seems to be a Baathist pattern of destroying Sunni villages on the edge of the Alawite heartland, the "frontier" of Alawi-stan in the great agricultural plain of Hama province, below the mountains where the Assad home town of Qardaha stands.
Last Wednesday, for example, two Syrian helicopters attacked the small Sunni town of Haouch, forcing its 7,000 population to run for their lives. For two weeks, Haouch and other small Sunni towns have been shelled; they do indeed contain rebels but there is a growing suspicion – no evidence, mark you – that this is a deliberate policy of the Baath to prepare Syria for partition if Damascus falls. Ominously, this "frontier" of fire matches almost precisely the "State of the Alawites" temporarily created by the post-First World War French mandate which chopped Syria up into mini-nations partly on sectarian lines.