Turbulent history colors Syria's ruling Alawite Muslims' fight to keep power
February 20, 2012, 12:06 am TWN
BEIRUT -- Syria's Alawite ruling minority will fight to the death to keep its grip on power in a country where they are despised by the majority Sunni Muslims who consider them to be usurpers, experts say.
The Alawites, an offshoot of Shiite Islam, represent only 12 percent of Syria's mostly Sunni population of 22 million people but have the advantage of being linked to the regime of President Bashar al-Assad.
The president belongs to the Alawite community, like his late father Hafez al-Assad who ruled the country with an iron fist for three decades until his death in 2000.
"The Alawites are afraid of being defeated by the Sunnis," said Fabrice Balanche, who heads the Gremmo research group based in Lyon, France.
"We're at the point of no return: the regime must crush the opposition, otherwise it will be the one to fall," Balanche said.
And if that were to happen, analysts say, the Alawites will be cornered and left with few options: to try to set up a stronghold in the mountains and on the northwestern coast, head for exile or face being exterminated.
So far the Assad regime appears determined to put down pro-democracy protests against his 11-year rule.
The lethal crackdown against demonstrations that erupted 11 months ago has killed 6,000 people, activists say, and pitted Alawite against Sunni.
According to Balanche, Syria's elite military units are either formed of Alawite troops or controlled by Alawites, and "in order to save their skin, they will fight to the end."
"They don't want to meet the fate of the harkis," he said in reference to Algerians who fought alongside the French during the Algeria war. After Algeria gained independence many harkis were massacred or forced into exile.
Thomas Pierret, a lecturer at the University of Edinburgh, believes that if Assad is ousted from power, regime opponents will rise against the Alawite community and crush it in retaliation for the brutal crackdown on dissent.
"There's the risk that if Assad falls the Alawite community will simply be wiped out," said Pierret.
The Alawites have long been despised by Sunni Muslims who considered them as heretics and treated them like dogs. Under Ottoman rule, the only Alawites tolerated in cities were those who worked as servants.