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Friday, July 27, 2012 - Page updated at 06:00 a.m.
As Assad's grip slips, Alawites seeking shelter in Syrian enclave
By ZEINA KARAM
The Associated Press
BEIRUT — In the recent sectarian violence in Syria, some observers see a grim pattern: Alawite fighters from President Bashar Assad's minority sect, they say, are trying to carve out a breakaway enclave for themselves by driving out Sunnis, killing entire families and threatening anybody who stays behind.
The Alawite sect that makes up the backbone of Assad's government historically has been centered in towns and villages of Syria's mountainous Mediterranean coast. If the government falls, that heartland could become a refuge for the community — and for Assad — from which to fight for survival against a Sunni majority that long has resented the Alawites' domination.
That would mean a bloody Balkanization of Syria's 17-month conflict, an ominous scenario for a country that sits along the Middle East's most turbulent fault lines. An attempt to create a breakaway state could trigger a wave of sectarian killings and have dangerous repercussions in a region where many religious, ethnic and tribal communities have separatist aspirations.
Sunnis and Alawites for months have been fleeing the worst-hit areas of the country for safety. The past week, as Assad's firm grip on the key cities of Damascus and Aleppo — two longtime bastions of support — appeared to be wobbling, there were reports of Alawites streaming from hot spots into the coastal heartland.
Mass killings in the villages of Houla in May and Qubeir in June fueled speculation that the government was preparing to carve out an Alawite enclave in its heartland. The two Sunni villages, each surrounded by Alawite towns, lie near main routes into the sect's coastal strip.
The Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shiite Islam, represents little more than 10 percent of Syria's population. Before their ascent in the mid-20th century, the Alawites were impoverished and marginalized, largely confined to the mountains of Latakia province on the Mediterranean coast. Most of those who left the area did so to work at menial jobs such as housekeepers and gardeners for well-off Sunni patrons.
Under the French mandate, the Alawites were granted an autonomous territory stretching in a band along the coast from the Lebanese border to the Turkish border. It lasted a few years until 1937, when their state was incorporated into modern-day Syria.
After the 1963 coup that brought the Baath party to power, Alawites began consolidating their presence in the government and armed forces. When Hafez Assad took power in a 1970 coup, he stacked key military posts with Alawites, ensuring army loyalty.
His son Bashar, who succeeded him in 2000, continued the policy. A U.N. report estimated last year that Alawites make up the majority of the officer corps of the armed forces, the Republican Guard and the feared 4th Division, commanded by Assad's brother Maher.
The Assad dynasty long has tried to push a secular identity in Syria, and Bashar's wife, Asma, is a Sunni from Homs. But he has relied heavily on Alawites in the military and security forces to try to crush the uprising that began against his rule in March 2011. Pro-government vigilante groups, known as "shabiha" and largely made up of Alawites, have carried out killings of Sunnis and opposition activists.
The disproportionate power has bred resentment among Sunnis, who make up most of Syria's 22 million people and are the base of the opposition. Some Alawites have joined the revolt against Assad. Like other Syrian minorities, though, they have stood largely by him for fear of what might befall them in case a hard-line Sunni government takes over.
Observers say thousands of Alawites have left their homes in war-shattered cities such as Homs for the relative safety of the overwhelmingly Alawite provinces of Tartous and Latakia. The beach resorts in the port city of Tartous, in particular, about an hour and a half drive west of Homs, have become a refuge for Alawites seeking to escape the violence — as well as for some Sunnis, a sign the sectarian split is not completely clear-cut.
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