The Alawites of Syria were a poor, little-known Shiite minority until longtime dictator Hafez Assad, a member of the sect, rose to power in 1970. His son, President Bashar Assad, is now fighting to maintain that power in a country that has risen up against him. Now, even some Syrian Alawites say they are willing to denounce the regime, despite the risks.
A recent gathering in Cairo was much like other conferences hosted by the Syrian opposition a flurry of activity in the hotel lobby, late-night conversations and lots of cigarettes.
But this one was different. It was organized by the Alawites. The idea was to publicly urge members of the sect to abandon the Syrian regime, according a statement read by one of the conference organizers: "We call on our brothers in the Syrian regime and especially the sons of our sect not to raise your weapons against your own people, to refuse to join the army."
Alawites like these are not the norm. Most of them still support the Syrian government, whether it's tacitly or overtly.
A Mixed Bag Of Supporters
After the meetings and out by the hotel pool, a man who used the name Abu Reen says that until recently, those who supported the regime could live in a bubble, pretending everything was OK, thinking the war wouldn't touch them. Now, that's changing.
"There are many funerals, more than you can even imagine. Before I came here, three days [ago], I was at the funeral of my nephew," Abu Reen says. "He was 27. He was an officer in the army."
Abu Reen's nephew died while fighting in northern Syria at a government air base that for months was a key battleground. Anti-government rebels finally took the base in January. Abu Reen's nephew's body was never returned.
At the nephew's funeral, Abu Reen says, the relatives who are staunch supporters of the government were angry with the rebels. But others cursed the government. The president lives in palaces, they said, while they live in graves.
Abu Reen says he came to Cairo to represent these Alawites, the ones who oppose the Syrian government.
When asked if being at the gathering was dangerous, he says it's "very dangerous, especially for my family inside." He says there's a possibility of imprisonment when he returns home.
Abu Reen hoped that by coming out against the government, the opposition would offer him some kind of protection. But that didn't happen.
No Guarantees Or Special Privileges
Burhan Ghalioun, a leading figure in the Syrian opposition who comes from the Sunni majority, says it's simply not fair to give special privileges to one group.
"No one can give me guarantees, and I cannot give guarantees to anyone," he says.
But the Alawites say they are a special case because the regime is basically holding them hostage. And even if they did want to defect, they say, they'd have nowhere to go. Either the regime would catch them or the opposition would punish them.
One of the gathering's organizers, who went by the name Jamal, says he experienced the opposition's hatred personally in the so-called liberated areas of northern Syria, where opposition and Islamist rebels hold swaths of territory.
"There was one instance when I was in a town, there was a banner: 'It is forbidden for Alawites and dogs to enter.' And I asked, 'Since I'm an Alawite dog can I take a picture with this banner?' And I did," he says.
'It All Changed'
Jamal says tensions between the Alawites and Sunnis have a long history. That's why it was surprising for many Syrians to see Alawites among the early protesters against Assad, Jamal says, in March 2011.
"There was a huge welcoming, we were embraced, very warmly welcomed. People were even excited," he says. "But then it all changed. We even became persona non grata. Now we have cases of killings based on your sectarian identity."
Jamal says the conference in Cairo was a step in the right direction, but it needs to go much further to stave off more widespread sectarian violence.
This uprising against the government will not be killed by airstrikes and Scud missiles, Jamal says, referring to the weapons used by the regime. It will be killed by sectarianism.
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