President Bashar al-Assad is increasingly relying on his Alawite power base to crush pro-democracy protests that have posed the boldest challenge to the Assad family’s 41 years of rule over Syria. Assad, an Alawite, sent army and secret police units dominated by officers from the same minority sect, an offshoot of Shi’ite Islam, into mainly Sunni urban centers to crush demonstrations calling for his removal for the last six weeks.
Their use of tanks to shell the city of Deraa last week, storming of mosques and attacks on unarmed civilians — as reported by residents and activists — have raised the stakes. Reports say that Sunni conscripts, Syria’s majority sect, refused to fire at their co-religionists.
The 45-year-old president, who has kept the Soviet-era political system he inherited from his father intact, has hinted repeatedly that the protesters were serving a foreign conspiracy to spread sectarian strife. Security forces have shot dead at least 560 civilians in attacks on protesters, human rights groups say. Hundreds more are missing, many feared killed, and thousands have been arrested, adding to thousands of political prisoners. But Assad may have struck a chord among members of the Alawite sect, who rose to prominence in the army under French rule, when the colonial administration used “divide and rule” tactics to control Syria.
Alawite officers expanded in numbers and gained control over the armed forces a few years after the Baath Party took power in 1963, especially key air squadrons, missile and armored brigades and intelligence. “The army is mostly Sunni in terms of numbers, but an Alawite captain has more say than a Sunni general,” said a former member of the army’s personnel division.