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Last Updated: Tuesday, 22 November 2005, 08:01 GMT
Syria's minority Alawites fear for future
By Kim Ghattas
BBC News, Damascus

Pro-government demonstration in Damascus
Many Syrians are rallying round the embattled leader
Syrian President Bashar al-Assad projected the image of a strong leader as he addressed the nation in a defiant speech earlier this month.

His intention was to rally the masses at a time of intense international pressure on Syria - especially on Mr Assad himself, whose family has been in power since the 1960s.

He faces two choices at the moment - both of which could get him into trouble.

The UN team investigating the assassination of Lebanese premier Rafik Hariri want to question several top Syrian officials, including Assef Shawkat, Mr Assad's brother-in-law and head of military intelligence.

If Mr Assad does not co-operate, his leadership faces the threat of sanctions.

If he decides to give in to all UN demands, he risks a showdown with his own family.

Murder charge

One Lebanese analyst says Mr Assad feel he has a better chance of staying in power if he confronts the international community than if he turns against his own clan.

Bhamra on day of Ghazi Kanaan's funeral
Kanaan's death sparked unusual dissent

But signs of cracks are already appearing within Syria's ruling elite.

Last month, the village of Bhamra laid to rest Ghazi Kanaan, the interior minister who officially had committed suicide.

But as the funeral cortege went through the village, women screamed: "Why did you kill him?"

It was an unprecedented apparent outburst against the leadership, in a country where tight political control is the order of the day.

Theories abound about why the leadership may have wanted to get rid of Mr Kanaan, but one Syrian who claimed to have been close to him described him as a victim of a paranoid regime.

Secretive minority

Mr Assad inherited the presidency in 2000 from his father who ruled with an iron grip for three decades.

A peasant's son, Hafez al-Assad worked his way up through the ranks of the air force and the socialist Baath party.

In the process, he lifted members of his own Alawite minority - like Mr Kanaan - from the confines of poor, rural Syria to the realms of power.

Alawites worry they are the ones that are going to eat all the revenge and discrimination
Joshua Landis
Alawites are a secretive off-shoot of Shia Islam who revere Ali, the cousin and son-in-law of Prophet Muhammad.

They are regarded as heretics by many Muslims, especially orthodox Sunnis, and have faced centuries of discrimination.

In a country with a 75% Sunni population, only a strongman like Hafez al-Assad could have imposed himself as an Alawite president - with the help of the Baath party.

"All the minorities in the country embraced the Baath party, a pan-Arab socialist party," explains Joshua Landis, a US expert on Syria who is married to an Alawite.

"It offered a secular vision of Syria that would dismantle very serious religious splits."

Taboo subjects

Intissar Younes, an Alawite television reporter, says she remembers her father reminiscing how people in their village never went to nearby Lattakieh, where the Sunnis lived.

"They were afraid, it was a real isolation," she says. During Mr Assad's rule the top military and political echelons were filled with Alawites, although he was careful to give other sects a share of the power.

President Bashar al-Assad prays in Damascus
The Syrian regime stresses unity and religious equality
He worked hard to divert attention away from religious differences - even speaking about Alawites was taboo - and drove home a message of Syrian unity.

But social differences remained and many Alawites were abandoned by a state so closely associated with their sect in the minds of most Syrians.

In mountainous northern Syria, many Alawite villages remain deprived of basic amenities, like power and electricity, while palatial houses belonging to top officials dot the landscape.

"Certain Alawites have been able to benefit from having an Alawite president, but [many] remain poor and don't have connections to the regime," says Joshua Landis.

"They worry they are the ones that are going to eat all the revenge and discrimination, if the state falls, they are going to pay the price for the privileges of a few."

It is a scenario viewed with concern by Intissar Younes.

"We have a real fear of the future. The regime in Iraq was made up of the minority, the Sunnis, and they ruled over the majority, the Shia. Look what happened after the fall of the regime," she says.

"But we have one thing better, our president is more open-minded."

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