Houla Massacre
Thousands of people are in need of help in Houla, the International Committee of the Red Cross said. Reuters

While much has been said about the Syrian conflict growing increasingly sectarian, little is known about the Alawites sect, that controls Syria through the Assad family and which remains shrouded in mystery.

With analysts growing increasingly concerned the Syrian conflict is turning sectarian many see old Alawites/Sunni rivalries as being the backbone of a surge of violence on the verge of imploding.

Who are the Alawites?

Known as the Nusayri or Ansari prior to French rule, the Allawites were once concentrated in poor rural areas.

The Allawi doctrine dates back from the ninth century A.D. and is derived from a branch of Shia Islam.

The sect formally came to existence after its founder Ibn Nusayr proclaimed a set of new doctrines.

Despised under the Ottoman empire for being Muslim heretics, Allawites were seen as closer to the Christian faith than to Islam.

Persecuted and forced to retreat into the mountains, Alawites faced centuries of isolation, political powerlessness and poverty.

With false accusations ranging from indulging in incestuous relationships, homosexuality, to sharing sexual partners, myths around the mysterious sect have done little to appease tensions.

Rejected by Islam

Ibn Katir (d.1372), a well know Syrian religious scholar and historian even charged: "Alawis reject Islam's main tenets; by almost any standard they must be considered non-Muslims."

Ahmad ibn Taymiya (1268-1328), an influential Sunni writer of Syrian origins even noted "The Nusayris are more infidel than Jews or Christians, even more infidel than the polytheists."

Even T.E Lawrence described them as "those disciples of a cult of fertility, sheer pagan, anti-foreign, distressful of Islam, drawn at moments to Christianity by common persecution."

The sect is describes as a mystic and secretive religious group of which most beliefs are hidden to outsiders, in line with Taqiyya, a practise emphasised in Shia Islam whereby adherents may conseal their religion to escape persecution.

While male are taught the main religious tenets, women are said to be excluded from most religious rituals.

Alawites don't believe in pilgrimages or fasts, do not pray in a mosque, and drink consecrated wine, which further disinguishes them from the Sunni majority who aver all alochol.

Imperialism and The Alawite Ascendency

Things however started to change when the Syrian republic was established as a French controlled mandate at the end of World War 1.

Though their relationship was marked by tensions, the Alawites found in France a strong ally, as the country preferred to side with the minorities to make the best use of its colonial policy of divide-and-rule.

In 50 years (from 1920 to 1970), Alawites stated a rapid ascent to power dominating the army and the Mukhabarat, the feared Syrian military intelligence appartus, which culminated in Hafez al-Assad's coup in 1970.

Assad the Beast

Rumour has it that in the 1940s Bashar Al-Assad's father, Hafez, changed his family name from Al-Wahash (meaning "beast") to Al-Assad (meaning lion) before he became engaged in domestic politics.

His son rapidly turned Syria into an autocracy with power concentrated within his household and Alawite cabal. Until the 1980s, the Syrian power elite was mainly made-up of Assad, his family and closer friends. With Alawites filling the vast majority of positions in the military, security forces other state institutions and the Baath party.

Assad's grip on power was however only further consolidated after he started to cultivate support of members of the old Sunni Damascus elite, made up of influential merchants, technocrats and intellectuals. Three quarters of the Alawites were after all located in the coastal city of Latakia, not the capital.

He propelled some of his new allies into important government positions even appointing the sister of an exiled Muslim Brotherhood member, Najah Attar, as minister of culture because of her family's influence.

Though extensive patronage helped Assad remain in power, he also led a brutal crackdown on many Sunni Muslims, the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) being one of the most severely oppressed groups.

The army killed 20, 000 people in Hama in 1982 in a bid to quash an MB rebellion and up to 17,000 members of the group remain unaccounted for in Syria.

The regime also led a severe anti-Islamic propaganda, rarely differentiating between Islamist radical and moderate groups.

It warned other ethnic minorities in the country that the rise in power of the MB would transform Baathist Syria from a secular country into an Islamist one.

This in turn led to a series of terrorist acts by Sunni militants, still in the 1980s, around urban centres such as Damascus, Hamah, Homs, Latakia and Tartus or Aleppo.

The 2011 Uprising

While Syria's history has been marked by rivalries, rancour, bloodshed and persecution, the 2011 uprising against Bashar al-Assad however did not have a sectarian character in essence.

It started after years of abuse of power and use of excessive force by the president and his security apparatus.

When people marched in Daraa in 2011 against the torture of 15 young boys, they were outraged by the regime's forces impunity not by Assad's "Alawite-ness."

But now Assad is whipping up Alawite fears to defend himself: arms are reported to have been distributed to Alawite communities living among Sunni populations and the gangs of 'Shabiha' (Ghosts) have been unleashed on towns linked to the opposition such as Houla, and have committed the worst atrocities, including the murder of children.

Ben Macintyre of The Times concluded: "The systemic murder of children by forces of the regime represents a new increase in the sectarian conflict; as in Bosnia, Rwanda and Nazi Germany, the Syrian state is now involved in a war of ethnic cleansing."

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