BEIRUT — After Jaber Abboud, a baker from Baniyas, Syria, first lashed out publicly at President Bashar Assad for failing to promote real change, his neighbors ignored it.
But Abboud and most of his community are Alawites, the same religious sect as the president. When the popular uprising broke out, many believed that if the Assad family fell, they were doomed. They closed ranks and turned on Abboud, boycotting his pastry shop and ultimately forcing him to leave town.
“The neighborhood is split — half are dejected and subservient, the rest are beasts,” he said in a telephone interview from nearby Latakia. “It is depressing to go there, it’s like a town full of ghosts, divided, security everywhere.”
As the Syrian conflict escalates to new levels of sectarian strife, Assad is leaning ever more heavily on his religious base for support. The Alawite core of the elite security forces is still with him, as are many Syrians from minority groups.
But interviews with a dozen Alawites indicated a complex split even within their ranks. Some Alawites are frustrated that security forces have not yet managed to crush the opposition, while others say that Assad is risking the future of the Alawites by pushing them to the brink of civil war with Sunni Muslims.
Assad’s ruling Baath Party professes a secular, pan-Arab socialism, but Sunnis, who make up about 74 percent of the population, have long bridled at what they see as sectarian rule by the Alawites, an offshoot of Shiite Islam whose followers make up only 13 percent of the population.
People like Abboud say they feel stranded in a no man’s land. Blackballed by their own Alawite community, they find that the Islamists who dominate parts of the armed opposition regard them with murderous suspicion. A few with opposition credentials have been killed.
On the other extreme are Alawites who criticize Assad as being too soft, saying that his father and predecessor as president, Hafez Assad, would have quashed the threat by now.
With Alawite youths dying by the hundreds to defend the government, voices are raised at funerals and elsewhere asking questions like, “Why is the government not doing enough to protect us?” according to the Alawites interviewed.
Alawite-Sunni tensions reached a new peak after a spate of mass killings, particularly the May 25 Houla massacre of 108 Sunni Muslims, including 49 children. Survivors from Houla and neighbors to the slaughter last Wednesday in Qubeir said the attackers came from Alawite villages. The U.N. said suspicions in Houla were focused on pro-government militiamen known in Arabic as shabiha. Alawites dominate their ranks.
The recent defection of a general close to Assad has provided the most telling sign yet of eroding support for his government among even the most elite and trusted Sunni Muslims, who serve as a critical pillar of the security forces and civilian administration.
All hoped the defection of Brig. Gen. Manaf Tlass, an Assad confidant and son of a former defense minister who helped ease Assad into power, would have a snowball effect on his elite cohorts as Syrians count their dead — now more than 14,000.
On Friday at a conference in Paris, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said Syrian leaders “are starting to vote with their feet.”