In the last 4 decades, it had been common knowledge that the Alawi community numbering about 15% of the population was the dominant power in Syria, due to its over-representation in the armed forces and the Ba'ath Party. This was the result of developments starting with the French Mandatory regime in Syria, which favored the non-Sunni minorities, and encouraged their enlistment to the armed forces. Many among the minorities, particularly Alawis, took advantage of this opportunity, and used military service as a vehicle through which they climbed up the social ladder.
The Ba'ath Party was another such vehicle, as it offered members of the minority communities -- particularly Alawis, Druze and Greek Orthodox Christians -- the opportunity to get away from the religious ghetto enforced upon them by the majority Sunni-Arab population of Syria. Thus, the combination between the army and the party became the key to understanding Syria's modern history, and with it the role of the Alawis.
The famous Iraqi scholar, Abbas Kelidar wrote years ago, that the Sunnis of Syria feel that control over the country is their natural, unchallenged right. But for most of Syria's modern history it was not to be. What adds insult to injury, is the fact that they are ruled by the Alawis of all minorities.
A British consular report from the 1870's about Syria, stated "they hate each other... Sunnis boycott the Shi'ites... both resent the Druze... all despise the Alawis." This was an attitude deeply ingrained among so many Sunnis, because the greatest Syrian Sunni scholar, Ibn Tayimiyya, issued a ruling in the early 14th century, forbidding his followers from marrying Alawis as they were worse infidels than the Jews and Christians. No wonder, that the Alawis always felt that they had to deal with a problem of legitimacy, so far as the Sunni majority is concerned.
Officially, in the Ba'ath paradise that exists in Syria, if we are to believe the official propaganda, there is no sectarian problem. All the Syrians are happy members of the Arab Syrian community, and sectarian affiliation is never mentioned in official Syrian documents, including the census figures. Go and tell it to the Sunni majority, particularly those residing in the ill-fated city of Hammah, a traditional center of Sunni opposition to the regime, which was attacked twice by the security forces in 1964/5 and in 1981/2. The second earned the unpalatable title of Majazarat Hammah (the Hammah massacre).
The greatest nightmare of the besieged Assad regime is a repetition of the sectarian tension and violence which characterized the period leading to the great Hammah Massacre, but it seems that the monster of sectarianism reared its head, and the nightmare is starting to materialize. The riots in the port city of Latakiyya, a mixed Sunni-Alawi community, in the center of the Alawi-dominated region of Syria, clearly indicate that things are fast getting out of control. As riots started there, the authorities denied their very existence, then they reported that 2 were killed, and later admitted that there were 12 fatalities. Other sources report that the actual number of casualties was much higher. Interestingly enough, the official communiqués referred to unknown armed gangs which opened fire on innocent civilians, a strange language which is reminiscent of the terminology used by the regime in the past, when reporting sectarian riots.
The Latakiyya carnage instilled a sense of déjà vu in Syria, whose population is fully aware of how quickly sectarian conflicts can spread, and how ferocious they can be. The regime must be aware of the fact that opposition sources in Syria keep referring to the support that Assad receives from Iran and the Lebanese Hezballah terror group. There is no independent confirmation to these reports and their veracity is questionable, but the opposition has a point trying to prove the non-Sunni character of the regime.
A full-fledged sectarian conflict in Syria will be disastrous to the country, as it will involve other minority groups as well, and it also has the potential to spread to neighboring Lebanon. In fact, Syrians living in Lebanon started demonstrating against President Assad. They were not members of the Alawi community of northern Lebanon. The Alawis are on edge, the regime is increasingly nervous and the slogans in the street demonstrations assume a sectarian tone. The genie is out of the bottle.
It will be very difficult to put it back.