BEIRUT – In the recent sectarian violence in Syria, some observers see a grim pattern: Alawite fighters from President Bashar Assad's minority sect, they say, are trying to carve out a breakaway enclave for themselves by driving out local Sunnis, killing entire families and threatening anybody who stays behind.
The Alawite sect that makes up the backbone of Assad's regime has historically been centered in towns and villages of Syria's mountainous Mediterranean coast. If the regime falls, that heartland could become a refuge for the community — and even for Assad himself — from which to fight for survival against a Sunni majority that has long resented their domination.
That would mean a bloody Balkanization of Syria's 17-month-old conflict, an ominous scenario for a country that sits along the Middle East's most turbulent fault lines. Any attempt to create a breakaway state could trigger a wave of sectarian killings and have dangerous repercussions in a region where many religious, ethnic and tribal communities have separatist aspirations.
Already, there has been a degree of demographic shift: Sunnis and Alawites both have for months been fleeing the worst hit areas of the country for safety, mainly with their communities. The past week, as Assad's firm grip on the key cities of Damascus and Aleppo — two longtime bastions of support — appeared to be wobbling, there were reports of Alawites streaming from hotspots into the area along the Mediterranean coast in the north of the country.
But activists and opposition groups believe Assad and members of his power base are going further and are preparing an Alawite stronghold. Recent killings in overwhelmingly Sunni villages close to Alawite communities, they say, are meant to lay the groundwork.
"The idea for Assad to hold all of Syria as we know it, has become very difficult now," said Elias Hanna, a Beirut-based strategic analyst. "Falling back on an Alawite state is his plan B."
An offshoot of Shiite Islam, the Alawite sect represents little more than 10 percent of the population in Syria. Prior to their ascent in the mid-20th century, the Alawites were impoverished and marginalized, largely confined to the mountains of the province of Latakia on the Mediterranean coast. Most of those who left the area did so only to work at menial jobs such as housekeepers and gardeners for well-off Sunni patrons.
Under French mandate, the Alawites were granted an autonomous territory stretching in a band along the coast from the Lebanese border to the Turkish border. It lasted a few years until 1937, when their state was incorporated into modern-day Syria.
After the 1963 coup that brought the Baath Party to power, Alawites began consolidating their presence in the government and armed forces. When Hafez Assad took power in a 1970 coup, he stacked key military posts with Alawites, ensuring army loyalty.
His son Bashar, who succeeded him in 2000, continued the policy. A U.N. report estimated last year that Alawites make up the majority of the officer corps of the armed forces, the Republican Guard and the feared 4th Division, commanded by Assad's brother Maher.
The Assad dynasty has long tried to push a secular identity in Syria, and Bashar's wife, Asma, is a Sunni from Homs. But he has relied heavily on Alawites in the military and security forces to try to crush the uprising that began against his rule in March 2011. Pro-regime vigilante groups, known as Shabiha and largely made up of Alawites, have carried out killings of Sunnis and opposition activists.
This disproportionate power has bred resentment among Sunnis, who make up most of Syria's 22 million people and are the base of the opposition. Some Alawites have joined the revolt against Assad. But like other Syrian minorities, they have stood largely by him for fear of what might befall them in case a hardline Sunni regime takes over.
Observers say thousands of Alawites have left their homes in war-shattered cities such as Homs, for the relative safety of the overwhelmingly Alawite provinces of Tartous and Latakia. The beach resorts in the port city of Tartous in particular, about an hour and a half drive west of Homs, have become a refuge for Alawites seeking to escape the violence — as well as for some Sunnis, a sign the sectarian split is not completely clear-cut.
"I feel safer here," said a 27-year-old Alawite banker who left Homs to settle for now in Tartous.
"I'm not a fan of Bashar, but I'm really worried about what will happen if he goes," he said, speaking on condition of anonymity out of fear for his safety.
He left his home during the height of a government siege of opposition neighborhoods of Homs earlier this year. The city has also been the scene of tit-for-tat killings between Sunnis and Alawites.
"In Homs, those who call themselves the Free Syrian Army are terrorizing people," the banker said, referring to rebels. "My friend was kidnapped in May and to this day we don't know anything about him."
The U.S. security think tank, Stratfor, said "signs are now emerging that the regime's minority Alawite constituency has lost faith in the sustainability of the Assads" and are making preparations just in case.
The Texas-based intelligence analysis firm said that amid the heavy fighting in Damascus and Aleppo the past week, hundreds of Alawites fled to the Syrian coast, going through neighboring Lebanon to avoid the direct road to the coast, which cuts through Homs.
Mass killings in the villages of Houla in May and Qubeir in June fueled speculation that the regime is preparing to carve out an Alawite enclave in its heartland. The two Sunni villages, each surrounded by Alawite towns, lie near main routes into the sect's coastal strip.
Dozens were killed in to attacks in the two villages, which followed a similarly gruesome pattern of fierce government shelling and in some cases Shabiha forces going house to house and killing civilians.
Details of what exactly unfolded in Houla and Qubeir are unclear to this day. The areas were blocked to U.N. observers for days, and journalists are faced severe restrictions in Syria. The government blames gunmen driven by a foreign agenda of the killings, but there have been reports by the U.N. and other witnesses confirming that at least some of killings were carried out by pro-regime Alawite gunmen.
Hanna said such violence aimed to force out Sunnis and create a buffer. "They are securing the line of logistics to regime forces to protect coastal areas in the next phase."
Mohammad Saleh, a centrist Alawite who is with the opposition in Homs, said any attempt to physically carve out enclaves would be difficult.
"Yes, there are people working on dividing Syria. Yes, there may be factions within the regime dreaming of an Alawite state, but the majority in Syria from all sects are dead against it," he said in a telephone interview.
"The existing demographic overlap makes it extremely difficult to implement," he added.
Analysts say Assad may be thinking of retreating to the coastal mountains of Latakia, much like Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi retreated to his hometown of Sirte for his final stand before he was killed in October.
But if Sunni rebels take Damascus, resistance in an Alawite enclave could not hold out, wrote University of Oklahoma professor Joshua Landis, who runs a popular blog on Syria.
"Assad has done nothing to lay the groundwork for an Alawite state," he said. "There is no national infrastructure in the coastal region to sustain a state: no international airport, no electric power plans, no industry of importance, and nothing on which to build a national economy."
"Whoever owns Damascus and the central state will own the rest of Syria in short order."