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TRIPOLI, Lebanon – Lebanese members of the Syrian leader's Alawite sect fear their tiny community will be a casualty of the civil war raging in the neighboring country.
Already, Sunni Muslim extremists have stoned a school bus, vandalized stores and beaten or stabbed a number of men in a wave of attacks against Lebanese Alawites, stoking fears of even more violence should Syrian President Bashar Assad be removed from power.
In one particularly humiliating case, angry Sunnis tied a rope around an Alawite man's neck and dragged him around the streets of Tripoli.
"The Alawites are being subjected to an organized campaign that aims to eliminate them on all levels," said Ali Feddah, a prominent member of Lebanon's Arab Democratic Party, which is mainly Alawite.
Feddah spoke to The Associated Press in his office in Tripoli's predominantly Alawite neighborhood of Jabal Mohsen. Sitting next to a picture of Assad, he said the Alawites face an "existential threat," mainly because of extremist Sunni incitement against them.
His words echo the sentiments of many Alawites, who have long enjoyed privileges in Syria under Assad family rule and now fear for their future. The tiny community in Lebanon, which has long been a Syrian client state, has also benefited from Assad's rule, particularly during Syria's three-decade hold on its smaller neighbor that ended in 2005.
The Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shiite Islam, represents little more than 10 percent of the population in Syria and about 2 percent in Lebanon. Before their ascent in the mid-20th century, the Alawites were impoverished and marginalized, largely confined to the lmountains of the province of Latakia on the Mediterranean coast.
Under the 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 in Damascus, Alawites began consolidating their presence in the Syrian government and armed forces.
The uprising against Assad's rule that began in March 2011 quickly became an outlet for long-suppressed grievances, mostly by poor Sunnis from marginalized areas. It has since escalated into an outright civil war.
Many of the rebels trying to overthrow Assad today say they want to replace his government with an Islamic state.
The war, now in its third year, has turned increasingly sectarian with countless cases of tit-for-tat slayings between Sunnis and Alawites. Sunni rebels are often seen in videos posted online referring to Alawites as dogs and heretics.
Abu Bilal al-Homsi, an activist in the central Syrian city of Homs who has links with several rebel groups, said the Assad regime has carried out massacres against Sunnis. He points to waves of sectarian killings this month, allegedly carried out by pro-government Alawite gunmen in the coastal towns of Banias and Bayda. More than 100 civilians were killed in the attacks.
"We will completely wipe out the Alawite sect," said al-Homsi, who does not use his real name because of fear of government reprisals. "There will be no Alawites in Syria. The young and the old will be punished."
Bassam al-Dada, an official in the rebels' Free Syrian Army, disagrees with al-Homsi. "The Alawites have nothing to do with Bashar's crimes," he said.
The U.N. estimates that more than 70,000 people have been killed in the war. Human Rights activists say most of them are Sunnis, but Alawites have also paid a heavy price. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said Tuesday the group has documented the names of more than 35,000 Alawites who have died, most of them soldiers and pro-Assad militiamen.
"Their losses statistically are very high. There is a lot of resentment in Alawite regions," said Hilal Khashan, political science professor at the American University in Beirut.
The tensions in Syria are playing out in Lebanon, which is sharply split along sectarian lines and has recently seen repeated bouts of street fighting related to the war across the border.
Northern Lebanon, in particular, is a potential powder keg. It has a strong Sunni population but also has pockets of Alawites.
The Alawites live mainly in Jabal Mohsen, a hilly district where posters of Assad and his father and predecessor, the late Hafez Assad, decorate the streets.
For years, residents of Jabal Mohsen have traded short bouts of automatic weapons fire and volleys of rocket-propelled grenades with residents of the mainly Sunni Bab Tabbaneh neighborhood.
The two districts in Tripoli are separated by a roadway named Syria Street.
The clashes have become more frequent since Syria's uprising began — and so have the targeted attacks.
Ali, an unemployed 25-year-old Alawite from Jabal Mohsen, says he has not been to Sunni neighborhoods of Tripoli for more than a year after he was beaten up in the central Tal neighborhood.
Ali, who declined to give his full name for fear of reprisals, described how he was intercepted by a man who ran toward him, grabbed him by the neck and tried to choke him as he shouted: "Are you from the Jabal?"
He said he denied he was an Alawite and was eventually saved by a Sunni man who knew him.
Last month, a bus carrying school children was attacked on the edge of Jabal Mohsen by a group of extremists who pelted it with rocks for several minutes before troops intervened.
"Since then, all school buses from Jabal Mohsen are accompanied by troops," Feddah said.
Residents say several men have been stabbed and beaten up in the past few weeks. Several shops in Jabal Mohsen were set on fire, their fronts seen shuttered on a recent visit.
Earlier this month, bearded extremists grabbed a Syrian man in Tripoli, beat him up and stripped him to the waist before tying a rope around his neck and parading him through the streets. "I am an Alawite shabih," they wrote on his bare chest, in reference to widely feared pro-Assad militiamen who fight alongside soldiers in Syria.
In Syria, 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.
Syrian opponents of Assad say Alawite fighters are trying to carve out a breakaway enclave in the country's mountainous Alawite heartland by driving out local Sunnis. They say recent killings in overwhelmingly Sunni villages close to Alawite communities are meant to lay the groundwork.
Earlier this month, regime forces from nearby Alawite areas were blamed for killing dozens of civilians in Banias and Bayda, two Sunni communities in western Syria. The violence bore a closer resemblance to two reported mass killings last year in Houla and Qubeir, Sunni villages surrounded by Alawite towns in central Syria.
Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu told Turkey's Hurriyet newspaper that having failed to control the entire country, Assad was now executing his "plan B" — which involves opening up an Alawite corridor between central Syria and Lebanon and driving Sunnis away from the area.
"There is an effort to cleanse the region," Davutoglu said in the interview, published last week. "This will cause turmoil in Lebanon too. It could cause a culture of revenge."
Bassem Mroue can be reached on twitter at http://twitter.com/bmroue