PARIS (Reuters) - The clannishness, secrecy and tenacity of Syria's power elite around President Bashar al-Assad are hallmarks of the enigmatic Alawite faith that unites its members and arouses suspicion among the majority Sunnis.
An oppressed minority for most of their history, Alawites suddenly took control in Syria in 1970 when Assad's father Hafez staged a coup that sidelined the Sunnis. He built a ferocious security apparatus based on fellow Alawite officers.
This year's bloody struggle between Assad's forces and pro-democracy protesters, which has cost thousands of lives, splits the country along a minority-majority gulf made deeper by the fact many Sunnis call Alawites heretics and apostates.
"The political animosities have developed over the past 41 years that the Assads have been in power, but the religious animosities go back many centuries," said Mohamad Bazzi, senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York. Like most other Arab countries, Syria has seen conservative Islam spreading in recent decades. This has sharpened Sunni differences with the Alawites, who claim to be mainline Shi'ites and sometimes copy Sunni practices to play down differences.
The government's brutal crackdown on protesters this year has also widened this split, Bazzi said, prompting some leaders of the mainly Sunni opposition Muslim Brotherhood to row back on a more moderate approach they had taken in recent years.
"Lately some statements by leaders associated with the Brotherhood were very sectarian," he said. "Once the sectarian genie is out of the bottle, it's difficult to put it back in."
Sunnis Muslims make up 74 percent of Syria's 22 million population, Alawites 12 percent, Christians 10 percent and Druze 3 percent. Ismailis, Yezidis and a few Jews make up the rest.
AN UNCERTAIN OFFSHOOT
The Alawite religion is often called "an offshoot of Shi'ism," Islam's largest minority sect, but that is something like referring to Christianity as "an offshoot of Judaism."
Alawites broke away from Shi'ism over 1,000 years ago and retain some links to it, including the veneration of Ali, the cousin and son-in law of the Prophet Mohammad.
But several beliefs differ sharply from traditional Islam. Named after Ali, Alawites believe he was divine, one of many manifestations of God in a line with Adam, Jesus, Mohammad, Socrates, Plato and some pre-Islamic sages from ancient Persia.
To orthodox Muslims, this eclectic synthesis of Christian, Gnostic, Neoplatonic and Zoroastrian thought violates Islam's key tenet that "there is no God but God."
Isolated in the mountains near Syria's Mediterranean coast, Alawites taught the Koran was to be read allegorically and preferred to pray at home rather than in mosques.
They were also highly secretive, initiating only a minority of believers into their core dogma, including reincarnation and a divine Trinity, and into rituals including a rite of drinking consecrated wine similar to a Christian Mass.
Like the nearby Druze, Alawites adopted the Shi'ite practice of taqiyya, or hiding their beliefs to avoid persecution.
"Taqiyya makes a perfect qualification for membership in the mukhabarat, the ubiquitous intelligence/security apparatus that has dominated Syria's government for more than four decades," the British Islam expert Malise Ruthven wrote recently.
FEARS OF REVENGE
Oppressed during the Ottoman period, Alawites have played down their distinctive beliefs in recent decades to argue they were mainline Shi'ites like in Iran. This is partly to satisfy the constitutional rule that the president must be a Muslim.
The outlawed Muslim Brotherhood called the Alawites infidels for decades. Leaders of the Sunni movement no longer say this openly, but nobody knows whether the rank and file is convinced.
The ruling Baath Party is officially secular, which has helped Alawites win support as protectors of other minorities.
"Hafez al-Assad constructed a minority system, with Christians, Druze and Ismailis, to rule over a Sunni Muslim country," said Andrew Tabler, Syria analyst at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
"Most of the protesters now are also Sunnis, so the current violence has affected the Sunni population more," he said.
The tension that system produced makes Alawites, Christians and the other minorities fear bloody sectarian violence in revenge against them if Sunnis should regain power.
"If there is a change of regime," Chaldean Bishop Antoine Audo of Aleppo told a conference in Venice last June, "It's the end of Christianity in Syria. I saw what happened in Iraq."
Bazzi said a double car bombing in Damascus on Friday that killed 44 people could be a further escalation of Sunni violence against the Alawite-led state.
"Syria was a major staging area for Sunni jihadis (attacking U.S. forces) in Iraq," he said. "Many of these networks are still in place in Syria. These are elements that view Shi'ites as heretics and Alawites as even more heretical."
(Reporting By Tom Heneghan)