AMMAN (Reuters) - President Bashar al-Assad is increasingly relying on his Alawite power base to crush pro-democracy protests that have posed the boldest challenge to the Assad family's 41 years of rule over Syria.
Assad, an Alawite, sent army and secret police units dominated by officers from the same minority sect, an offshoot of Shi'ite Islam, into mainly Sunni urban centers to crush demonstrations calling for his removal for the last six weeks.
Their use of tanks to shell the city of Deraa last week, storming of mosques and attacks on unarmed civilians -- as reported by residents and activists -- have raised the stakes.
Reports say that Sunni conscripts, Syria's majority sect, refused to fire at their co-religionists.
The 45-year-old president, who has kept the Soviet-era political system he inherited from his father intact, has hinted repeatedly that the protesters were serving a foreign conspiracy to spread sectarian strife.
The warning was reminiscent of language his father, the late President Hafez al-Assad, used when he put down an Islamist and secular leftist challenge to his rule in the 1980s and has not found wide resonance.
Mass protests for political freedoms and an end to corruption spread after Assad made his remarks. An official media campaign was launched last month with the motto "surround the symbols of sectarian strife."
Security forces have shot dead at least 560 civilians in attacks on protesters, human rights groups say. Hundreds more are missing, many feared killed, and thousands have been arrested, adding to thousands of political prisoners.
But Assad may have struck a chord among members of the Alawite sect, who rose to prominence in the army under French rule, when the colonial administration used "divide and rule" tactics to control Syria.
Alawite officers expanded in numbers and gained control over the armed forces a few years after the Baath Party took power in 1963, especially key air squadrons, missile and armored brigades and intelligence.
"The army is mostly Sunni in terms of numbers, but an Alawite captain has more say than a Sunni general," said a former member of the army's personnel division.
Alawites received preferential treatment in government and security jobs, although many Alawite villages remained poor and prominent Alawite figures led part of the secular opposition against Assad family rule.
A declaration signed last month by Aref Dalila, a leading Alawite economist who spent eight years as a political prisoner after criticizing monopolies granted to an Assad cousin, denounced what he called the sectarian scare tactics used by authorities.
Assad, who allowed Islamists to exert more control over society as long as they did not interfere in politics, tried during the protests to placate conservative Sunnis by promising to open an Islamic university and easing bans on wearing the full veil.
His father used a blend of repression and the granting of privileges to ensure that the Sunni merchant class, whose influence has gradually waned as a new business generation tied to the Assad family rose, supports Syria's minority rulers.
Control of the army, however, has remained key to perpetuating Assad family rule over a majority Sunni population.
The Fourth Mechanized Brigade, headed by Assad's brother Maher, bombed and machine-gunned the city of Deraa into submission last week. Republican Guards units deployed around Damascus. In Rastan north of Homs, residents said Military Intelligence agents killed 17 protesters on Friday.
Witnesses said authorities have begun to arm villages in the Alawite Mountains overlooking the mixed coastal cities of Latakia, Banias and Tartous, where Alawites who descended from there were employed in the government and security apparatus, marginalizing traditional Sunni communities.
Gunmen loyal to Assad, known as 'shabbiha', have rampaged in Banias and Latakia to scare demonstrators, killing at least six civilians in a sectarian-driven attacks, residents said.
"I was driving with my wife and children through the Alawite Mountains over Banias and road blocks appeared in almost every Alawite village. Villagers were carrying brand new AK-47s," said a Syrian Christian engineer, whose community has stayed on the sidelines during the unrest.
Anas al-Shughri, a protest leader in mostly Sunni Banias, said armed Alawite villagers in the hills overlooking the restive city have been loosely grouped into loyalist militias.
"I regret to say that the propaganda that Assad is spreading that the Alawites will not survive if he is toppled is receiving an audience among our Alawite neighbors," Shughri said.
A report by the Arab Center for Research and Policy Studies, which is headquartered in Doha, said sectarian "agitation has reached an advanced stage in mixed areas" but that Syrians in general have not fallen for it.
"There is no dispute that the 'shabbiha' are semi-criminal gangs composed of thugs close to the regime," it said.
Syria's leadership was exploring "the importance of the sectarian factor and how to use it to confront the mass demonstrations freedom and dignity," the report said