Troubled minority ... pro-Assad protesters fear sectarian violence and retribution if the rebels take power.

Troubled minority ... pro-Assad protesters fear sectarian violence and retribution if the rebels take power. Photo: Reuters

The dilemma for Syria's Alawites is acute. Do they go off a cliff with their fellow believer Bashar al-Assad, or can they retreat to safe ground from which to negotiate an alternative future once the dictator President has been swept away?

Numbering just 2 million, they are snared in a historic trap - now being sprung by the Arab Spring.

In short, the Alawites emerged from oppression by taking advantage of the divide-and-rule policies of their former French colonial masters. Coming down from the mountains, they later insinuated themselves into the leadership ranks of the military and security forces - from which one of their own did the unimaginable by staging a coup in 1970.

That was Hafez al-Assad, father of today's President. As a member of such a small religious minority, his ascent was spectacular - the equivalent of an untouchable becoming a maharajah in India or a Jew becoming the tsar in Russia, according to historian Robert D. Kaplan.

When the Sunni Muslim Brotherhood revolted against the ''heretic'' Alawites in the mid-'70s, the Alawites initially were the victims of vicious violence. The denouement came in February 1982, in the western city of Hama - depending on who was counting, Assad's Alawite-led forces slaughtered as many as 20,000 Sunnis. There was always going to be payback.

An International Crisis Group report released last week focuses on the plight of the Alawites, on their predisposition to believe the worst might happen because of centuries of discrimination, prejudice and persecution at the hands of Sunni leaders, as much as they are blamed for the Hama massacre.

In the early non-violent days of the revolt, their communities were awash with exaggerated rumours they were forming militias and barricading their neighbourhoods. They abandoned identifying habits, like drinking herbal mate in public.

And not surprisingly, rebel claims on the shape of the new order in Syria were demoralising - the security services were to be wiped out, the Ba'ath Party likely would be outlawed and the bureaucracy would be purged of … Alawites.

At the same time, says the ICG, deep-seated Sunni prejudice rose to the surface amid the early protests and rallies. And a year into the crisis, blatant hatred of Alawites became commonplace as the regime's killing of Sunni civilians multiplied.

The Sunni rifts became uglier by the day. The Alawites were likened to savage mountain hordes; they were singled out as the source of the regime's extreme brutality - and this was probably because they were a godless people, devoid of morals.

The risk of widespread sectarian violence and the massive internal displacement that likely would follow rises with the passing of each week in which the leadership of the exiled and internal opposition fails to offer a blueprint for the future that might calm Alawite fears.

Harking back to the massacre at Hama, veteran CIA analyst and former Obama adviser Bruce Riedel wrote last month: "The legacy of Hama terrified Syrians for 30 years. After the many massacres of the last year, the Sunni desire for revenge has only become stronger. So, paradoxically, one of the priorities of the international community after Assad falls will be to protect the Alawite community and its allies from vengeance."

Riedel proposes an international peacekeeping force - for which he says Turkish assistance is vital. "It will need to be strong enough to deter revenge, but also credible and impartial enough to gain Sunni support. [It needs to be] primarily but not exclusively Muslim in composition - [and] Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Qatar should pay for it."

Alawite defenders argue that the 700,000 of their number who work in security and the military have done well for themselves - materially as well as being instruments of state power. But they insist that apart from their western mountain villages getting a bit of a facelift in the 1970s and '80s, advancement for the rest was minimal. The ICG describes those villages today as ''strikingly underdeveloped.''

Small numbers of Alawites have joined the rebel movement - the daughter of a prominent Alawite family disowned them in a piece she wrote for The New York Times on Friday, from a rebel-held village near Aleppo.

Activists in Homs are praising Alawites who have switched sides. They have been sending food and medical supplies to besieged Sunni communities and some Alawites in the security agencies are rated as trusted sources of information.

"[We] have long lists of Alawites who are secretly helping the revolution from the inside," an activist is quoted in the ICG report. "Once the regime falls, there will be plenty of Alawites that we can trust."

But the vast majority of Alawites live in fear of retribution, their fear magnified by their lack of exposure to the rebel fighters, the anti-regime protest movement and/or Sunni neighbours.

And again, depending on who is counting, thousands or hundreds of thousands of Alawites are retreating to their western mountain domain. There is speculation too that Assad's Plan B is to abandon the trappings of state, relocate his armaments to the west and operate as a militia leader, surrounded by 'his' people - if they are suicidal enough to have him.

In the region, the expectation that Assad might head for home is not surprising. When they found Saddam Hussein, he was in a hole in the ground near Tikrit, his home town. Likewise with Muammar Gaddafi in Libya, he was killed in his home town, Sirte.

But heading for the hills is no solution. The ICG is sceptical of Plan B: "Issues such as how Alawites might establish territorial contiguity, ensure communal homogeneity and gain access to natural resources, as well as questions such as the fate of nationwide infrastructure … evoke the likelihood of an endless .. conflict.''

Assad's home turf is where the French protected the Alawites and manipulated their ambitions after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire. But it is not clear who can, or will protect them today.