Opposition campaigners from Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's Alawite sect will meet this weekend to support a democratic alternative to his rule and try to distance the community from wholesale association with the government's attempts to crush a two-year uprising.
The two-day meeting in Cairo, the first by Alawites supportive of the revolt, will draft a declaration committing to a united Syria and inviting the mainstream opposition to cooperate on preventing sectarian bloodletting if Assad falls and agree on a transitional justice framework, organisers said.
As the war takes on an increasingly sectarian bent, severing the Alawite fate from that of Assad could be crucial for the survival of the community, an offshoot of Shi'ite Islam that comprises about 10 percent of Syria's population.
"The meeting is happening almost two years late, but it will help disassociate the sect from Assad. Every effort is needed now to prevent a wide-scale sectarian bloodbath when Assad eventually goes, in which the Alawites would be the main losers," a Western diplomat said.
At least 70,000 people have been killed since a peaceful protest movement led by Syria's Sunni Muslim majority broke out against four decades of family rule by Assad and his father, members of the Alawite sect.
The demonstrations were met by bullets, eventually sparking a Sunni backlash and a mostly Islamist armed insurgency that is leading some Alawites to fear they have no future without Assad.
Assad has said he is fighting a foreign-backed conspiracy to divide Syria and that the rebel forces are Islamist "terrorists."
A statement by the organising committee of the Alawite conference said: "The regime, which is becoming more isolated and weak, is working on turning sectarian zealotry into bloodshed. There are anti-regime forces also pushing toward sectarian warfare."
"Depriving the regime of the sectarian card is crucial for its ouster and for negotiating a Syrian national covenant on the basis of a modern statehood and equal citizenship and justice," the statement said.
About 150 Alawite figures, including activists and religious leaders, who were mostly forced to flee Syria for supporting the revolt, will attend the conference in Cairo, which will start on Saturday.
Alawites were prominent in a leftist Syrian political movement that was crushed by Assad's father, Hafez al-Assad, in the 1970s and 1980s, along with Islamist opposition.
Among prominent Alawites currently in jail is free-speech advocate Mazen Darwish, who worked on documenting the victims of the crackdown against the revolt, and Abdelaziz al-Khayyer, a centrist politician who advocated peaceful transition to democratic rule.
Issam Ibrahim, a lawyer who is helping organise the conference, said the uprising had given the Alawites a chance to show the sect was not monolithic, and that it aspired like the rest of the population to live under a multi-party democracy, while fearing the rise of Islamist extremism.
Ibrahim recalled taking part in a pro-democracy demonstration at the beginning of the uprising in the Sunni district of al-Khalidiya in the central city of Homs when the protesters came under attack by a pro-Assad militia.
"A group of us took refuge in a house, and the house owner, who did not know I was Alawite, began cursing Alawites. When my comrades told him I was one, he came to me and gave me the keys to his house."
"We are in a sectarian crisis and the political forces of the opposition are falling into a serious error by not discussing it," Ibrahim, whose father was jailed for years under the rule of the elder Assad, told Reuters.
He said the document that would emerge from the conference "will affirm Alawite commitment to national unity and inter-communal existence and civic peace," mirroring a stance the sect's leaders took during French colonial rule in the 1920s in opposition to proposals for partition of the country.
"There is an Islamist current that is expanding at the expense of the democratic civic current, which needs to unite," Ibrahim said. "We as Alawites are Syrians first. We are trying to be part of a real change."