ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Robert Siegel.
AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
And I'm Audie Cornish.
The Alawites of Syria were a poor, little-known minority, that is, until longtime dictator Hafez al-Assad, himself an Alawite, rose to power in 1970. His son, the current President Bashar al-Assad, is now fighting to maintain that power in a country that has risen up against him.
But NPR's Kelly McEvers recently met a group of Syrian Alawites in Cairo who say they are now willing to denounce the regime despite the risks.
KELLY MCEVERS, BYLINE: The gathering in Cairo was much like other conferences hosted by the Syrian opposition: a flurry of activity in the hotel lobby, lots of late-night conversation, lots of cigarettes. But this one was different. This one was organized by a particular sect. The idea was to publicly urge Alawites inside Syria to abandon the Syrian regime according to this statement read by one of the conference organizers.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Foreign language spoken)
MCEVERS: We call on our brothers in the Syrian regime, and especially the sons of our sect, not to raise your weapons against your own people, he said, to refuse to join the army.
Alawites like these are not the norm. Most Alawites still support the Syrian government whether tacitly or overtly.
ABU REEN: (Foreign language spoken)
MCEVERS: After the meetings and out by the hotel pool, this man, who only wanted to go by the name Abu Reen, says up until recently, Alawites who supported the regime could live in a bubble, pretending everything was OK, that the war wouldn't touch them. But now, he says, that's changing.
REEN: (Through Translator) There are many funerals, more than you can even imagine. Before I came here, three days, I was at the funeral of my nephew. He was 27. He was an officer with the army
MCEVERS: Abu Reen's nephew died while fighting in northern Syria, at a government air base that for months was a key battleground. Anti-government rebels finally took the base in January. Abu Reen's nephew's body was never returned. At the nephew's funeral, Abu Reen says the relatives who support the government down to their bones blame the rebels for his death. But others cursed the government. The president lives in palaces, they said, while we live in graves.
Abu Reen says he came to Cairo to represent these Alawites, the Alawites who oppose the Syrian government.
Is it dangerous for him to be here, though?
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Foreign language spoken)
REEN: (Through Translator) It's very dangerous, especially for my family inside. There is a big possibility that when I go back, I'll just go to prison.
MCEVERS: Abu Reen had hoped that by coming out against the government, the opposition would offer him some kind of protection. But that didn't transpire.
Burhan Ghalioun, a leading figure in the Syrian opposition who comes from the Sunni majority, said it's simply not fair to give special privileges to one group.
BURHAN GHALIOUN: (Through Translator) No one can give me guarantees, and I cannot give guarantees to anyone.
MCEVERS: But the Alawites say they are special because the regime is basically holding them hostage. Even if they did want to defect, they say they'd have nowhere to go. Either the regime would catch them or the opposition would punish them.
One of the organizers of the Cairo gathering is a guy who prefers to go by the name Jamal. He says he's faced the opposition's hatred up close in the so-called liberated areas of northern Syria, where opposition and Islamist fighters hold swaths of territory.
JAMAL: (Through Translator) There was one incident when I was in a town. There was a banner: It is forbidden for Alawites and dogs to enter. And I asked, since I'm an Alawite dog, can I take a picture with this banner? And I did.
MCEVERS: Jamal says tensions between the Alawites and the Sunnis go way back. That's why it was so surprising for many Syrians to see Alawites among the early protesters against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, Jamal says, back in 2011.
JAMAL: (Through Translator) There was a huge welcoming. We were, you know, we were embraced. We were warmly welcomed. Even people were excited. But then it all changed. We even became persona non grata. Now, we have cases of killings based on your sectarian identity.
MCEVERS: And cases of kidnappings, he says.
Jamal says the conference in Cairo was a step in the right direction, but it needs to go much further to stave off what he says could be widespread sectarian violence. This uprising against the government will not be killed by air strikes and scud missiles, Jamal says, referring to the weapons used by the regime. It will be killed by sectarianism.
Kelly McEvers, NPR News.
CORNISH: That story was reported with help from NPR producer Rima Marrouch.