Cracks begin to appear in Assad's Alawite defences
President Bashar al-Assad of Syria is facing a new challenge as a group of religious leaders from his powerful Alawite sect has circulated a document, demanding a change in its relationship to the regime and "dissociating" itself from his leadership.
The document, which its authors claim has been circulated to a significant number of Alawite sheikhs - or religious leaders - in Syria, was smuggled out of the country amid extreme secrecy and shown to a handful of European journalists.
Some of its authors have also briefed European governments on its contents. However, it is unclear how much support it is likely to have on the ground.
The authors, acting anonymously out of fear for their security once back in the country, said they had been forced to act because of the extreme danger the sect was now facing.
Its young men have been the vanguard of President Assad's fighting forces, both in the army and in local militias, but have suffered enormous losses - amounting to a quarter of all the sect's men of fighting age, by some counts.
Many Alawites also fear genocidal vengeance being wrought if Mr Assad is ultimately forced out by militant jihadists, who regard the Alawites as heretical, as well as intrinsically tied to the regime and its massacres.
The sheikhs who spoke to reporters said they wanted to forge a new relationship with Syria's Sunni majority and had reached out to its religious representatives - though they would not say whom.
The document attempts to redefine the core faith of the Alawites, which is often regarded as a mysterious hybrid of Shia Islam. It claims to be a branch of Islam that is separate from both Shia and Sunni.
That is significant because the regime's support from Iran is partly explained by the historic links between their beliefs.
The document says the group should abandon its longstanding persecution complex - the Alawites have often been marginalised and oppressed, a historical trend that has been used to explain its aggression against the Sunni majority under the Alawite Assad regime, particularly in the civil war. Its members have been accused of repeated massacres of Sunni civilians.
The sheikhs said that the document was not calling on President Assad to step down; they said they were not advocating any particular solution to the crisis and some authors favoured him staying on.
However, the document refers implicitly to the regime as "totalitarian", describes the uprising against the regime as "an initiative of noble anger" and says that the only future for Syria is as a secular, pluralist and democratic state.
"The ruling political power, whoever embodies it, does not represent us nor does it shape our identity," it says.
Leon Goldsmith, an expert on the sect and author of 'Cycle of Fear: Syria's Alawites in War and Peace', said: "I see this document as extremely significant. It could pose a mortal blow to Assad."
He said the growing reliance of the regime on Iran and Russia could have provoked some sect leaders who had long been aware that the regime had endangered it by playing the sectarian card.
However, one western diplomat who has been seen the document urged caution. "It's a very credible attempt to redefine the Alawite identity," the diplomat said. "However, there's no 'big bang' effect."
Joshua Landis, an expert on Syria at the University of Oklahoma who has close ties to the Alawite community, said there had been previous efforts by dissident individuals from 'sheikh' families to establish themselves, but they had lacked authority.
He added: "All the same, many Alawites are fearful about the future and are trying to think of some alternative option." (© Daily Telegraph, London)