WHEN the French ruled Syria after the carve-up of the Middle East that followed World War I, they needed a local group they could rely on, a favoured minority to keep the rest in check and to help to enforce their mandate.
They turned to the Alawites, a tough, fierce, mysterious, mountain-dwelling Syrian sect: today Syria is paying the price for the French colonial policy of divide and rule, as Bashar Assad's Alawite clan clings to power in an increasingly ferocious sectarian conflict.
Syria's descent into violent protest and bloody repression lies, in part, in the story of the Alawites and an explosive heritage of paranoia, secrecy, persecution and the pursuit of power.
For most of their history, after branching off from mainstream Shia Islam in the 9th century, the Alawites or Nusayris (after their founder, Ibn Nusayr) suffered grim religious oppression. Under the Ottomans, they were regarded as heretics, taxed heavily and brutally repressed when they resisted conversion to Sunni Islam.
"The sect", wrote T.E. Lawrence, "was clannish in feeling and politics. One Nosairi (sic) would not betray another, and would hardly not betray an unbeliever."
The sect is a self-described branch of Shia Islam, but its mystical religion remains so shrouded in mystery that its very beliefs are still a matter of some conjecture.
French control of Syria, however, paved the way for the rise of the Alawites. France deliberately set out to divide the region along religious, communal and geographical lines. The Alawites, regarded as a "warlike race" (rather as the British saw the Gurkhas), were encouraged to join the colonial armies and police as a counterweight to the Sunnis and to obstruct the rise of Syrian nationalism.
In 1922, the Alawite district was proclaimed an autonomous state under French protection and was administered separately from Syria until 1942. The French thought Nusayri sounded too close to "Nasara", a Muslim term for Christians derived from "Nazareth", and formally changed the sect's name to Alawites or Alawi, followers of Ali, the cousin and son-in-law of the Prophet.
The Alawites dominated the military elite when Hafez Assad came to power through a coup in 1970. Although the two million Alawites make up only 11 per cent of Syria's population (in a country that is 75 per cent Sunni), the sect dominates the Syrian state, monopolising almost all positions of power.
While publicly playing down sectarian divisions and courting other religious minorities who feared Sunni domination, the Assads packed members of their Alawite clan into every organ of state: the ruling Baath Party, the civil service, the intelligence service and, above all, the military and security elite. Some 70 per cent of professional Syrian soldiers and 80 per cent of officers are Alawites. The Shabiha, the vicious militia responsible for the worst mass killings, most recently in al-Qabeer, is almost wholly composed of specially recruited and well-paid Alawite thugs.
The Assads have effectively taken their co-religionists hostage, providing money and housing for poor Alawites in return for blind loyalty, and so closely identifying the sect with their regime that many Alawites fear, probably rightly, that the fall of the House of Assad could lead to wholesale retribution by the Sunni majority.
The aggression and paranoia fuelling the horrors of al-Qabeer and Houla reflect the isolation, suspicion and secrecy embedded in Alawite history.
The Alawite faith, developed in closed and defensive mountain societies, is an extraordinary and fascinating amalgam of beliefs, incorporating elements of Christianity, Gnosticism, Zoroastrianism and Phoenician paganism. The faith does not encourage pilgrimages or fasts, has no mosques, regards prayer as unnecessary and maintains rituals with strong Christian overtones, such as the drinking of consecrated wine.
Alawites believe in the divinity of Ali, but also venerate a wide variety of prophets, beginning with Adam, including Christ, and even taking in figures from classical antiquity such as Plato and pre-Islamic Persian sages.
Above all, Alawite beliefs are cloaked in concealment. Women are not eligible to learn the religion and some elements of the faith are known only to a select few. Alawite religious rites are performed in secret, in line with the custom of taqiyya, the tradition of hiding one's beliefs to escape persecution. As historians have pointed out, a society wedded to the idea of secrecy has created a fertile seedbed for the Mukhabarat, the feared Syrian military intelligence apparatus that has underpinned the Assad regime from the outset.
The existence of Alawite control was taboo under the Assads, who espoused a secular philosophy and claimed to be blind to sectarian differences while building up one of the most clannish governments in the Middle East.
Now this domination is under threat, Assad is whipping up Alawite fears to defend himself: arms are reported to have been distributed to Alawite communities within Sunni areas and the Shabiha has been unleashed on towns linked to the opposition.
The systematic murder of children by forces of the regime represents a new increase in the sectarian conflict; as in Bosnia, Rwanda and Nazi Germany, the Syrian state is now involved in a war of ethnic cleansing.
While the Syrian resistance is anxious to appear genuinely national, the fight against Assad is overwhelmingly Sunni-dominated: the opposition Syrian National Council has 311 members, of whom no more than ten are Alawites.
Assad knows that his best hope of survival lies now in fomenting sectarian divisions in the hope that, as the split between Sunni and Shia starts to spread beyond Syria into the wider Middle East, the threat of outside intervention will grow ever smaller.
As Kofi Annan, the former UN Secretary-General, has observed, Syria now faces the "spectre of all-out civil war" - a war between tyranny and the forces of democratic change, between a corrupt and murderous elite and an impoverished populace, but also between different religious sects, separated by ancient beliefs and a violent history.
"Shabiha" is Arabic for ghosts, and the name is ghoulishly apt. Hundreds of years of religious persecution, the accidents and manipulations of colonial domination, a divided country ruled through force and fear - these are the ghosts that stalk Syria's past and its future.
Ghostly sect stalks Syria's future