Leaders of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's Alawite branch of Islam have openly taken a stand against his regime. In a document obtained by media, heads of the sect also call for peace after five years of war.
In the document, Alawite religious leaders appear to distance themselves from Assad's government and call on their community to "become a catalyst for a new Syria."
The"Declaration of an Identity Reform,"
was purportedly smuggled out of Syria and shown to a number of media organizations, including the BBC, Germany's "Welt am Sonntag" newspaper, Italy's "La Repubblica" and France's "Le Figaro."
The eight page text advocates a future for Syria based on secularism and democracy, and implicitly refers to Assad's regime as "totalitarian."
"The ruling political power, whoever embodies it, does not represent us nor does it shape our identity or preserve our safety and reputation," the anonymous authors write.
"Nor do we, the Alawites, substantiate it or generate its power. The legitimacy of a regime can only be considered according to the criteria of democracy and fundamental rights."
Assad's family belongs to the Alawite faith, which emerged in the 10th century and is often associated with Shiite Islam. The Alawites only represent around 12 percent of Syria's population, but they've dominated the country's government and security forces for much of the past four decades. The influence of the Alawite community has also grown steadily with the rise of Assad's Ba'ath party.
The Alawite link to Shiite Islam is often seen as a key reason why Shiite Iran supports Assad's regime in the face of an uprising by Syria's Sunni majority and other ethnic groups. Some Alawites fear retaliation by these larger religious factions should Assad be overthrown.
But the individuals behind the document attempt to redefine the core faith of the Alawites. They stipulate that Alawitism is separate from both Shiite and Sunni beliefs, and instead represents "a third model of and within Islam."
Calls for conciliation
The religious leaders also use the text to commit "to the fight against sectarian strife," and to call for reconciliation with the country's Sunni majority. They say Syria needs national integration and the "application of secularism...a system where Islam, Christianity and other religions are equal."
Leon Goldsmith, an expert on the Alawite sect, told Britain's "Daily Telegraph" newspaper that the document could mark a turning point.
"I see this document as extremely significant," he said. "It could well pose a mortal blow to Assad."
Syria's civil war began in 2011 as a popular uprising against President Assad's government, but later escalated into a multi-sided conflict that has killed more than 270,000 people. Syrian peace talks are expected to resume this coming week in Geneva.