TRIPOLI, Lebanon (AP) -- Lebanese members of the Syrian leader's Alawite sect fear their tiny community will be a casualty of the civil war raging in the neighboring country.
Already, Sunni Muslim extremists have stoned a school bus, vandalized stores and beaten or stabbed a number of men in a wave of attacks against Lebanese Alawites, stoking fears of even more violence should Syrian President Bashar Assad be removed from power.
In one particularly humiliating case, angry Sunnis tied a rope around an Alawite man's neck and dragged him around the streets of Tripoli.
"The Alawites are being subjected to an organized campaign that aims to eliminate them on all levels," said Ali Feddah, a prominent member of Lebanon's Arab Democratic Party, which is mainly Alawite.
Feddah spoke to The Associated Press in his office in Tripoli's predominantly Alawite neighborhood of Jabal Mohsen. Sitting next to a picture of Assad, he said the Alawites face an "existential threat," mainly because of extremist Sunni incitement against them.
His words echo the sentiments of many Alawites, who have long enjoyed privileges in Syria under Assad family rule and now fear for their future. The tiny community in Lebanon, which has long been a Syrian client state, has also benefited from Assad's rule, particularly during Syria's three-decade hold on its smaller neighbor that ended in 2005.
The Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shiite Islam, represents little more than 10 percent of the population in Syria and about 2 percent in Lebanon. Before their ascent in the mid-20th century, the Alawites were impoverished and marginalized, largely confined to the lmountains of the province of Latakia on the Mediterranean coast.
Under the French mandate, the Alawites were granted an autonomous territory stretching in a band along the coast from the Lebanese border to the Turkish border. It lasted a few years until 1937, when their state was incorporated into modern-day Syria.
After the 1963 coup that brought the Baath Party to power in Damascus, Alawites began consolidating their presence in the Syrian government and armed forces.
The uprising against Assad's rule that began in March 2011 quickly became an outlet for long-suppressed grievances, mostly by poor Sunnis from marginalized areas. It has since escalated into an outright civil war.
Many of the rebels trying to overthrow Assad today say they want to replace his government with an Islamic state.
The war, now in its third year, has turned increasingly sectarian with countless cases of tit-for-tat slayings between Sunnis and Alawites. Sunni rebels are often seen in videos posted online referring to Alawites as dogs and heretics.
Abu Bilal al-Homsi, an activist in the central Syrian city of Homs who has links with several rebel groups, said the Assad regime has carried out massacres against Sunnis. He points to waves of sectarian killings this month, allegedly carried out by pro-government Alawite gunmen in the coastal towns of Banias and Bayda. More than 100 civilians were killed in the attacks.
"We will completely wipe out the Alawite sect," said al-Homsi, who does not use his real name because of fear of government reprisals. "There will be no Alawites in Syria. The young and the old will be punished."
Bassam al-Dada, an official in the rebels' Free Syrian Army, disagrees with al-Homsi. "The Alawites have nothing to do with Bashar's crimes," he said.
The U.N. estimates that more than 70,000 people have been killed in the war. Human Rights activists say most of them are Sunnis, but Alawites have also paid a heavy price. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said Tuesday the group has documented the names of more than 35,000 Alawites who have died, most of them soldiers and pro-Assad militiamen.
"Their losses statistically are very high. There is a lot of resentment in Alawite regions," said Hilal Khashan, political science professor at the American University in Beirut.
The tensions in Syria are playing out in Lebanon, which is sharply split along sectarian lines and has recently seen repeated bouts of street fighting related to the war across the border.
Northern Lebanon, in particular, is a potential powder keg. It has a strong Sunni population but also has pockets of Alawites.
The Alawites live mainly in Jabal Mohsen, a hilly district where posters of Assad and his father and predecessor, the late Hafez Assad, decorate the streets.
For years, residents of Jabal Mohsen have traded short bouts of automatic weapons fire and volleys of rocket-propelled grenades with residents of the mainly Sunni Bab Tabbaneh neighborhood.