Amman: Followers of the religion of Bashar Al Assad who oppose the Syrian president met in Cairo on Saturday to support a democratic alternative to his rule, seeking to untangle his fate from their own.

In the first meeting of its kind by Alawites who support the revolt, delegates aimed to draft a declaration supporting a united Syria and to invite other opposition groups to cooperate on preventing sectarian bloodletting if Al Assad falls.

“We are inviting all of the opposition to confront the sectarian problem being ignited by the regime. The last card the regime can now play is civil war and the partition of Syria,” said veteran opposition campaigner Bassam Al Youssef, an Alawite who spent more than a decade in jail under the iron rule of Al Assad’s father, the late President Hafez Al Assad.

As the war takes on an increasingly sectarian bent, distancing the Alawites from Al Assad could be crucial for the survival of the community, an offshoot of Shiite Islam that makes up about 10 per cent of Syria’s population.

“The meeting is happening almost two years late,” a Western diplomat said.

“But it will help disassociate the sect from Al Assad. Every effort is needed now to prevent a wide-scale sectarian bloodbath when Al Assad eventually goes, in which the Alawites would be the main losers.”

At least 70,000 people have been killed since a protest movement led by Syria’s Sunni Muslim majority broke out against four decades of family rule by Al Assad and his father.

The demonstrations were met by bullets, sparking a Sunni backlash and a mostly Islamist armed insurgency that is leading some Alawites to fear they have no future without Al Assad.

Al Assad has said he is fighting a foreign-backed conspiracy to divide Syria and that the rebel forces are Islamist “terrorists.”

A statement by the organising committee of the Alawite conference said: “The regime, which is becoming more isolated and weak, is working on turning sectarian zealotry into bloodshed. There are anti-regime forces also pushing toward sectarian warfare.”

“Depriving the regime of the sectarian card is crucial for its ouster and for negotiating a Syrian national covenant on the basis of a modern statehood and equal citizenship and justice,” it said.