The French created the Alawite State in and around Lattakia in the 1920s to divide and rule Syria. They encouraged Alawites to join the new army because the more-affluent and urban Sunni majority preferred civilian life.
As they rose through the ranks and their numbers swelled the armed forces, the Alawites proceeded to build a state within a state from the late 1960s onwards motivated by deep-seated fear of Sunni persecution and lust for power.
Not only did they take control of the armed forces, intelligence agencies and the police but also the Baath party, state enterprises, trade flows and oil revenues. They co-opted the greedy Sunni merchants of Aleppo and Damascus and the fearful Christian, Druze and other minorities' leaders. Their project was not complete until they drove out the middle classes, muzzled the intelligentsia and bought long-term protection from Iran.
The real losers in the last 41 years have been the poorer Sunni majority, two generations of expatriates and their dependent families back home and Syria's development as a healthy, effective and modern nation state.
Dismantling this extraordinary "state within a state" will not be easy let alone rebuilding Syria. International sanctions do not have much effect on such a state and could hurt ordinary Syrians. This regime has plenty of foreign reserves and gold stashed away and can go on funding its killing machine for at least six months. That said, the Assad tribe has already sown the seeds of its own destruction.
The regime has hardly any friends left in the world and its security apparatus is coming under attack not just from defectors but also international powers. While it can survive for a few more months, Assad himself, his inner circle and extended family have no choice but to negotiate a safe-exit deal with the Russians or risk being slaughtered.
Splits within the Alawite community are also bound to emerge in coming weeks. Other Alawite tribes may even offer the Assad clan to the international community as sacrificial lambs if faced with a real threat of annihilation.