Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan warned in comments published Tuesday that Syria could plunge into "civil war," as he began a tour of Arab countries where uprisings ousted autocratic leaders.
"I fear that matters will end with a civil war breaking out between the Alawites and the Sunnis," Erdogan said in an interview published by Egypt's independent Al-Shourouk as he began his tour in Cairo.
Turkey's southern neighbour Syria, where security forces have waged a deadly crackdown against anti-government protests since mid-March, has a Sunni Muslim majority.
But its President Bashar al-Assad is a follower of the minority Alawi faith and Erdogan said many other key regime figures were too.
"We know that the Alawite elite dominates important positions within the regime, the army and the security forces," the Turkish premier said in the interview conducted last week.
"The people's anger is directed at them, not only because they are a tool of the government, but also because of their confession, and the Syrian regime is playing up this dangerous card," he said.
Erdogan said a number of the so-called "shabiha," or pro-government militia, accused by protesters of helping security forces smash the pro-democracy protests, "belong to the Alawite sect."
Signup to our newsletter and follow us on Facebook and Twitter!
"This deepens the rift between them and the Sunni majority," he said.
Erdogan expressed frustration with Assad and his iron-fisted regime for failing to "listen to the voice of the people," who have been demanding democracy in almost daily protests for six months.
"Unfortunately he did not do it," he said, warning of the consequences of failing to meet popular aspirations for reform.
He said a solution would be for Assad to get rid of "those surrounding him who insist on the repression and the breaking of the Syrian people's will".
"If President Bashar does not take this step, he personally will pay the price," Erdogan said.
He said Turkey has been consulting with Syria's key regional ally Iran to try to find a way out of the bloody repression of pro-democracy protests which, according to UN estimates, has claimed at least 2,600 lives so far.
Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu "will soon travel to Tehran to pursue consultations on the situation in Syria and after that I will visit Tehran to meet officials," Erdogan said.
Erdogan said the Arab Spring that saw the collapse of autocratic regimes in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya was "a victory as well for Turkey" and added that he hoped to bolster ties with the three countries during his current tour.