* Veteran human right campaigner fled to Jordan last month
* Sees ethnic cleansing by Assad militia in his home city
* Assad Alawite sect might be forced back into hills
By Khaled Yacoub Oweis
AMMAN, March 14 (Reuters) - Syria has plunged into civil war and only the departure of President Bashar al-Assad can prevent the country from being torn apart, a veteran opposition figure said.
Najati Tayyara, 67, is a Sunni Muslim liberal who fled Syria to Jordan last month after the authorities bowed to pressure from Arab neighbours and released him from prison.
One of Syria's most respected human rights campaigners, Tayyara was jailed in May 2011 after warning that the crackdown against protesters and the recruitment of minority Alawites into government militia was a recipe for sectarian disaster.
Assad himself is an Alawite and the sect makes up around 10 percent of Syria's 23 million-strong population. The Sunnis make up some 75 percent.
"The strategy of the regime is civil war, after it failed to silence the people. So it's trying to protect its future by moving toward dividing the country," Tayyara told Reuters.
Assad has accused foreign powers of stirring up the unrest in Syria, which started one year ago and has spread to much of the country, and says terrorists are to blame for the violence.
Tayyara said attacks by mostly Alawite militia in his home city of Homs were provoking a backlash of "counter kidnappings, counter killings and counter forced displacement" by Sunni Muslims.
"If (the regime) has any vision, then the regime has to pull the country out of the hell of this destructive war that will destroy the whole of Syria," Tayyara said, warning that the conflict could spill over into Iraq and Lebanon, which are also riven by deep ethnic and sectarian divisions.
He added that the only way to resolve the crisis was for Assad to leave power immediately, followed by the creation of a transitional government and internationally monitored elections.
Syrian authorities point to a new constitution approved in a referendum last month which removed a clause granting Assad's ruling Baath Party a monopoly of power. Assad has set a parliamentary election for May 7.
"After a year of destruction, a year of organised killings where the army has systematically shelled and destroyed cities, there is no way to move forward except for the regime to withdraw and allow the people free self determination," he said.
The United Nations estimates that Assad's forces have killed more than 8,000 people in their drive to crush the uprising. Damascus says rebels have killed some 2,000 soldiers.
Tayyara was one of the leaders of the Damascus Spring movement, a brief period of openness a decade ago that Assad later crushed.
He said political reforms touted by Assad, such as the new constitution, had not altered the basic fact that Syria remained a police state.
"The regime cannot imagine that the people can say no... When the street erupted under the influence of the Arab Spring, it rejected it and killed demonstrators. It tortured prisoners and raped them. I was a witness."
Tayyara said the yearlong revolution had brought to the surface sectarian tensions that had accumulated during five decades of Alawite domination over the country, which saw a small elite control the top jobs and cream off the rewards.
"They were only tensions. Now Syrians do not trust each another, unless they are comfortable with their sect," he said.
The veteran campaigner saw little chance of success for the mediation efforts being led by former United Nations chief Kofi Annan, saying Annan had little way of pressuring Assad, with China and Russia blocking any Security Council resolution.
He accused government-backed militias of carrying out ethnic cleansing, pointing to a massacre in a mixed area of Homs on Sunday which left up to 50 dead, according to activists.
The government and rebels traded blame for the killings. On Wednesday, Syria's official state media accused Assad opponents of murdering 15 civilians, including small children, in an Alawite district of the battered city.
"These massacres aim to force people to flee and instill fear and horror in their hearts," Tayyara said, pinning much of the blame on Assad's feared militia, known as Shabbiha.
"There is an attempt to change the make up of the people in several cities and transform remaining populations into obedient subjects," he added.
But as fighting progressed, he said the Alawites might be pushed back into their mountain strongholds in Western Syria, as Sunnis gained control of much of the rest of the country.
"Assad started with a kingdom that he illegally inherited and is moving toward carving a smaller kingdom somewhere in his mountain to protect himself, to protect his past and to escape being held accountable," he said. (Editing by Crispian Balmer and Samia Nakhoul)