Sectarian Strife in City Bodes Ill for All of Syria
Published: November 19, 2011
BEIRUT, Lebanon — A harrowing sectarian war has spread across the Syrian city of Homs this month, with supporters and opponents of the government blamed for beheadings, rival gangs carrying out tit-for-tat kidnappings, minorities fleeing for their native villages, and taxi drivers too fearful of drive-by shootings to ply the streets.
New Phase for Syria in Attacks on Capital (November 21, 2011)
The New York Times
Agence France-Presse — Getty Images
Agence France-Presse — Getty Images
As it descends into sectarian hatred, Homs has emerged as a chilling window on what civil war in Syria could look like, just as some of Syria’s closest allies say the country appears to be heading in that direction. A spokesman for the Syrian opposition last week called the killings and kidnappings on both sides “a perilous threat to the revolution.” An American official called the strife in Homs “reminiscent of the former Yugoslavia,” where the very term “ethnic cleansing” originated in the 1990s.
“Over the past couple of weeks, we’ve seen sectarian attacks on the rise, and really ugly sectarian attacks,” the Obama administration official said in Washington. The longer President Bashar al-Assad “stays in power, what you see in Homs, you’ll see across Syria.”
Since the start of the uprising eight months ago, Homs has emerged as a pivot in the greatest challenge to the 11-year rule of Mr. Assad. Some of the earliest protests erupted there, and defectors soon sought refuge in rebellious neighborhoods. This month, government security forces tried to retake the city, in a bloody crackdown that continues.
Homs, Syria’s third-largest city, has a sectarian mix that mirrors the nation. The majority is Sunni Muslim, with sizable minorities of Christians and Alawites, a heterodox Muslim sect from which Mr. Assad draws much of his top leadership. Though some Alawites support the uprising, and some Sunnis still back the government, both communities have overwhelmingly gathered on opposite sides in the revolt.
Here it is not so much a fight between armed defectors and government security forces, or protesters defying a crackdown. Rather, the struggle in Homs has dragged the communities themselves into a battle that residents fear, even as they accuse the government of trying to incite it as a way to divide and rule the diverse country.
Fear has become so pronounced that, residents say, Alawites wear Christian crosses to avoid being abducted or killed when passing through the most restive Sunni neighborhoods, where garbage has piled up in a sign of the city’s dysfunction.
“It is so sad that we reached this point,” said a Syrian priest who lives in Lebanon but maintains close relations with people in Homs, in particular the Christian community.
In past weeks, Homs was buckling under a relentless crackdown as the government tried to reimpose control over the city. Dozens were killed, but the American official said the Obama administration believed the government withdrew some forces in accordance with an Arab League plan to end the violence. Residents offered a different version. Several said the government had repainted tanks and armored vehicles blue and redeployed them as a police force carrying out the same operations.
“The regime wants to say to the Arab observers that the police are confronting protesters, not the army or security men,” said Abu Hassan, a 40-year-old activist there.
On Friday, Syria tentatively agreed to an Arab League proposal to send more than 500 monitors to oversee the faltering plan, but had asked for changes to the plan, a request that Arab foreign ministers rejected on Sunday.
“They are trying to change what they already agreed,” said Nabil el-Araby, the league’s secretary-general, saying that was unacceptable to the Arab states. Damascus had tried to alter various conditions, such as defining who could come as an independent observer.
If there is no sign on Sunday of Syria enacting the agreement, which includes stopping the violence and withdrawing security forces from civilian areas, then Arab foreign ministers will meet Tuesday evening to decide the next step, the league’s secretary-general said. That is effectively the second extension of the original deadline of last Wednesday. The league had said previously that it would weigh other political and economic sanctions if there was no change in Syria.
Even as the death toll has dropped in Homs in recent days, the sectarian strife seems to have gathered a relentless momentum that has defied the attempts of both Sunni and Alawite residents to stanch it. One prominent Sunni activist, who spoke only on the condition of anonymity, used the term shabeeha — an Arabic word that refers to government paramilitaries — to describe the situation evolving inside Homs.
“There are shabeeha on both sides now,” he said.
He blamed the government for fomenting the sectarian tension, but added, “I feel disgusted at what’s happening in Syria, and I am afraid of what might happen next.”
Mohammed Saleh is a 54-year-old Alawite in Homs. A communist, he was a political prisoner for 12 years and was released in 2000. In an interview, he said that insurgents stopped a minivan carrying factory employees last Sunday, asked the Christians and Sunnis to leave and then kidnapped 17 Alawites. Enraged, the families of the Alawites went into the streets, randomly kidnapping Sunnis after demanding their identification.
“They know your sect by your family name,” he said.
Families on both sides asked him to mediate, Mr. Saleh said, and after days of negotiations, sometimes through calls to Syrian expatriates, he secured the release of all 36 people kidnapped in the episode at 4 a.m. Friday. He said many were still missing in other kidnappings.
“I’m against the regime,” he said. But, he added: “Now I am being critical of some of the revolutionaries. We are against the regime and we want it to fall, but the revolutionaries need to present a better and more beautiful alternative. And if the opposition is going to be similar to the regime, it’s going to be dangerous.”
Mr. Saleh is not alone in trying to stop the tide. Others, Sunni and Alawite, have joined him in a group in Homs called the Popular Solidarity Committee, which has sought to defuse tension. Fadwa Suleiman, an Alawite actress from Aleppo, visited Homs on Nov. 11 in a gesture of solidarity with protesters in the besieged city.
The violence itself still pales before the government’s crackdown, which the United Nations says has killed more than 3,500 people. But in a dozen interviews with residents in Homs, people spoke of the city’s fabric being torn apart. Paramilitaries on both sides have burned houses and shops, they say. Alawite residents have been forced to flee to their native villages. Kidnappings, many of them random, have accelerated. Numbers are impossible to gauge, but scores have been abducted. Residents say some captives are used as bargaining chips, but not always.
“My cousin was kidnapped, and he was a civilian Alawite,” said a dissident activist from the Alawite neighborhood of Al Zahra in Homs, where locales are often largely segregated by sect. “He was found killed and his head was chopped off.”
The activist, who gave a pseudonym, Abu Ali, said his relatives text message each other with the license plate of the taxis they take. They call each other when they arrive. He said his brother, a taxi driver, no longer dares to take to the streets.
Another Sunni activist in Homs played down the strife, saying Alawites were kidnapped only in retaliation and denying that insurgents had beheaded anyone. Like others, he insisted that the violence was minimal compared with the ferocity of the government’s crackdown.
Christians in Homs seem to have tried to stay neutral, an admittedly difficult task.
“We’d rather emigrate than hold weapons and be part of a civil war,” said a Christian in a telephone interview who gave his name as Hisham and whose mother-in-law had already fled Homs.
He blamed the government for the greatest share of violence. But he accused Sunni insurgents of killing Alawites to drive them from the city’s three predominantly Alawite neighborhoods, where support for Mr. Assad runs strongest.
“There is no room for us, or for the educated Sunnis, in a civil war,” said his wife, who gave her name as Hiyam, also speaking by telephone. “A civil war means emigrating.”