Middle East

Sectarian Strife in City Bodes Ill for All of Syria


A protest against President Bashar al-Assad after Friday Prayer in Homs, Syria, last week. The city, a hot spot of resistance against the government, has recently been the scene of sectarian violence.

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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.


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Homs was the site of some of the earliest protests in Syria.

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.”

Hwaida Saad and an employee of The New York Times contributed reporting.

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