“Sectarian violence in Syria raises fears,” screamed the headline of a Washington Post article on the murder Tuesday of 16 Syrians in the city of Homs, which lies 100 miles north of Damascus. Admitting that "confirming details" of what happened are hard to come by in a city under siege, the Post's Beirut-based correspondent Liz Sly nonetheless gives a dire reading of an impending civil war:
[B]ased on interviews with witnesses on both sides of the divide and a medical worker who tracked the violence and collected the bodies, it appears that the tensions soared after a crowd of Alawites armed with sticks surrounded a mosque in a Sunni neighborhood shortly before the noontime prayers on Friday and began chanting anti-Sunni slogans.
Sunnis responded by abducting three Alawites and on Saturday, their bullet-ridden bodies were found dumped in a Sunni neighborhood of the city. Alawites went on a rampage, looting and burning Sunni shops. In the melee, at least three Sunnis were killed, including a 27-year-old woman who was gunned down when she stepped outside her home in a majority Alawite neighborhood. One activist said that six Sunnis were killed, bringing the total number of deaths in the tit-for-tat killings to nine, though the medical worker who saw the bodies could only confirm a total of six.”
Radwan Ziadeh, a prominent Syrian dissident, has been in touch with five residents in Homs. What kick-started the wave of violence, he says, was the following:
Over a month ago, security forces kidnapped a tribal leader from the Al-Fawa’erah tribe. The tribesmen pleaded to have him released, but the security officers instead returned the leader’s dead body. In retaliation, the Fawa’erah tribe kidnapped five security officers and demanded that their bosses hand over the ones responsible for the murder. The security chiefs gave the tribe a low-ranking Alawite officer, whom the tribe then killed before releasing two their captives in exchange. The remaining three captives were handed to residents in the Bab Al-Sibaa neighborhood of Homs, who then bartered for the release of 2,000 political prisoners abducted since the start of the Syrian revolution. When those negotiations broke down on, the Bab Al-Sibaa captors executed their hostages. The security chiefs then goaded the shabbiha into mounting a general assault on Homs, which has left dozens dead. Ziadeh further confirmed that, today, Bab Al-Sibaa has been besieged by tanks, three of its main buildings have been demolished, communications have been cut, and a huge arrest campaign is underway.
Significantly, an ad hoc committee of Sunnis and Alawites formed in Homs on Monday to denounce Assad's sectarian trap. In a statement it put out in Arabic, which Ziadeh translated for me over the phone, the committee said: "In response to the massacre that the Syrian regime has committed today, we have held emergency meetings [throughout Homs] ... Some of our Alawite brothers are involved in the meeting, and we've been discussing regular attacks on the different areas in Homs by the shabbiha and the security. We emphasize that the regime has lost its legitimacy and working at playing on the sectarian language. This is something that belongs to the Ba'ath. The syrian people have enough conscience to avoid any such plans."
In other words, this spate of violence had nothing to do with a spontaneous Sunni bloodletting of Alawites – it came about after regime agents murdered a tribal leader and that tribe took revenge on regime agents. Assad is arming Alawites in the hopes of creating a sectarian conflict out of a fundamentally political one.
The Syrian Local Coordination Committees, which are the logistical networks for on-the-ground protestors, have responded wisely at the national level to the Homs mayhem. Last night, they emailed: "In response to the regime's attempts to create division between the sects and play on the sectarian games we have decided...to name next Friday as 'Friday of national unity.'" The LCCs also insist that most of the 16 killed in Homs on Tuesday were trying to rescue the injured, the majority of whom were in fact Alawites who had been wounded from assaulted funeral procession. A 12-year-old boy was allegedly gunned down with explosive bullets in this sortie. Then the security forces tried to kidnap corpses and the wounded lying in the streets.
We know that Assad has been using the threat of a civil war as a strategy for clinging to power. It is in his interest to cajole or force minorities into acting foolishly or, failing that, to do their dirty work for them and then lie about their being the perpetrators.
Michael Weiss is communications director of the Henry Jackson Society, a London-based think tank.