Middle East

Syrian massacre allegations fuel sectarian sentiment

Citizen journalist image provided by activists to AP purporting to show Syrian soldiers at the scene of a killing in al-Bayda, near Baniyas, 2 May 2013
Image caption This picture provided by activists purports to show Syrian soldiers at the scene of the Al-Bayda killings

The latest alleged massacre, at the Sunni village of al-Bayda near the coastal town of Baniyas, is proving harder to pin down in detail than most of the previous mass killings.

Twenty-four hours after the event, estimates of the death toll varied widely, and only one video had emerged, showing half a dozen bodies lying in pools of blood.

Syrian organisations that track casualties named between 42 and 50 people they said had been summarily executed after government forces and the Alawite shabiha militia overran al-Bayda on Thursday.

Some of the victims were reported to be women and children.

Evidently keen to turn the event to political advantage, the opposition umbrella National Coalition said more than 150 people had been slaughtered, and called for international intervention.

With government forces in control of the area and communications reportedly cut, it was impossible to verify such claims.

But there was no doubt that incidents of some sort did take place. State media reported that "a number of terrorists" had been killed when government forces captured a cache of arms and ammunition.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which gathers information through a network of informants on the ground, says the village was stormed after clashes with rebels in which government fighters were killed.

Desecrated tomb

The latest developments in and around Baniyas will inevitably increase suspicions that the Alawite-dominated regime is increasingly consolidating its grip on the Alawite heartland along the north-west coast, possibly in preparation for the establishment of some kind of entity there if the regime loses its grip on other parts of the country.

Some well-placed observers have long been convinced that that was the regime's endgame, and even that the Russians would be in favour, envisaging the same kind of relationship with such an entity as the Americans have with Israel.

That may be fanciful. But given the sectarian dynamics playing out on the ground, that is not to say that it might not happen, if not as Plan A, then as Plan C if the regime's wider ambitions should dwindle.

If such an entity were to emerge from the dust and clamour of conflict, it would be vital for it to control the strategic city of Homs and region around the town of Quseir connecting with the Lebanese border.

That would enable the Alawite heartland to be linked up with Syria's strategic ally Hezbollah, which controls the eastern Beqaa Valley of Lebanon.

Recent weeks have seen an intensification of the battle for control of Quseir and nearby villages, some of them populated by Shia people of Lebanese origin, with Hezbollah fighters from Lebanon pitching into the battle.

Those battles, and now the alleged massacres around Baniyas, will add to the sectarian sentiment partly underlying the deepening struggle in Syria.

It is a highly charged climate in which sectarian provocation can be sure of adding to the flames.

Religious figures are not the only ones to attract the hostility of the intolerant.

Just such a provocation was staged on Thursday in the town of Adra, north-east of Damascus, when rebels - described on a Facebook page as "heroes of the Free Syrian Army" - desecrated the tomb of a venerated historical Shia figure, Hajar ibn Adi.

His remains were dug up and reburied in an unknown location, the statement said, in order to remove a pretext for Shia pilgrims to visit the shrine.

Ibn Adi was a companion of the Prophet Muhammad. He supported the Prophet's son-in-law and cousin, Ali ibn Abi Talib, whom Shia regard as the first Imam. Ibn Adi's tomb at Adra was a popular destination for Shia pilgrims, especially from Iran.

Its desecration was strongly condemned by Shia leaders in the region, including Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah and Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Maliki, and also by the opposition umbrella group, the Syrian National Coalition.

Religious figures are not the only ones to attract the hostility of the intolerant.

At Maarrat al-Numan in northern Idlib province, rebel militants two months ago decapitated a bronze bust of the 11th-Century poet and rationalist Abul Ala al-Maarri.

He was a scathing critic of all religions. One of his most famous poems stated that there were two kinds of people in this world - those with brains and no religion, and those with religion and no brains.