Middle East

Syria civil war threat grows after Houla massacre

Destruction in Rastan on 16 May (image from Syrian opposition Shaam News Network)
Image caption What happened in Houla was terrible but not unique, says the BBC's Paul Wood, who has just returned from three weeks undercover in Syria

Is Syria edging nearer to civil war? The BBC's Paul Wood, who has spent the past three weeks reporting undercover inside Syria, says the threat is growing.

"God will take revenge for us" - it's a declaration heard in the Sunni villages around Homs, from people who feel powerless, desperate, and bitter.

This has not yet become a war of neighbour against neighbour, village against village; majority Sunnis against the ruling Alawite minority, their Shia and Christian allies. But there has been such terrible loss in some communities that it could become that.

The massacre in Houla was different in scale, but not in nature, from what has been happening in this part of Syria throughout this year. The pattern: the army shells a rebel-held area; then the paramilitary shabiha, "the ghosts", go in, cutting throats.

When we first heard wild stories of people being "slaughtered like sheep" - several months ago now - it seemed like hysteria, later to be retold as propaganda. But there are many bodies bearing such wounds and numerous eyewitnesses to such crimes.

Back in March, I spoke to a man who described hiding in a field and watching while members of his family were killed, soldiers and shabiha holding them on the ground, a boot to the back, a knife to the throat. He watched his 12-year-old son die in agony in this way. Houla is terrible but not unique.

Battle lines

Often, when a Sunni area is attacked, the shabiha come from the neighbouring Shia and Alawite villages. Pro-democracy activists accuse the regime of deliberately recruiting death squads like this to fuel sectarian hatred. That way, it is claimed, the minorities who now support President Bashar al-Assad will fear what will happen to them if they abandon him.

It is not all one-sided. There has been revenge by the Sunnis. Individual shabiha who are captured are routinely executed by the armed rebels of the Free Syrian Army (FSA). I've been told of this several times by rebel fighters. The pro-democracy activist, Wissam Tarif, says there has been "vendetta[-style], family against family retaliation."

Image caption Taking shelter during the fighting: Paul Wood in Homs in February

But this is not yet a case of whole villages being massacred simply because they belong to one sect. And the battle lines are not, yet, purely sectarian. On the government side there are still many Sunni members of the army, a majority in fact; there are even Sunni shabiha. On the rebel side there are a few Christian and Alawite members of the FSA.

The risk is that events like Houla will make people retreat further into their own communities. The regime already likes to portray the uprising as the voice of a Sunni Muslim underclass.


Om Omer, a refugee and a mother of six children, voiced Sunni grievances to me when I met her fleeing Homs. She was wondering what had become of her husband, though she assumed he was dead at the hands of a shabiha death squad. She told me what her life was like before the uprising.

"My husband is a labourer. If he worked, we ate. If he didn't, we starved. We already had a war with life, before the war with Bashar al-Assad." She went on: "Their sect [the Alawites] is full. Ours [the Sunnis] is hungry." She concluded: "Freedom will come to everyone. We will pay the cost of it: the martyrs' [cemetery] plots."

It is sentiment like that - as much as ideals about democracy - which is underpinning support for the FSA. Everywhere I went, on this latest trip to Syria, I heard complaints against the ruling Alawite minority. The risk is that the whole Alawite community will be punished for the sins of the regime.

Many FSA volunteers have told me they are fighting for a secular and open democracy. But others have said they want to kill Alawites and Shias. "Just those with blood on their hands," some add.

The FSA are just - barely - hanging on, under enormous pressure from the government forces. Fighters are selling their furniture to buy bullets. But the Sunnis are the overwhelming majority in Syria. If the conflict becomes openly and simply sectarian, then the advantage in numbers would be with the rebels.

We are not there yet, but the atmosphere is more threatening than it has ever been. In my many visits to Syria, and the area around Homs over the past eight months, Sunnis in the uprising would deny that sectarian bloodletting could ever happen in Syria. That's Iraq, not us, people would tell me; there's no tradition of that here.

On this trip I met an activist who used to say this as well. Not any longer. "The civil war has begun," he told me. "We will look back at this time, and say this was when it started."

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