Middle East

Qubair: Sign of growing sectarian strife

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Media captionThe BBC's Paul Danahar reports from Qubair

The tiny hamlet of Qubair, scene of an alleged massacre, is the latest landmark in Syria's bloody conflict. The BBC's Middle East bureau chief Paul Danahar visited the village with UN monitors and found a worrying portent of sectarian violence to come.

Somehow, when your senses are crushed by the weight of what they are being asked to consume, they switch off.

Then something suddenly kicks them back into life.

For mine, it was the small piece of someone's brain that fell from within the bloodied tablecloth a man had just held up before me.

Suddenly, at that moment, the reality of what I was seeing rushed back into life and the world became razor sharp.

I could smell the burnt flesh even before I stepped up to the window to look inside the house next door.

Shapes that had blurred into the barren landscape came into focus in the fields outside. The horse shot by the stables, the sheep slaughtered by the chicken coop.

The story of what happened began to form.

The attackers walked into this village on Wednesday morning with the intention of killing everything that moved.

Butchering the families that lived in this tiny Sunni Muslim community was not enough to quench their bloodlust. So the animals died too, their carcasses left to rot in the summer sun.

'Scorched earth attack'

If this was an act of mindless violence, the fact that the bodies of the people had been removed suggested a very clear-headed attempt to hide the truth.

The United Nations had been trying to get into Qubair for more than 24 hours.

On Thursday, they were stopped by army checkpoints and neighbouring villagers who swarmed around their cars and forced them back. Two bullets were fired and hit their cars.

The world may have consigned Annan Plan A to the dustbin, but it should recognise that the UN people on the ground are bravely pushing the limits of their own personal safety to try to document Syria's slow slide towards a sectarian civil war.

The men the UN met at Qubair blamed a neighbouring village of Alawites, a sect from which the ruling elite of Syria are drawn.

One man claimed those villagers had coveted the land we stood on and, with the help of the Syrian army, had launched a scorched earth attack on the hamlet.

The army claim they only came into the area after the killings had taken place to hunt down what they called the "terrorists" who did it.

"Terrorists" is the word they use for the armed elements of the opposition. But the army's account deserves attention because they were clearly at the village - the tarmac on the road leading to it had been chewed up by the tracks of their military vehicles.

So what was their role? The timing of this attack, as Kofi Annan went to the UN to report on his findings so far, could not have been worse for the regime.

That suggests that some of the militia the government has been accused of creating have spiralled beyond their day-to-day command and control, leaving the army to try to clean up their mess in Qubair before it was met by the world's gaze.

Army losing control

It is symptomatic of the problem the Syrian army faces in quelling this revolution that these murders took place.

It simply does not have enough of its most trusted elite forces to be everywhere at once and so they are dragged around the country, putting down uprisings as they flare up.

When they leave an area behind, the vacuum is filled by opposition forces and the local militia.

In the urban centres the society is mixed. Colleagues may not even know the religion or sect of the person sitting next to them.

But in the rural backwaters the villages are often pockets of individual communities living separately from each other but joined by the same piece of farmland.

One village may be Christian, the next Shia, the next Sunni or Alawite. These communities are vulnerable to the question "whose side are you on?"

Image caption Evidence suggests the Syrian army moved in to try to clear evidence of a massacre

The world witnessed the beginning of the sectarian conflict in Houla. It saw the images of savage brutality.

This week it watched the images of Qubair. It will not end here. There will be more massacres, there will be more people who wake with the expectation of another day only to come face-to-face hours later with men burning with hatred.

There are people alive today who watched the same images on the TV screens as you did. Only one day you may be reading about their deaths at the hands of people who loathe them because of their faith.

This could descend into a war beyond anyone's control. Then the history books will relegate Qubair to one line marking the slow escalation of the conflict.

History will not remember the pool of dark red blood in the corner of the room. It will not remember the pieces of brain scattered among the shoes and spilt rice. But I will.