Tens of thousands of protesters hit the streets in cities across Syria on Friday, sending a clear signal to President Bashar al-Assad that the regime's campaign of intimidation and violence hasn't stopped the opposition. These massive rallies have become weekly events in Syria with protesters spilling out after Friday prayers. But many of the slogans at Friday’s protests focused on one topic: Homs, the country's third-largest city and the site of an increasingly brutal crackdown. What has worried many activists and ordinary Syrians is that the violence in Homs in the past week has had a sectarian dimension, pitting the minority Alawite sect who make up the backbone of the regime, against Sunnis. Even worse, it appears that the government is stoking the violence. “The government is trying to incite sectarian violence,” says Wissam Tarif, the director of the Syrian human rights organization Insan. “The regime wants the uprising to turn to violence. So they can say ‘I have to defend Christians or I have to defend Alawites.’”
Syria, like neighboring Iraq and Lebanon, is a powder keg mix of different sects and ethnic groups: there are Kurd, Druze, and Christian minorities along with the Alawites and Sunnis. The regime has tried to send the message that if they go, the country will descend into a bloody civil war, as Iraq did during the peak of the violence in 2006 and 2007. Members of the opposition dispute these claims, but there's little doubt that a Syrian meltdown would have a huge impact in the region. “Syria is a fulcrum state. If Syria falls, then the whole pattern of alliances in the region will be altered,” says Hilal Khashan, a professor of political science at the American University of Beirut.
Last weekend, the mutilated corpses of three Alawite men turned up in Homs. The government was quick to blame protesters—whom the state news agency frequently refers to as "armed terrorist groups”—for the attack. Enraged members of the Alawite community then carried out revenge attacks in a number of Sunni neighborhoods, reportedly with the complicity of security forces. Security forces also arrested a number of Sunni men and even evicted some families from their homes, according to human rights activists who have been in touch with residents in Homs. The dreaded shabiha, armed plainclothes militiamen, were also set loose in the town. The attacks in the past week alone have left roughly 40 people dead in Homs.
Members of the opposition completely dispute the government's account and claim the regime's security forces were responsible for the murder of the Alawite men last weekend, a gruesome act that could justify a broader crackdown. "This was an organized and planned crime," says Malath Aumran, a prominent Syrian activist who now lives in Lebanon. "The government was just preparing to give themselves legitimacy for these new attacks."
The intensified crackdown began on Thursday. Videos posted to YouTube show tanks and other armored vehicles firing in residential areas and allegedly at a Sunni mosque. One video shows a burning building as a man describes how he heard the screams of the dying from inside. “We have reports of snipers and shelling,” says Aumran. “Many buildings are partially collapsed.” The chokehold on the city tightened up Friday as phone and Internet lines were cut.
The government is unlikely to back down from their operations in Homs anytime soon. But some residents of the city are already sending a message that they won't be goaded into carrying out sectarian attacks: one Allawite youth group in Homs, called the Alawite Sect Youth, issued a statement this week condemning any type of sectarian violence. “There isn't a real sectarian issue in Syria,” says Insan's Tarif. "[The government] is trying to create it.”