Syria’s slide towards civil war

Paul Wood, reporting for BBC News from Baba Amr in Homs writes: “Is this a civil war?” I was asked from London.

In Baba Amr, it certainly felt like one. But we were seeing a battle over one city. And Homs is not Syria. Not yet, perhaps.

In Homs, the Sunni areas, such as Baba Amr, largely support the uprising. They were being shelled by the Syrian army, from the Alawite and Christian areas, which largely support the regime.

There are Sunnis in the security forces; Christians and Alawites have joined the revolution. It is not yet a purely sectarian conflict. But the pressures for it to become one are enormous.

Yousseff Hannah was a prisoner of the Free Syrian Army (FSA) – the rebel fighters who have defected from government forces.

He was on a mattress, his thigh bandaged, in the basement of a house near the town of Qusayr, about 25 miles (40km) from Homs.

“Law and order,” he told me, groaning from his wound, in reply to my question about his job.

One of his captors angrily interrupted: “No. You are mukhabarat (secret police). Tell them you are mukhabarat.”

The FSA had snatched him a few days before from his home. He had been recovering there from the leg wound, received in Homs.

Aged 45, he was only a corporal, hardly a big fish. The rebels said they had taken him because his family had their own checkpoint in Qusayr that was harassing people.

They wanted it to stop. For too long, they said, people like him – protected by the regime – had felt they were untouchable, able to act with impunity.

Cpl Yousseff was a Christian. After he was taken, his relatives kidnapped six Sunnis, killing one in the process. In return, around 20 Christians were abducted.

“Some hotheads have been kidnapping Christians,” one of the senior FSA commanders in the area told me. “We have got to calm this down.”

After several days of stalemate, everyone was released, unharmed, including Corporal Yousseff. This was done as part of a deal for him and his family to leave Qusayr permanently.

Discussing the past tense few days, one of the Christian residents told me that Qusayr still had Christians who supported the uprising.

About a dozen attended the big Friday protest. In solidarity with them, the entire demonstration walked off when some at the front grabbed the microphone and started shouting Salafi (Islamist) slogans.

Everyone felt the town had come close to tipping over into serious sectarian bloodletting that week.

Is that the future for Syria? Much depends on the character of the FSA.

All of the fighters we met were Sunni. Perhaps that does not matter.

The commander near Qusayr told me they were fighting for all of Syria’s religions and sects: Christian, Muslim, Alawite, Sunni, Druze, Shia.

“We are experiencing freedom for the first time,” said Maj Ahmad Yaya.

But his next words left no doubt, either, that for many, this is a religious – and Islamic – struggle against the secular Baath regime.

“For the first time,” he went on, “we are able to proclaim the word of God throughout this land.”

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