By: Adrian Blomfield
Over the course of Syria’s 15-month uprising President Bashar al-Assad has been accused of many things. Being too soft on his opponents was not one of them.
But as the corpse of a fighter was buried in a loyalist suburb of Homs last week, assembled mourners denounced him for exactly that, chanting: “Bashar has become a Sunni”.
Those giving vent were the Syrian leader’s most ardent supporters, members of his Alawite Shia minority whose mystical beliefs have for centuries earned them the derision and persecution of their numerically superior Sunni peers.
Fearful of losing their privileged status, a growing number of Syria’s Alawites believe the president should show the remorselessness of his father and predecessor. In 1982, the last time the Sunnis rose up, Hafez al-Assad crushed the threat by overseeing the slaughter of as many as 20,000 people in the city of Hama.
Raising fears of potentially devastating sectarian consequences, there are growing signs that the Shabiha, the Alawite paramilitary and criminal gangs that spawned in the 1990s under Assad family supervision, are taking matters into their own hands.
In recent weeks, the Shabiha have twice been accused of descending on nearby Sunni villages, shooting, garrotting and burning alive nearly 200 people, many of them women and children.
Proving far more dependable — and brutal — than the Sunni ranks of the regular army, many of their atrocities have probably occurred with the blessing of Damascus. But even many in the opposition believe that the latest massacres were probably carried out without reference to the regime. If true, Mr Assad may have lost control of his death squads, an alarming development.
To counter the Shabiha threat, Sunni rebels are believed to have set up secretive militias of their own to carry out reprisals.
One such group kidnapped and executed 13 Shabiha fighters in the eastern city of Deir al-Zor, while Alawites in Damascus report that they have been told to leave or face death. Unless the sectarian cycle of hatred can be halted, a full confessional war in Syria looks inevitable.
Source: The Telegraph