Sitting cross-legged on the floor, we chatted over a late supper of flat bread, cheese, and tiny glasses of hot, sweet tea. One of the men was Khoda, a Syrian house painter who had been working in Lebanon before he gave up his job to do this. "In Egypt, the revolution started because of poverty and hunger," he said. "In Libya it started because of misuse of power. In Syria, the main purpose of the revolution is to gain back our dignity and our honour."
"Dignity" was a word I heard a great deal from Syrians explaining the revolution. Here, he was talking about Dera'a, the small southern town where the uprising had begun. In March, 15 school children were arrested for spraying anti-regime graffiti on a wall. Desperate families went to the local security headquarters. According to the widely circulated stories, the officer told them to forget about their children and that his men would rape the mothers to give them more. Two weeks later, the children were released. Some had had their fingernails pulled out. Neither the injuries, nor the insult, were forgotten.
Khoda continued, "Syrians are immigrants in Lebanon, or Jordan, or Libya, because they don't feel their humanity in Syria and they go to search of it elsewhere. The minute you step over the border into Syria, you feel you have lost your humanity again because of this regime."
The next morning, Hassan showed up at the safe house, alive and wearing a triumphant grin. He had been arrested by a Syrian Army patrol, he said, and had pled with the captain to release him, pointing out that he was after all only carrying medicines. He offered to pay a bribe, a common practice along the border, which is frequently traversed by smugglers. The captain said he would like to help but that military intelligence were already on their way. Some soldiers took Hassan outside to a flatbed truck and were about to throw him in when he told his captor, an Alawite: "My family and my tribe know where you live. If I die here tonight, they will slaughter your whole village." He ran, pursued by the bullets we could hear a couple of miles away.
One question -- who is Alawite and who is Sunni? -- was in the background for every moment of my time in Syria, surfacing again and again in the conversations we had with fighters, activists, and local people. [ At the next safe house, I met Haydi Abdullah, who had been a nurse at the military hospital in Latakia before fleeing to join the opposition. After the protests started, he told me, any medical staff whose loyalty was not believed to be 100 percent were sacked. In practice, Sunni doctors and nurses were replaced with Alawites, who were thought more loyal to the Alawite-led government. "All the hospitals now have turned into huge military posts, full of security men," he said. Injured demonstrators "would receive all kinds of insults from the nurses and doctors: 'Bastard. Son of a bitch. Whore. Son of a dog. You spy, you agent of Israel.'" Haydi said he had seen four patients, injured protestors, murdered in the hospital. One man was brought in with a chest injury. "He would have survived but they [the doctors and nurses] beat him and stabbed him with needles. If my face had shown even a sign that I was upset, I would have been sent to jail."
"The medical staff doing this were not just Alawites. They were Sunnis, too," Haydi said, though he accused the regime of encouraging sectarian hatred and fear to shore up their Alawite base, a common perception among activists. But, as his account showed, the regime still has support outside the Alawite communities, including among the Sunni majority. That may be part of why it has survived almost a year of challenges to its authority on the streets. The opposition, for its part, includes some prominent Alawite and Christian participants. Syria has not yet completely divided along sectarian fault lines, though that is what many fear.
Many Syrians are retreating into their own communities. During our short stay, as we were passed along a chain of activist groups, we met only Sunnis. We were heading for Homs, now the main center of opposition to the regime, but a divided city where sectarian tensions are probably the most acute in Syria. As we entered the city, Free Army supporters helped us to slip past a military observation post on foot, warning that if the soldiers spotted us, they would shoot. Our final destination was the Sunni quarter, Bab Amr. The place felt as if it was under siege. Armored vehicles sat on the major road junctions. As we drove within sight of a checkpoint, soldiers fired a burst of shots over our heads. We fled, but, half an hour later, a teenage boy was brought past us from the same place, raw cartilage in his knee exposed by a bullet wound. While we were there, a six-year-old boy was killed while playing on his front doorstep, shot by a sniper, locals said.
Bab Amr was run by Abu Mohammed. Tough, squat, shaven-headed, tracksuit-wearing, he would no doubt suit the regime's propaganda, which paints the democracy movement as the voice of a rough Sunni underclass.Abu Mohammed had two degrees, one in economics and one in Arabic literature. The good jobs were reserved for the Alawites, he said, so he had become a tobacco smuggler, a trade that required having a few guns around. He brought out those weapons in April, when the regime started shooting unarmed demonstrators in Homs.
"There were the regular security forces and some intelligence officers but then buses came from Air Force Intelligence," he remembered. "They had black masks on their faces. As soon as the buses stopped, they got out and started shooting. There wasn't a single shot in the air. There were six martyrs and 20 wounded in two minutes." He brought his Kalashnikov to the next demonstration. He was the only one.Soon, though, there were others.
We were talking in his sitting room, a brand new M-16 with a telescopic sight propped up in the corner. "You can't buy a bag of flour unless you are a partner with someone in Assad's family or entourage," he said, explaining his anger with the Assad regime. "They have become so greedy they want a slice of every kind of business, small as well as big. They are not just stealing the natural resources like oil and gas -- OK, we can put up with that -- they are stealing from our businesses as well. That is unacceptable." He went on, "At least Hafez [al-Assad, the previous president] had the sense to give a few jobs to the Sunnis." That has changed. "The regime is 100 percent sectarian now. They only recruit Alawites. The Sunnis are marginalized."