A Tour Inside Syria's Insurgency

Abu Mohammed described worsening sectarian violence in Homs (though of course he spoke from a Sunni perspective). Alawites were setting up their own unofficial checkpoints to kidnap Sunnis, whether they were known government allies or not. "Later we find their bodies dumped on the side of the road." A Shiite village was stopping buses, checking IDs, and shooting Sunnis. (Alawites are a sect of Shiism.) A girl had been raped and beheaded, the purported work of the Shabihah, or "ghosts," a pro-government militia that recruis mainly among Alawites. Abu Mohammed blamed the regime for all this.
A man sitting next to him chimed in, "These Christians," he said, "don't support the protests. They are cowards. They are pigs. They won't even give us a liter of diesel."

"No," said Abu Mohammed, "there are Christians who support the revolution." He named a Christian village nearby that he said had helped people in Bab Amr.

"If they are Alawite, don't hesitate."

Abu Mohammed did not believe there would be a bloody and prolonged civil war in Syria; the Alawites were too small a minority, 8 percent by his estimate (10 to 12 percent is more commonly cited). Sunnis would leave their government jobs in protest, he predicted, and "once they [in the regime] find themselves alone they will not fight us." But he said the regime would only give up power if forced. "The regime is dying. It is in the final stages," he said, citing the defections from the security forces to the Free Army. He said there were about 500 fighters in Bab Amr now, many former soldiers.

It was after 11pm. Tracer fire was arcing back and forth over the darkened streets of Bab Amr. A defection, we later learned, was taking place: soldiers were running away from their base, dodging shots from those remaining behind and returning fire as they ran. Five men arrived at our hideout, exhausted but elated, the newest recruits to the Free Army. People came out of their houses to embrace them. A sixth man had not made it out -- they carried his Kalashnikov. They had decided to run after being ordered to shoot on unarmed demonstrators. "These are our people," said one of the soldiers, referring, I suspect, to Sunnis rather than Syrians in general.

It is surprising that the Syrian Army, overwhelmingly Sunni though largely run by Alawite officers, has held together as long as it has. Although small in number, there has been a steady stream of defections. A whole unit, a battalion, or a brigade changing sides could be decisive. Until that day comes, however, the official policy of the Free Army is to merely protect the street demonstrators, not to go on the offensive.

The strategy to overthrow the regime remains focused on street protest. Demonstrators continue to take to the streets, unarmed and often facing armored vehicles with nothing more than placards, flags, and shouts for freedom. The United Nations estimates that more than 5,000 people have been killed so far. In Bab Amr, protests are not mostly at night and mostly in side streets, to screen demonstrators from snipers. The energy has not flagged. At one of the nightly gatherings we attended, people banged drums, yelling slogans as if it was their first time out on the streets.

"From Bab Amr. Oh Assad. From Bab Amr. Oh Assad. Victory from God. We are victorious," they chanted."Where are the millions? Where, where are the Arab people? Where, where is the no-fly zone?"

"This is Bab-Amro here. Long live Dera'a. Death over humiliation. Freedom forever over your will, oh Assad."

Mentions of NATO, and alternatively subtle or overt calls for an intervention like that in Libya against Muammar Qaddafi, are common.

"Bab Amr will only be free with missiles," they chanted. "The people want a no fly zone. The people want a no-fly zone. We want an international protection. We want an international protection."

They are not going to get it. Syria is not Libya; it has been called the "Arab Yugoslavia." It is too big, too complicated, with too many combustible neighbors. For the time being, much as Western countries would wish Assad gone, the Syrian people appear to be on their own.

The conflict is escalating. Late at night, on the way out of Syria, we joined about a dozen Free Army fighters as they debated whether to attack an army checkpoint. It was clear these men did not answer to any higher command authority. This was a question to be settled among themselves. They sat on the floor, automatic weapons leaning against the wall. "The Alawites never man the checkpoints. They always send our people [Sunnis] to do that. They want to get them killed," insisted one of the men.

"No, we don't want to kill those guys, they are Sunnis, our relatives," said another. A third suggested, "We can always shoot at them but not kill them, just to injure them." The discussion went round and round. Some thought that only security targets -- the mukhabarat, or secret police -- should be attacked. Others said that even if the soldiers were Sunnis, they had had nine months to defect, and could now expect to be targeted.

Finally, they decided to hit the building near the checkpoint as this, it was thought, was where the Alawite soldiers would be sleeping. "If they are Alawite, don't hesitate," said one of the fighters. "If you want to do the right thing, we shoot an RPG at the building. We shoot it through the window and we kill all of them. If any come out, we start shooting."

Another man objected. "Save those RPGs. Each one of us is working and paying for his own. It's not cheap, about $500 each. Really we have to be careful and not waste our ammunition."

The conversation was interrupted by a mobile phone, the ringtone a lyrical chant of "Dear God, promise us victory." That phrase is sometimes associated with ultra-conservative Salafi Islam; it was not uncommon to hear them intoned over videos of suicide bombings in Iraq. After the ringing was stopped, they left to carry out the attack.
RPGs exploded in the dark against the side of the building next to the checkpoint, a flare in the night. There was heavy machine gun fire, incoming and outgoing. "Oh God, you are the only one we can rely on," one of the fighters said, over and over, showers of plaster came down where bullets were hitting the wall behind us.

The skirmish died down after an hour of so. None of the opposition fighters had been killed. Their attack, they said, had killed two of the government soldiers and wounded two more. "Thanks God, we are victorious," one of the fighters declared.

A few weeks later, I was in a Gulf capital discussing Syria's future with a man who has been at the heart of the Assad regime -- under both father and son -- for decades. A maid brought tea and pistachio biscuits. He was afraid for his family still in Syria, he said, so asked to remain anonymous. He described how Bashar al-Assad had, on taking power, been transformed from an introverted and almost shy character into someone he no longer recognised today in the heat of the crisis. "Maybe he is taking medicines. While he was talking in the parliament, he was laughing, while blood was running in the streets," said the man, shaking his head, a reference to Assad's bizarre March 30 speech to the Syrian legislature.

The man's judgement was that not one single Cabinet minister truly supported the president but, like him, were still too afraid to speak out. Even the most hard line Alawites are calculating what a post-Assad Syria would look like, he suggested. Perhaps the plan was to retreat into the Alawite heartland in the north west, he went on, a speculation I had heard from activists but never from someone who had been so close to the center of power. He feared that a civil war was coming, he said, and the longer Assad took to leave, the more likely it would be. I thought of Qutaiby buying silencers, Hassan and his warning, and it was hard to disagree. For the past year, there has been stalemate. If the revolutionaries do not succeed, the prospect is of all-out civil war, something much worse than the regime they have been fighting.

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Paul Wood reports from Syria for BBC TV. His interviews are among contributions to a documentary play about the revolution, The Fear of Breathing.

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