Killings suggest Syria already in the grip of sectarian conflict


The reported massacre at Mazraat al-Qubair adheres to the ethnic cleansing pattern of the civilian killings at Houla, writes MICHAEL JANSEN

IF VERIFIED, the reported massacre of dozens of men, women and children in the hamlet of Mazraat al-Qubair near the central city of Hama could indicate that Syria is already in the grip of sectarian conflict.

This incident would appear to adhere to a pattern set by the killing, on May 25th, of 108 civilians in the Houla area, a cluster of villages in Homs province. United Nations monitors who visited Houla laid the blame for most of the bloodshed on the pro-government shabbiha militia.

In both Houla and Qubair, the victims were inhabitants of a rebel-held Sunni village or hamlet that was “softened up” by a limited period of shelling by the Syrian regular army before, witnesses stated, shabbiha moved in and killed men, women and children.

This is a standard modus operandi adopted by ethnic and sectarian cleansers in many contexts, including, Iraq, Bosnia and Kosovo.

They seek to drive members of opposing or different sectarian or ethnic communities from specific areas for strategic or demographic reasons or a combination of the two.

If the Qubair and Houla massacres are proved to have been carried out by government and loyalist forces, the object would most likely have been strategic.

Sunni Qubair and Houla are located near or surrounded by villages inhabited by Alawites who back the regime and see the proximity of rebels as a threat.

Their fears have been intensified by government propaganda, killings of Alawites by anti-regime elements and threats issued by some Sunni preachers. A slogan circulated widely was: “Christians to Beirut, Alawites to the tomb.”

President Bashar al-Assad, an Alawite, and the tough Alawite clique that dominates the armed forces are seen as the protectors of this small community of heterodox Shias which constitutes about 11 per cent of the country’s population – as well as of the Christians who also account for about 10-11 per cent.

The fact that Qubair is located near Hama and that Houla is in the Homs area could be significant. Rebels have established strongholds in Sunni quarters of both Hama and Homs and attacked pro-government Alawite quarters in Homs and Alawite communities outside Hama, although before the unrest the two communities lived together amicably.

Kidnappings for ransom and hostage exchanges, as well as killings and rapes, have been carried out by both Sunnis and Alawites against members of the other community.

These have been taking place due to the breakdown of security since the revolt erupted in March 2011 and have become the source of clan feuds and warfare.

Furthermore, the greater the erosion of order, the more likely could army units and shabbiha slip command and control and carry out killings to avenge force members or clansmen killed by rebel forces. Over the past two months, attacks on troops and security agents by the rebel Free Syrian Army have dramatically increased.

Names and hometowns of fatalities are published by the media on a daily basis.

The state news agency Sana said the Qubair killings, for which the government denies responsibility, were carried out by “armed terrorists” – ie rebels or foreign elements – to coincide with yesterday’s UN Security Council meeting.

The aim of the perpetrators, it was contended, was to provide a pretext for increasing pressure on the government to capitulate to western demands for Assad to exit office.

It is unlikely, however, that rebels based in Qubair would slaughter members of their own community because the truth behind the outrage could not be suppressed or hidden.