Syria’s Mediterranean coastline has been spared much of the violence inflicted on the heartland. Cities like Latakia, Tartous and Jableh emerged as safe havens for citizens who were willing to remain silent or applaud the government’s crackdown on the rest of the country.
But tensions have been lurking beneath the veneer of stability since the first weeks of protests against the Assad regime in March 2011. Last week, these tensions erupted when pro-Assad militias, or Shabiha, and regime soldiers allegedly started what many fear to be a campaign to cleanse the area of Sunnis.
<span style=”font-size: 13px; line-height: 19px;”>It began in Bayda, a village south of the port town of Baniyas. Both areas were hubs for peaceful protests in the early months of the uprising. Those demonstrations were subsequently crushed by Alawite militias from the neighboring mountains. Many Syrians first learned of the Shabiha from an incident in Bayda in April 2011,</span> <a style=”font-size: 13px; line-height: 19px;” href=”http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HAQu8ecP8JY”>when armed men in irregular uniforms stormed the village</a><span style=”font-size: 13px; line-height: 19px;”>, and apparently stomped on the men and boys of Bayda.</span>
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The video was one of the first leaked images of militia men, speaking in an Alawite accent, who seemed to take pleasure in posing for the camera while brutalizing civilians. Hundreds of other incriminating videos have been released since then, providing ample evidence of war crimes, and laying the groundwork for a prolonged sectarian war.
Last week, the Syrian army and the National Defense Forces, believed to be an Iranian-funded incarnation of the Shabiha, reportedly swept through Bayda to kill “terrorists.” In the process they apparently left dozens of women and children dead. According to local accounts, some victims were rounded up in one home and were executed and burned, while others were shot in the street, their heads bludgeoned with rocks.
(Videos and pictures of the aftermath were widely shared, and many Syrians were appalled by the brutality. A compilation can be seen here. Readers should be warned that the scenes are disturbing.)
The campaign continued to neighborhoods in Baniyas, where entire families were apparently slaughtered. In addition to the direct victims of the violence, the events in Bayda and Baniyas have affected people around the country by heightening sectarian tension to unprecedented levels.
While official media outlets reverted to the routine narrative of denying atrocities and blaming the slaughter on “terrorists,” pro-Assad social media outlets didn’t mince words. They assumed the violence came from regime hands, and then egged on the show of force.
One Facebook page from Tartous called on army artillery and the air force to flatten parts of Baniyas in a scheme to provide seaside resorts for soldiers. Another page wished that the military would slaughter the youngest children of Bayda, so that the offspring of the other, more “patriotic” Syrians wouldn’t have to grow up with disloyal citizens.
Many opponents of the Assad regime called for retaliation against Alawites, further weakening the position of moderates trying to maintain social harmony among the sects. One activist from Idlib lashed out against secular and moderate writers, accusing them of <a href=”https://www.facebook.com/hazem.dakel/posts/10151459193254332″ target=”_blank”><span style=”text-decoration: underline;”>defending or ignoring the “criminal sect.”</span></a>
Loubna Mrie, an Alawite activist who opposes the Assad regime, was more poetic in her reaction to Baniyas, which is close to her hometown of Jableh. She said that many people on the coast were aware of the horror, and knew that the killers were roaming around in their areas.
While Syrians are still trying to understand what is happening in Baniyas, a new player has entered the conflict. Israel apparently launched a series of strikes on military facilities near Damascus on Sunday morning, in its most visible engagement after smaller sorties earlier this year.
The explosions were massive. Residents in Damascus were terrified as the night sky lit up, and the earth shook for miles. The video below, shared over 1.5 million times in two days, captures one of the larger blasts.
Reactions to the attack are still coming in and have been polarized, even within the rebel camp. Some opponents of the regime are relieved that Assad’s military has been weakened, even if it came at the hands of an enemy, while others rejected any help from Israel.
For Assad supporters, the strike was another reminder of the weakness of Syria’s military, which hasn’t responded to Israeli aggression for four decades. One prominent online supporter, who goes by the handle Syrian Commando, had renounced Twitter after the Israeli strike in January, saying he wouldn’t return until Assad retaliated.
But the scale of last week’s strike forced him out of hiding, seemingly to urge Assad, Iran and Hezbollah to live up to their defense pact, and to call for genocide against opponents of the regime.
<blockquote class=”twitter-tweet”> We can still win, we have four more missile complexes. Clear opposition areas with chemical weapons and start the war NOW. <a href=”https://twitter.com/search/%23Syria”>#Syria</a> <p> — ✩ Syrian Commando ✩ (@syriancommando) <a href=”https://twitter.com/syriancommando/status/330854042131652608″>May 5, 2013</a> </p> </blockquote>