Anthony Shadid, who was able to get into Syria earlier this month, reports for The New York Times:
On the birth of his daughter this month, a young activist in this central city bestowed on her a name that had little resonance until not so long ago. Dara’a, he called her, the namesake of the southern Syrian town where the antigovernment uprising began.
Syria is awash in such stories of solidarity these days, bridging traditional divides that have colored the country’s politics for generations. But far from disappearing, the old divisions of geography, class and, in particular, religious sect are deepening.
Syrians offer different explanations. Protesters blame the cynical manipulation of a government bent on divide and rule, and the government points to Islamist zealots seeking to impose a tyranny of the majority.
Which prevails — new loyalties born of revolution, or old rivalries entrenched in smaller identities — may decide the fate of Syria’s four-month revolt.
Colliding along the front lines of the uprising, and especially here in Homs, these forces suggest a grim reality of the revolt against President Bashar al-Assad: the longer his government remains in power, the less chance Syria has to avoid civil strife, sectarian cleansing and the kind of communal violence that killed at least two dozen people in Homs last week. Unlike in Egypt, and despite the protesters’ hope and optimism, time is not necessarily on their side, a point that some of them admit.
“If the government keeps playing the sectarian card, they’re going to get what they want,” said Iyad, 27, the activist who named his daughter after the cradle of the uprising. “If this regime lasts, there’s absolutely going to be a civil war, absolutely.”
That is not to say that anyone really knows what kind of state the protesters want. In Homs last week, pious activists debated the differences between an Islamic and civil state, both of which they said should rely on religious law. Minorities fear militant currents within the Sunni Muslim majority. Sunnis seethe at the injustice of living for decades under a state endowed with a remarkable capacity for violence and led by the Alawite minority, a heterodox Muslim sect. Even some activists celebrating the unity that the revolt has brought warn that repression is breeding strife.
“The government is going to push us in the direction of violence,” said a former Republican Guard officer who has joined the ranks of protesters in Homs, Syria’s third-largest city, with a Sunni majority and Alawite minority. “A lot of guys think it’s almost over, but I don’t. The situation, very regrettably, is going to become a crisis,” by which he meant bloodshed.
As was the case in Iraq, a sectarian lens is often unfairly imposed on Syria’s diversity, with its sizable communities of Christians, Alawites and ethnic Kurds. Other divisions are no less pronounced — between cities like Damascus and Aleppo, among classes, between the countryside and urban areas and within extended clans, especially in eastern Syria. Residents of Hama said they long felt discriminated against, especially in the military, which carried out a brutal crackdown there in 1982. Hama and Homs were traditional rivals in central Syria.
These days, chants ring out in protests that suggest a growing sense of nationalism, often reinforced by virtual communities that disseminate information.
At the Khalid bin Walid mosque, a center of dissent in Homs, protesters chant, “With our souls and blood, we sacrifice for you, Dara’a.” Solidarity with Homs, the scene of a persistent crackdown, is heard in Hama, where activists say they have sometimes traveled back and forth in an effort to build what one activist called “a culture of protest.”
“This is the beauty of the revolution,” said Ahmed, a 28-year-old smuggler and protester, sitting with others in a safe house near Homs. “He didn’t know him, he didn’t know him and he didn’t know him before the protests,” he said, pointing to his friends. “This is the result of the regime’s oppression. Now we’re ready to defend each other.”
Activists often repeat that Syria’s uprising is “a revolution of orphans,” and young activists take pride in the fact that they are organizing themselves by neighborhood for the fight against Mr. Assad’s leadership. But the term also points to divisions that are emerging, where sectarian tension intersects with other resentments.
Many in Homs and Hama feel anger at what they see as American, European and Turkish acquiescence to Mr. Assad staying in power. They often express resentment at Aleppo, Syria’s second-largest city, which has remained relatively quiet.
“There’s anger at Aleppo, there really is,” said a young activist in Hama who gave his name as Mustafa. A friend, Bassem, nodded, as they sat in a clubhouse turned hideout. “Aleppo benefits from the regime and business with the leadership,” he said.
Perhaps most pronounced is the anger at Hezbollah, the Shiite Muslim militant movement in Lebanon that has bluntly supported Mr. Assad’s government. Hezbollah was widely popular in Syria, where sentiments against Israel and longstanding American dominance of the region run deep. But Hezbollah’s backing for Mr. Assad has unleashed a sense of betrayal at a movement that celebrates the idea of resistance. At times, it has also given rise to chauvinism among Syrian Sunnis against Hezbollah’s Shiite constituency.
“We’ve started to hate them more than we hate Israel,” said Maher, a young father and protester in Hama, sitting with a friend who gave his name as Abu Mohammed.