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Syria Analysis: Could Hezbollah Involvement Spark Sectarian Violence?

Could increased involvement by Hezbollah transform the civil war between regime troops and the insurgency into a open Sunni-Shia/Alawite sectarian conflict, at least in the al-Qusair region?

Sectarianism has played a relatively small role in the Syrian civil war to date. Support for the insurgency, like support for Assad, is ethnically diverse. However, Hezbollah's incursions into the border region, and increasing lawlessness along the Lebanese border area, may be major catalysts for greater sectarian violence, at least between Al Qusayr and the border with Lebanon.

Over recent days, Hezbollah has sent waves of fighters into the area south of Homs, in Al Qusayr. In response, rebels have launched attacks on both sides of the Lebanon border. Several surface-to-surface rockets struck in mostly Shiite districts in Lebanon, apparently launched by rebels, who accuse Lebanese Shiites of aiding Assad's forces, although Hezbollah denies it is involved in the Syrian conflict.

In response, Lebanese Sunni clerics have called for jihad against Hezbollah, while some Syrian rebel groups have already been seen chanting anti-Hezbollah slogans.

Central Syria, near Homs, is strategically significant because it connects Damascus to other major Syrian cities, and to the predominantly Alawite region near the Mediterranean coast.

Mapping mass killings

Syria has become well known for its mass killings of civilians --- events defined not by a high death toll, but rather by a methodology of terror, regardless of the identities of the perpetrators or the victims.

Houla, Tremseh, Aqrab, Qubair... these massacres have turned the names of towns and villages into infamous reminders of the horror of the Syrian uprising.

These are not deaths caused by bomb blasts, crossfire in gunfights.

These mass killings are carried out by perpetrators using small arms in hand-to-hand combat. In many cases, bodies are burned after being tortured.

These deaths are usually reported in similar ways --- the opposition says pro-regime elements did the killing, and the regime and its supporters blames insurgents.

In fact, in many of the massacres the perpetrators try to hide their identity.

But a curious thing happens when you map these mass killings:

View Reported Massacres in Hama/Houla in a larger map

As you can see, many of these events fit into a roughly-trapezoidal section of Syria that ranges from south of Homs to north of Hama. To be clear, there are many other war crimes or atrocities of other kinds --- prisoner executions, by both sides, show no clear pattern except that they mirror locations where the fighting is heaviest.

There have been reports of rocket attacks against civilian areas, car bombings that kill children and other civilians, or other horrors from most areas of heavy fighting, but the incidents in this trapezoid are unique.

They are deliberate slaughters that target the defenseless, often women and children.

So why are they happening here?

This area is unique for many reasons. To begin with, it is extremely rural, and almost all of the sites of these mass killings are isolated from larger populations.

In cities, civilians or activists in neighboring areas usually report this type of events. The population density means that there are witnesses outside of the affected area, and nearby neighborhoods provide an escape route for eyewitnesses. In rural villages, however, a village or hamlet can easily be overrun, or surrounded, and the only witnesses may be the victims.

This isolation also breeds fear, and fear is a key component of the mass killings in this area.

This region is also extremely diverse. In many areas of Syria, different religious and ethnic sects live in specific districts, but here each village and town is a fairly-segregated and homogeneous population. Alawite villages are located a few miles from Sunni villages, with Lebanese Alawites in some villages and Syrian Alawites in others.

This kind of segregation and separation, combined with geographical isolation, means that all violent death takes on a sectarian undertone. It's not unusual to have all of the victims of a bout of gunfire or an explosion be from one sect, while the perpetrators are all from another. In this way, the sectarianism may not have been the goal of each incident of violence, but it is the result. The more sectarian violence happens, the more the fear of sectarian violence grows, and the more the rumors and panic spread, further escalating the tension.

Ultimately, the intensity and duration of the conflict are the primary drivers of this type of violence.

Areas of Syria firmly under the control of either the regime or the insurgents have been largely free from this kind of violence. It is in the no-man's land of Syria where doubt, fear, and fighting rule. These areas see more violence because they are contested. That violence adds to other risk factors and heightens the chance of sectarian violence.

The lack of firm control of one side or the other means that it is militias and villagers, not armies or organizations, that provide law and order. Then, when territory changes hands, reprisals --- or the fear of reprisals --- break out. In this region, this cycle has been repeating itself since at least December 2011. This dynamic means that rumors of atrocities travel faster than bullets whenever the front line shifts.

In the last month, a small village, Abil, has found itself at the center of the latest round of mass killings. In late March, reports spread from opposition sources that dozens of civilians had been arrested, and then executed, by Assad's shabiha security forces.

Since then, the village has become a perpetual battleground, captured and recaptured by first the insurgents, and then the regime. Each airstrike and gunshot has taken on a distinctly sectarian nature. Ranks of sectarian militias on both sides have swelled. In a recent battle for an airport near Qusayr, insurgents captured the airfield when Assad forces withdrew to Abil. The insurgents filmed of their victory chants, in which they branded all Alawites and Nusairi (Syrian Shiites from the coast of Lattakia) enemies of the Syrian people.

At the same time, videos surfaced that apparently showed Alawite soldiers killing and torturing Sunni detainees.

This is the environment into which Hezbollah is sending fighters. This is the environment in which Sunni clerics are calling for jihad. This is why the chances of sectarian strife are so high, and the consequences of that strife would be so deadly. There is a real chance that Syria will explode into a sectarian conflict, and it will be Lebanon, not Syria, that sets off the explosion.

There is, however, a saving grace. Rebel fighters in the field, opposition leaders, and many Syrian analysts have often said the phrase "Syria is not Iraq." Lessons have been learned from that conflict, and many within the opposition have fought hard to avoid sectarian bloodshed. Wednesday, prominent rebel political and military leaders dismissed the call for Jihad and again called on Lebanon to control its borders and remain out of Syria's fight. It may be this call for calm that stands between the already chaotic situation and one that can still grow far more violent.

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