Syria Faces Surge Of Violence

The death toll continues to rise in the central Syrian city of Homs, long both a focal point of anti-government protests and escalating conflict between the city's Sunni and Alawite communities. Dozens of bodies, many of them mutilated, are turning up on the streets. They're victims of sectarian gangs — some supported by the government. Lynn Neary talks to NPR's Deborah Amos for more.

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LYNN NEARY, HOST:

We're going to shift our focus now to Syria, where there has been a surge of violence in the central city of Homs. At least 50 people have died since yesterday, with bodies reported in the streets. Syria's third largest city has often been a flashpoint during the almost nine-month revolt against the Syrian government. More people have been killed in Homs than any other Syrian city, but activists say the death toll over the past 48 hours signals the worst violence so far.

NPR's Deborah Amos is monitoring events in Syria from Beirut, Lebanon, and she joins us now. Hi, Deb, good to have you with us.

DEBORAH AMOS, BYLINE: Thank you.

NEARY: Deb, tell us what's happened in Hom since the weekend.

AMOS: Well, there have been troubling reports of bodies, some three dozen dead bodies in a town square in Homs. It's hard to confirm death counts and details in Syria. Most of us reporters are banned. But these reports are coming from activists and businessmen in the city who are calling this particular event a sectarian massacre. About half of the dead have been identified - all of them are from the Sunni Muslim community. It's not clear if they were killed on that square, but everyone in Homs knows that the bodies ended up in an Alawite neighborhood.

NEARY: Well, what is the significance of that, that the bodies are in an Alawite neighborhood?

AMOS: This is the sectarian divide in Homs. Sunni Muslims are the majority of the protestors in the city and they're pitted against members of President Bashar al-Assad's minority Alawite sect. There's been growing numbers of kidnappings and killings in Homs from both sides, purely sectarian, then shooting and shelling through the night from the security service. People reached by phone today say that they are afraid to leave their homes. It feels and sounds like war. I got a note a few minutes ago that said the heavy shelling has started again.

NEARY: As we already mentioned, this has often been a flashpoint during the revolt against the Syrian government. Why? What makes this city volatile?

AMOS: Homs is Syria's most mixed city. It's where Alawites, Sunnis and Christians live together. But the uprising has changed the equation and in Homs, you're either for the government or you're against the government. And that divining line is also a sectarian line. Alawites are in the top ranks of the military, the security service and also this pro-government militia known as the Shabiha, or the ghosts, and they have been responsible for a lot of this violence. The anti-government protestors come from the majority Sunni Muslim community.

Now, after nine months of protesting and more than 1,000 dead in Homs, more and more Sunnis in Homs have decided to take up arms. A businessman I talked to today told me he believed that the al-Assad regime is trying to incite a sectarian war in the city.

NEARY: Well, has the sectarian killing spread to other cities in Syria?

AMOS: I think you can say that there are sectarian tensions across the country, but it's nothing like the violence in Homs. And it's important to remember that when you hear people talk about a coming civil war, this sectarian killing is very localized. And until this weekend, the violence in Homs was limited to certain neighborhoods. In fact, residents that I've talked to say that in the central part of the city, the business district, they continue to go to work and their children go to school.

But the stakes have changed. Now, there is all night shelling that's continued during the day across the city. Another transformation is the uprising is becoming an armed rebellion. As one activist said today, and she was full of fear, we are entering a new phase of the revolt. She said the gates have been opened for a sectarian war. She said that young Syrians who once believed in peaceful protests in Homs no longer believe in that method. Both sides are inflicting terrible damage.

It's a very dangerous climate in Homs. And that raises fears of a wider sectarian conflict. Syrians know all too well what that looks like from Lebanon and Iraq.

NEARY: That's NPR's Deb Amos in Beirut, Lebanon. Thanks very much, Deb.

AMOS: Thank you.

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