By Rick Moran

Violence erupted in three Syrian cities over the third weekend of July as President Bashar Assad continues his efforts to put down incipient revolts against his 11-year rule. But while protests against the regime appeared to be spreading, the government mounted a number of massive demonstrations in support of the dictator in Damascus, as well as Syria’s second largest city, Aleppo.

Most troubling for Assad is the specter of sectarian violence in the city of Homs that raised its head for the first time in the revolt, and the defection of a significant military force in the Iraqi border town of Abu Kamal. This may be a signal that the conscripts that have been ordered to shoot down civilians in the streets are weakening in their allegiance to the regime despite brutal methods to keep them in line.

And in another sign that the rebellion isn’t going to be put down easily, Syrian activists met in Istanbul over the same weekend and formed a 25-man “National Salvation Council” made up of all segments of the opposition to challenge President Assad’s hold on the country.

More than 350 activists, many of them Syrian exiles, established the Council with the goal of “reaching out towards other opposition groups to lead the country towards the democratic vision we have, according to spokesman Haitham al-Maler. Made up of liberals, independents, and Islamists, the opposition debated whether to form a “government in waiting” or await the outcome of events in Syria. The day-long meeting, according to Reuters, was fractious at times. The Council was a compromise solution and further meetings were scheduled to attempt to bring groups operating within Syria into the organized opposition. The Syrian army broke up preparations for the meeting of opposition figures in Damascus who were planning to connect electronically to the Istanbul conference, but a smaller group, meeting in a private residence, was able to link up to the activists in Turkey via Internet phone.

If events over that weekend are any indication, they will have little problem in finding allies inside Syria. In the city of Zabadani on the Lebanese border, government forces rumbled into town in the pre-dawn hours and immediately set about the task of establishing check points and rounding up residents indiscriminately. Soldiers also went door to door in their sweep, hauling people away. Al Jazeera is reporting that at least 500 residents were arrested in Zanadani.

The military was responding to the large protest that occurred on Friday (15th) where thousands of residents turned out to demonstrate against Assad’s rule. Human rights monitors and local citizens reported that electricity and phone service had been cut to the city and that residents were fearful of going outside, afraid of getting caught in the round up.

The situation was even more explosive in the Syrian border town of Abu Kamal. Troops were sent in on Friday to quell anti-government protests, but according to reports by both residents and activists, 200 of them, along with their tanks, defected to the side of the opposition. While the report could not be independently confirmed, activists posted video that appeared to show local residents welcoming tanks in the streets.

The government sent in more troops over the weekend — a crack army outfit commanded by President Assad’s brother Mahar — and “tensions have remained high” as described by one Syrian newspaper.” Protest organizers said 10 people were killed overnight and that the army had surrounded the city.

In the four months of protests and revolt, there have been a few reports of Syrian troops defecting but nothing as large as what appears to have occurred in Abu Kamal. The Syrian army, about 200,000 strong, is made up largely of Sunni conscripts, officered by members of the ruling minority sect of Alawites. There is also a group of Alawite irregulars greatly feared by the population for their brutality. The shabbiha, black-clad loyalists about 10,000 strong, have been deployed in several trouble spots and have enforced army discipline by shooting soldiers who refuse to fire on civilians. They have also been accused of atrocities against protesters.

Mahar Assad commands Syria’s best combat unit, the 4th Armored Division, and the Republican Guard — each about 10,000 men. They are better paid and trained than the conscripts and can be counted on to follow orders if told to shoot down civilians.

The Alawites make up only about 7% of Syria’s population, but hold most of the important positions in government and the military, and dominate the economy. If Assad were to fall, the probability of a Sunni takeover would mean an end to favored treatment of officers and government employees. It is this base of support that Assad is calling upon as the protests against his rule mount.

A huge pro-Assad demonstration in Damascus on Sunday, tens of thousands strong, highlighted this support and indicates that even though the protests were staged by the government, Assad can draw upon a significant portion of the population to back his crackdown on what the regime is telling citizens are “armed gangs” and terrorists.

It isn’t only Alawites who are loyal to the Syrian president, but also members of other minorities including Christians, Druze, and Shias who see Assad as their “protector” against rampant sectarianism represented by the 85% Sunni majority. As if to hammer that point home. sectarian violence broke out for the first time in the embattled city of Homs when the bodies of three Alawites who had been kidnapped, turned up dead. This set off a reaction against Sunnis when Alawites stormed through a Sunni neighborhood taking their revenge. Up to 30 people were killed in the violence over the weekend.

Homs, a city that was once dominated by Sunnis, has seen Alawites move in during the last 20 years and gradually, the newcomers began taking over the government and getting preferred jobs. That tension escalated when Assad moved his forces into Sunni neighborhoods last month to quell the huge demonstrations that erupted against his rule. Most of the violence occurred in two neighborhoods –one Sunni and one Alawite — that border each other. A resident explained, “The magic is turning against the magician. The regime thought that if it feeds the tribes and allows them to carry AK-47s it will secure their loyalty forever.” He added that the “repression was turning them into insurgents.”

As in most Muslim countries, the possibility of violence between the sects is ever present. In Lebanon, Bahrain, and Iraq, domestic unrest brings long standing rivalries to the surface. A strongman like Assad or Saddam Hussein, or the draconian policies of the mullahs in Iran against minorities can usually keep the lid on by brutal repression. But let slip the bonds of civil society and the end result has been shown to be killings, which beget revenge murders, which lead to more deaths, until the spiraling violence engulfs the nation.

This is not likely to happen in Syria. But if sectarian violence spreads, it would complicate not only Assad’s efforts to crackdown on the revolt, but also the opposition’s efforts to unite the country and speak with one voice in trying to remove the dictator.

Puny and insignificant efforts by the West to get Assad to stop the bloodletting have gone for naught. And given the dictator’s strong domestic position, it isn’t likely that he will halt his crackdown as long as there is opposition to his rule.

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