Retribution or partition?
The Syrian regime may be trying to partition the country, fearing that it will soon be forced from power
The Syrian opposition accused the Syrian army and militias loyal to the regime of carrying out a massacre in the village of Al-Tremsa in the north of the country on 12 July, during which more than 220 people were killed, most of them villagers including women and children, writes Bassel Oudat in Damascus.
After the settlement was bombarded using heavy artillery and helicopters, destroying around 55 houses with their residents still inside, it was invaded by regime troops and militias and civilians were killed indiscriminately, the opposition said.
The Syrian authorities accused "armed terrorist groups" of carrying out the massacre.
According to Ibrahim Al-Hamawi, a resident, regime forces began a siege of the Sunni-majority village six months ago. On the morning of 12 July, they began shelling homes with heavy automatic weapons and helicopters, he said, and about two hours later it was surrounded by militia fighters, including men from neighbouring Alawite villages loyal to the regime of Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad.
The militias prevented residents from escaping and cut them down in the fields, killing anyone they saw, Al-Hamawi said. 12 hours after the attack began, they withdrew, leaving behind more than 220 people dead, some of them having had their throats cut with knives.
The opposition has portrayed the killings as a sectarian attack against the Sunnis by Alawites, to whom al-Assad belongs, with the opposition Revolutionary Command Council in Hamah describing the events in Al-Tremsa as "ethnic cleansing" by members of neighbouring villages.
Syrian military and security forces prevented UN monitors from entering the village, under the pretext that military forces were still "cleansing" the area. After the UN monitors were finally allowed in, they drafted an official report confirming that the massacre had been "a continuation of the aerial bombing of the village by regular forces".
All fingers therefore point to the regime and its military, security and militia forces for carrying out the massacre, while the opposition, the West, the Arab countries and even the UN have also blamed the regime. Only Russia and Iran have sought to excuse the Syrian regime of responsibility.
According to the opposition Syrian National Council (SNC), the Al-Tremsa massacre is "a disgrace to the Security Council and the Arab League." Developments in Syria have now "come to a head," the SNC said, adding that this was not the first massacre committed by the regime, though it was the largest in terms of victims.
Syrian activists say that the massacre at Al-Tremsa was part of a pattern of slaughter in specific geographical areas of the country having a particular sectarian composition.
Last month, a massacre in Al-Haffa, a mostly Sunni village surrounded by Alawite villages, took place close to the Latakia governorate, which is Al-Assad's birthplace. The village was almost completely leveled, and dozens of people were killed with hundreds fleeing their homes.
Two weeks before that, it took UN monitors two days to reach the site of a massacre in Al-Qobeir village in Hama governorate, where 78 people were killed.
On 25 May, 108 civilians, 56 of them children, were killed in the town of Hawla in western Homs governorate, following earlier killings in Jesr Al-Shaghur in the Kurdish region, and Al-Latmana in Hama, both of which are mostly inhabited by Sunnis but that are also bordered by neighbouring Alawite towns and villages.
Further killings had earlier taken place in the districts of Karm Al-Zaytoun, Baba Amr and Al-Khalidya, all in Homs governorate and inhabited by Sunnis. They neighbour Alawite areas loyal to the regime, the Alawites having moved there from rural areas and now acting as "reserves" supplying the regime with armed militias.
Syrian opposition activists have accused the country's military and regime militias of responsibility for the massacres, saying that they were triggered by "grudges" because a large number of the victims had had their throats slashed after being attacked by artillery fire.
The massacres have triggered unprecedented sectarian and denominational tensions in Syria over recent months, and, irrespective of who the perpetrators are, they have achieved their goal of raising sectarian tensions significantly for the future.
The rising number of massacres in villages near areas loyal to the regime also proves the impotence of the international community in the Syrian crisis, while the opposition says that they imply a growing sectarian dimension in the Syrian conflict with ethnic cleansing underway of opposition Sunni regions that neighbour Alawite loyalists.
The Syrian government claims that armed rebel forces are using the villages as bases for attacks on army forces, insisting that it is fighting "armed terrorist groups" and refuting any suggestion that the killings have a sectarian dimension.
However, the location of the killings and the way in which they have been carried out implies that there could be other motives behind them aside from the pursuit of armed rebels.
Most of the districts where the massacres have taken place are Sunni areas next to Alawite ones, and the killings are carried out in the same way, including attacks using artillery, tanks and helicopters followed by the advance of irregular militias, most of them Alawites.
These kill anyone found in their path, including entire families and women and children.
According to the opposition, one possible cause for the increasing numbers of killings could be that the regime feels threatened by defeat and sectarian retribution and that it has therefore begun carving out its own "zone" in its traditional stronghold along Syria's coastal mountains, including Homs, West Hama, West Idlib and the northwest.
More hardline opposition forces accuse the regime of plotting "ethnic cleansing" in Sunni villages as part of a partition scheme, in order to frighten residents and eliminate populations.
Less radical opposition members caution against this scenario, noting that the violence has escalated after each episode and that hundreds of Sunni civilians are now abandoning the peaceful struggle in order to join the ranks of the armed Free Syrian Army (FSA).
The massacres increase the cycle of retribution, opposition figures say, with sectarianism functioning as a lifeline for the regime. The killings are provoking the country's Sunnis to seek revenge, thereby enabling the regime to intervene to end sectarian retribution and portray itself as the saviour and protector of minorities in the country.
The opposition forces blame Russia and Iran for the massacres in Syria, because the first is blocking any Security Council resolution against the regime and the second is supplying the regime with weapons and stirring up sectarian hostilities among Syrians, they say.
The opposition in Syria has been unanimous in its view that the Al-Tremsa massacre "is another episode in yet another plot for societal cleansing in Syria".
The massacres "will not end with statements or draft resolutions in the Security Council, or with a defection here and there," the opposition said, arguing that the regime would not "stop its massacres as long as it has an international political umbrella, military supplies and financial assistance from mercenary countries," a reference to Russia and Iran.
There has also been further talk of the regime's intention to create a sectarian state, as a result of Al-Assad's insistence that "Syria is the victim of a plot to partition it."
Secretary of the FSA military council Ammar Al-Wawi said this week that there was evidence that the regime was emptying weapons depots in several areas and transporting their contents to coastal areas, in preparation for what he said could be the creation of an Alawite state.
Al-Wawi said that, following Russian advice, the regime was creating an Alawite state that could include the area stretching from the border with Lebanon in the south to the border with Turkey in the north, and from Homs and Hama in the east to the Mediterranean Sea in the west.
Nearly one fifth of the Sunni population in this region had already been displaced, he said.
However, observers have said that it would be impossible to create such an Alawite state, given the complicated demographics of the region. The area has a large Sunni population that it would be difficult to displace and a substantial percentage of Christians who would not agree to partition.
A sizeable number of Alawites also oppose the regime and reject partition, including clergy, military and cultural figures.
The Al-Tremsa massacre took place as the Security Council was discussing a possible new draft resolution on Syria. Washington said that the events highlighted the need for tougher action, but once again Moscow ruled out any such step.
So far, international bids to end the violence in Syria have failed, and UN and Arab League envoy Kofi Annan, the architect of the most recent initiative, has declared his mission to be a failure.
Meanwhile, Russia and the West have proposed a patchwork solution that requires the opposition and the regime to form a national unity government. This proposal has been shot down by the opposition because it does not clearly call for the removal of Al-Assad from power.
The continuing massacres and artillery and missile attacks in the country highlight how far Syria is from reaching a negotiated solution to the crisis, and they demonstrate how near the country could be to civil war, which, if it begins, could easily turn into sectarian war.
The Syrian opposition asserts that the regime is intent on provoking the Sunnis who, according to most estimates, constitute 75 per cent of the population, and it warns that this provocation could go too far.
People may respond to massacres with more massacres, the opposition says, triggering sectarian war in Syria and perhaps also in the wider region.