A Dangerous Turn Toward Ethnic Cleansing in Syria

New York Times reporter Anne Barnard spends some time with recent Syrian refugees in Lebanon. They tell her that the fighting is increasingly taking on a sectarian bent — “neighbor fighting neighbor.”

“The army wants to displace people to get them away from the protests,” said Abu Munzer, 59, a Syrian Army veteran from the village of Mazaria, huddling by a wood stove in a cinder-block farmhouse with about 20 other refugees; like most people interviewed, he was afraid to give his full name. “If they die or they leave, there will be no one there to protest.”

There are at least 6,000 Syrian refugees living in the Bekaa Valley in eastern Lebanon, according to the United Nations, including several dozen men, women and children interviewed here at the northern end of the valley. They said they felt threatened as Sunnis, and several said that they saw the military give out rifles to residents of neighboring Alawite villages — members of the same heterodox Muslim sect as Mr. Assad — and that their neighbors then opened fire on them. Their accounts reinforce reports from activists reached inside Syria by telephone and e-mail of displacement along sectarian lines, and interviews with people in Syria.

And this.

Umm Nasser, 34, a pregnant woman sheltering with female residents and their dozen children in a farm building here, said that about 15 members of her family in the village of Joussi came under fire from the nearby Alawite village of Hasbeeh two weeks ago as they tried to leave their house. Her mother, Umm Khalid, 65, said that beginning in October she had seen government troops laying out rifles on the ground and distributing them to Alawite residents. Umm Nasser said that she did not know why, but that in the past month many Joussi residents had been fired upon by Hasbeeh residents.

“We know them,” she said. “We used to live side by side.”

This is a really disturbing turn of events, though not terribly surprising given that conflict like this tends to exacerbate pre-existing ethnic cleavages. Some Alawites no doubt feel that the overthrow of the Alawite Assad might mean a diminished place for them in the new order; or, possibly open them up to revenge attacks. These fears are no-doubt being stoked by the president and his cronies. This is how ethnic conflict works.

What’s worse is that the Syrian resistance has been keen to present itself as plural. They know that if this conflict is presented along ethnic terms, the international community is probably less likely to get involved. Should Assad adopt a strategy of ethnic cleansing to surpress the revolt, this conflict could be longer and bloodier struggle than we have imagined.