Middle East

Syria's slide towards civil war

Free Syrian Army fighters
Image caption The Free Syrian Army is now waging an escalating guerrilla war

The BBC's Paul Wood has spent harrowing days under fire in the Baba Amr area of Homs and here reports on citizens subjected to a relentless artillery barrage by government troops.

Most of the people in the makeshift field hospital in Baba Amr did not want to be filmed.

They were too afraid of being arrested to show their faces. But not Abdel Nasr Zayed.

"I have lost 11 already and now I am willing to sacrifice everything for God," he told me, a large, bearded man, his voice booming down the hospital corridor.

Of the 11 members of his extended family who had been killed - by shells or sniper fire - five were children under 14.

It was a typical story. Often people would tell you they had lost not one but many of their relatives.

Image caption Paul Wood takes shelter during the fighting

Abu Suleiman's job at the hospital was to wrap bodies in their burial shrouds.

He had performed this service for his son, his son-in-law, his nephew, his neighbour and many of his friends.

Abu Sufyan, our host the last time we stayed in Baba Amr, had lost a brother, a nephew, an uncle and, most recently, his mother.

"Is this a civil war?" I was asked from London.

In Baba Amr, it certainly felt like one. But we were seeing a battle over one city. And Homs is not Syria. Not yet, perhaps.

Sectarian abductions

In Homs, the Sunni areas, such as Baba Amr, largely support the uprising. They were being shelled by the Syrian army, from the Alawite and Christian areas, which largely support the regime.

There are Sunnis in the security forces; Christians and Alawites have joined the revolution. It is not yet a purely sectarian conflict. But the pressures for it to become one are enormous.

Yousseff Hannah was a prisoner of the Free Syrian Army (FSA) - the rebel fighters who have defected from government forces.

He was on a mattress, his thigh bandaged, in the basement of a house near the town of Qusayr, about 25 miles (40km) from Homs.

"Law and order," he told me, groaning from his wound, in reply to my question about his job.

One of his captors angrily interrupted: "No. You are mukhabarat (secret police). Tell them you are mukhabarat."

The FSA had snatched him a few days before from his home. He had been recovering there from the leg wound, received in Homs.

Aged 45, he was only a corporal, hardly a big fish. The rebels said they had taken him because his family had their own checkpoint in Qusayr that was harassing people.

They wanted it to stop. For too long, they said, people like him - protected by the regime - had felt they were untouchable, able to act with impunity.

Cpl Yousseff was a Christian. After he was taken, his relatives kidnapped six Sunnis, killing one in the process. In return, around 20 Christians were abducted.

"Some hotheads have been kidnapping Christians," one of the senior FSA commanders in the area told me. "We have got to calm this down."

After several days of stalemate, everyone was released, unharmed, including Corporal Yousseff. This was done as part of a deal for him and his family to leave Qusayr permanently.

Failed attack

Discussing the past tense few days, one of the Christian residents told me that Qusayr still had Christians who supported the uprising.

Image caption FSA fighters were trained and disciplined during the attack - but eventually had to retreat

About a dozen attended the big Friday protest. In solidarity with them, the entire demonstration walked off when some at the front grabbed the microphone and started shouting Salafi (Islamist) slogans.

Everyone felt the town had come close to tipping over into serious sectarian bloodletting that week.

Is that the future for Syria? Much depends on the character of the FSA.

All of the fighters we met were Sunni. Perhaps that does not matter.

The commander near Qusayr told me they were fighting for all of Syria's religions and sects: Christian, Muslim, Alawite, Sunni, Druze, Shia.

"We are experiencing freedom for the first time," said Maj Ahmad Yaya.

But his next words left no doubt, either, that for many, this is a religious - and Islamic - struggle against the secular Baath regime.

"For the first time," he went on, "we are able to proclaim the word of God throughout this land."

Image caption Homes in Baba Amr have been badly damaged by shelling

The official doctrine of the FSA is that it is there only to protect the unarmed demonstrators. In practice, the FSA is waging an escalating guerrilla war.

We followed Maj Yaya's group of fighters as they attacked an army base near the town.

The attack was big, more than 60 men. In contrast to the fighters in Libya, they were trained, disciplined and followed a plan.

One man said his brother was still serving in the area.

"What if he was in the base? What if he was killed?" I asked.

"I feel very bitter about my brother but what happens is in God's hands now. May God help me," he replied.

Inevitably, they failed. After an hour of firing on the base they had to flee when the government troops started using heavy weapons, dropping mortar shells on the hill.

Shabiha executions

Afterwards, one of the FSA fighters showed me a video he had filmed in December.

They had ambushed a convoy of armoured vehicles. Eight of the security forces were killed, 11 captured. The video showed the prisoners, in camouflage uniform, lined up facing a wall.

Image caption President Bashar al-Assad says his army is fighting armed gangs

Some were still bleeding after the battle. Their arms were raised.

One turned to the camera, looking petrified. The man who'd taken the pictures said that despite their army uniforms, their ID cards showed they were Shabiha (or ghosts) - the hated government paramilitary force.

"We killed them," he told me.

"You killed your prisoners?"

"Yes, of course. They were executed later. That is the policy for Shabiha."

These were Sunni Shabiha, he added; the only Alawite had escaped.

I checked with an officer. While soldiers were released, he said, members of the Shabiha were "executed" after a hearing before a panel of FSA military judges.

To explain, they showed me a film taken from the mobile phone of a captured Shabiha. Prisoners lay face down on the ground, hands tied behind their backs. One-by-one, their heads were cut off.

The man wielding the knife said, tauntingly, to the first: "This is for freedom."

As his victim's neck opened, he went on: "This is for our martyrs. And this is for collaborating with Israel."

Western dilemma

In Homs, after we left, there were reports from human rights activists that the Shabiha, going house-to-house, had murdered three families, men, women and children.

To most FSA fighters, "executing" the Shabiha seems only just.

Such things will give Western governments pause as they decide whether, or, increasingly, how to help the FSA.

Washington and London say they will not arm the rebels but they are thinking about how to assist in other ways. That might include giving advice and sending supplies, perhaps including flak jackets.

If they help the rebels, will they fuel a civil war, or worse, a sectarian civil war? If they do not, how can the killings in Homs, and elsewhere, be stopped?

The longer this continues, the more bodies pile up, the greater the desire for revenge on both sides. Civil war is not inevitable. But Homs today could be Syria tomorrow.

Related Internet links

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external Internet sites