Neighbor-on-neighbor violence between Sunnis and Shiites is breaking out across Syria, according to reports, and some fear sectarian strife could spread beyond the country's borders.
Refugees fleeing Syria have begun speaking to reporters about the type of government-sponsored violence there, and the picture is grim. The New York Times' Anne Barnard spoke with refugees in Lebanon who "described a worrying new element: what they see as an increasingly sectarian motive to the violence." In The Times, the refugees said that even in smaller villages, residents are falling victim to government crackdowns, shelling and sniper fire. "The refugees said they believed that a majority of Sunni residents of four villages, Rabli, Zahra, Joussi and Mazaria, had fled to other countries or other areas inside Syria." The paper says the accounts "reinforce reports from activists reached inside Syria by telephone and e-mail of displacement along sectarian lines, and interviews with people in Syria." United Press International reports that there are at least 6,000 refugees in eastern Lebanon—a community that says they've been threatened by Sunni civilians armed by the government.
In one example chronicled by the Times, a 65-year-old woman said that in October government troops began giving rifles to Alawite residents of her neighboring village and since then the residents have been firing on them. “We know them,” she said. “We used to live side by side.”
In Syria, most of the population are Sunni Muslims and a minority Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shiite Islam, rules the government. To a non-expert, it sounds like a sort of reverse pre-invasion Iraq, where instead of a Sunni power structure ruling over a Shiite majority, the reverse is true.
And refugees aren't the only ones worried about the development. This morning, Reuters reports that Turkey, where Muslims are predominantly Sunni, is in a difficult spot as it tries to stay on good terms with Iran even though it's a NATO member. "The fear for Turkish leaders is that Syria's internal conflict could develop into a sectarian, ethnic conflict that could spill across borders, pitting Shi'ite Muslims against Sunni," reports the news service. "Turkey has been telling Iran privately for months to use its influence to persuade Assad to step down." The report says many Syrian refugees in Turkey believe Iran is stoking the conflict.
The Times says the shelling of Homs and daily reports of violence suggest that President Bashar al-Assad isn't fulfilling a six-point peace plan he said he accepted from Kofi Annan, the special envoy on Syria. On that front, Voice of America reports today that Arab leaders are weighing a draft resolution in support of Annan's plan. "The measure drafted by Arab League foreign ministers for the summit's approval calls for President Bashar al-Assad's government to stop violent attacks on the opposition and allow peaceful protests," reports VOA. "Annan said Syria accepted his plan earlier this week, but violence has continued." On Thursday, the Local Coordinating Committees activist group claimed that 26 people died in the shelling of Homs this week, which adds to the 9,000 people the U.N. says have already been killed in the conflict.