Eyewitness from Homs: An Alawite Refugee Warns of Sectarian War in Syria

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Alessio Romenzi for TIME

A Free Syrian Army member prepares to fight with a tank whose crew defected from government forces in al-Qsair, Feb. 23. 2012.

Up until a few months ago, Hassan Ali, a 29-year old fabric merchant in the Syrian city of Homs, rarely gave politics much thought. His life was pretty good under the reign of President Bashar Assad, and he saw no reason to rock the boat. As a businessman, he was happy that Assad had brought in Internet and mobile phones. Like Assad, Ali was a member of the minority Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shia Islam, but since he was in private business, the connection wasn’t worth much.  Sure, he had the same gripes as most people about corruption in the regime, but when protesters started taking to the streets a little less than a year ago, he had no intention of joining them. After all, Assad had promised reform, and state TV said that the protests were organized by religious fundamentalists and foreign infiltrators trying to destabilize the country. “They said the protesters were Israeli collaborators and armed terrorists, and I believed them,” he says.

But then Assad’s security forces killed his best friend.

Mohammad, 29, was neither a terrorist nor an Israeli spy. He was a Sunni dentist who decided to close his practice one day to attend a protest. He was shot in the neck on April 15, and died within hours. State TV crowed that the army had killed a couple of armed religious fundamentalists, fomenting sectarian violence in the city. “That’s when I realized they were lying,” says Ali. “Mohammad and I grew up together, we never cared about Sunni or Alawite. Nobody does in Homs.”

(PHOTOS: Images from the frontlines of the battle for Homs.)

It’s never easy to watch a stranger, a grown man, cry. Especially not one who slicks back his hair and wears a tough’s leather jacket. As Ali tells his story he takes his emotions out on an emptied paper cup of Starbucks espresso that he turns obsessively in his hands. By the time we finish our conversation, it will be twisted into a coffee-stained spear. Ali fled Homs for Beirut the day before we met. He won’t say how he escaped a city that is now on the verge of total annihilation, only that it wasn’t easy, and that families burdened with children and old people could never make it out. His family has taken shelter in a nearby Alawite village unlikely to be attacked. His name, he says, is common enough that he doesn’t have to worry about repercussions. But he won’t give out Mohammad’s last name, just in case.

The Syrian regime has barred all but a few journalists from entering the country, so Ali’s story could not be independently verified. Nevertheless, his account of a former regime supporter turned dissenter offers insights into the thorny question of how, exactly, the Syrian crisis will end. Reports on Thursday said rebel fighters had beaten a hasty retreat from Bab Amr, one of the more beleaguered — and bombed — neighborhoods in Homs. As the U.N. pushes forward with a resolution for aid, as Saudi Arabia and Qatar contemplate arming the rebels, as Syrian opposition groups beg for a no fly zone, or international intervention, or simply a humanitarian corridor, the reality is that the regime will not fall unless its hundreds of thousands of supporters, and millions more Syrian citizens sitting on the sidelines, take a stand. What is holding them back, largely, is fear. Fear of the unknown, fear of losing their livelihoods, and, for the estimated 25% of the population made up of religious minorities, fear of a sectarian war.

Homs is Syria’s third largest city, and the country’s most religiously diverse. Intermarriage was common for all but the most conservative, and it was considered gauche to discuss sect. In the months leading up to the revolution, Ali and Mohammad, who were both engaged to be married, spoke endlessly about saving up enough money to have a joint wedding. “We dreamed that our children would play together, and that they too would be best friends,” says Ali. But as pressure mounted against the regime, Assad resurrected old sectarian tensions in order to bolster support from the country’s religious minorities. “The regime was trying to create fear among the Alawites and the Christians,” says Ali. “He [Assad] said to us, if the Islamists take over, they will kick you out of Syria.” Many of Ali’s Alawite friends, who hold government jobs, were offered extracurricular stipends—as much as $500 a month— to fan those fears through a graffiti campaign. “The Christians to Beirut, the Alawites to the grave” was one of the more common ones. Another friend was told to shout sectarian slogans at anti-government rallies. Ali says he doesn’t blame his friends for participating in the propaganda campaign. “They are poor, and were terrified that they would loose their jobs if they didn’t do it.”

(READ: Can Assad fight his way to political survival?)

But what was once propagandistic myth making on the part of the regime now seems to be coming true. In May, the government started handing out weapons to Alawite citizens. Nominally it was for self-defense, but if folks wanted to take the law into their own hands, well, that wasn’t discouraged either. Ali, who never publicly discussed his change of heart, took his government-issued AK-47 and gas mask and gave them to Mohammad’s younger brother, who had just defected from the army in order to join the rebels. The Free Syrian Army, as the defected soldiers call themselves, say that they only defend protesters, but enough videos of FSA attacks on government soldiers and armed Alawites has emerged to make it clear that the opposition can be equally brutal, if given the opportunity. One of Ali’s Alawite friends was caught by the FSA shouting sectarian slogans at an anti-government rally. He was beaten until he confessed that he had been sent by the regime. He was allowed to go free, but the damage was done. “It’s a problem when that happens,” says Ali, “The government can make a big propaganda, they can say that the FSA kidnaps and tortures Alawites, and because there is a grain of truth, people believe it more.”

Ali estimates that only a few Alawites have joined the opposition. Most, he says, are still with the regime with some on the sidelines. Of his Alawite friends still in Homs, he says that they feel trapped between the opposition and the regime. Whenever a pro-government demonstration is planned, he says, a memo goes out to all the regional Baath political offices asking that all government employees join. “Those who don’t go are considered as traitors to the regime, they will lose their jobs, or worse,” says Ali. That forced demonstration of Alawite support for the regime brings the sectarian divide into sharp relief, and is likely to set the stage for sectarian reprisals should the regime collapse precipitously.

Ali is ambivalent about Saudi and Qatari plans to arm the FSA. He knows how he feels about Mohammad’s death, and knows enough about Syrian codes of honor to understand that revenge killings are inevitable. “If a person is killed, his brothers, his family must take action.” As he contemplates Syria’s future, his face twists into a pained grimace. “It will be chaos. If the situation continues, Syria will see sectarian war.” He also knows that such a war will mean the end of the Alawites. And for that, he blames Assad. “Even if it’s not true, most Syrians believe that all Alawites are with the regime. So if it comes to war, they will take revenge. The regime is committing suicide in slow motion, and taking everyone with it. Assad is a traitor. A traitor to both the Syrians and the Alawite people.”

(PHOTOS: After Homs, Syrian rebels regroup.)

The only way to avoid such a fate, says Ali, is if the Alawites themselves rise up against the regime. It is, he admits, a Catch 22. Because they are so afraid, because their jobs are so deeply tied to the regime, they are only likely to do so if they believe that the regime is over. “Then they will come back and try to fix things. But by then it will be too late.”

Ali, for his part, is trying to do what he can. He came to Lebanon, he says, because he thought he would have a better chance to convince other Alawites to turn against the regime without fear of being targeted himself.  He also admits that there was another reason for fleeing Homs: Mohammad’s mother. “Mohammad was like my brother, so she was like my mother. And I just couldn’t stand to see her pain anymore.” His voice thickens with anguish. “I hope someone will revenge his death. But what I want more is justice. What I hope is that anyone involved in shedding the blood of Syrians, despite their sect, will go on trial. Because revenge never ends.”

With reporting by Rami Ayesha/Beirut

Aryn Baker is TIME’s Middle East Bureau Chief, based in Beirut. Find her on Twitter at @arynebaker. You can also continue the discussion on TIME’s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIMEWorld.