Syrian soldiers shot Mustafa Ali Esbero four times -- three bullets to the stomach, one through the arm. He lost a kidney, a chunk of his liver, part of his bowels and the ability to walk.
Esbero, a Sunni Muslim, said the soldiers were Alawites, members of the minority Shiite Muslim sect whose adherents include Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and many of his top officials. While Esbero would appear to be another casualty of a gathering sectarian civil war, he described his attackers differently -- as soldiers forced to fight for the regime or be killed by their own officers.
“There is no problem with sects,” said the former cattle merchant, who fled to a Turkish refugee camp less than 100 yards from the Syrian border. “We live side-by-side, no problem. Our problem is the regime. It’s trying to provoke civil war,” he said, propped up on a mattress in the 226 square-foot (21-square-meter) shipping container that’s now his home, chain-smoking Parliament cigarettes.
A blanket draped over his thin legs didn’t hide the railroad track of a scar that stretched across his stomach or the plastic loop of a colostomy bag.
Esbero’s views were echoed in conversations with more than two dozen Syrians in exile. Rural villagers housed in refugee camps, mini-skirted Muslims who chatted over beer, bearded men whose veiled wives listened silently, truck drivers and international businessmen all argued that their country isn’t doomed to sectarian conflict.
They expressed concern that the foreign perception that Syria is unraveling along patchwork lines of religion and ethnicity is deterring Western nations from intervening. Hassan al-Aswad, a Sunni lawyer from Deraa, where anti-regime protests began, said he thinks inaction suggests the U.S. may prefer the continuity of Assad’s regime, or some version of it, to an uncertain aftermath following his departure.
“They’re afraid of the future, they talk about a civil war starting when the regime falls,” he said, shaking his head.
“Circassians, Druze, Alawite, Kurds, Sunni, Christian, we have all lived in this country for 7,000 years,” said al-Aswad, 43, who escaped from a Syrian jail in April 2011 and now lives in Istanbul. “And all these years, no civil war.”
In the sectarian scenarios, a civil war would pit Assad’s ruling Alawite sect and the regime’s Christian supporters against the country’s majority Sunni population. That split could inflame the larger regional divide between the Sunni Persian Gulf countries that back the opposition and their Shiite-rival Iran, which supports the Syrian regime.
“People know the regime’s trying to create this situation,” said Medea Daghistaney, a secular Sunni from Homs. She described soldiers mistaking her for an Alawite because she doesn’t cover her hair, and warning her not to enter her own Sunni neighborhood because “they will slaughter you.”
The 29-year-old activist, now an Istanbul resident, works for a London-based group that documents Syrian government crimes for future prosecution. She said they have many reports of troops trying to sow sectarian discord by planting Alawite bodies in Sunni areas or Alawite soldiers raping Sunni women.
Another group, New York-based Human Rights Watch, issued a report today saying Syrian government forces have used sexual violence to torture detained men, women, and boys. Witnesses and victims also said soldiers and pro-government armed militias have sexually abused women and girls as young as 12 during home raids and military sweeps of residential areas, the rights group said.
The United Nations estimates that more than 10,000 people have been killed in the 15 months of the uprising against the four-decade rule by the Assad family. UN observers yesterday said they encountered the stench of dead bodies when they entered the deserted Syrian town of Haffa, where they observed evidence of looting and burned buildings in what had been a farming community of Sunni Muslims.
Hisham Marwah, head of the legal division of the Syrian National Council, said the opposition umbrella group is mindful of history. “We’re not going to allow the civil war to happen,” said the Ottawa-based international lawyer.
He was nursing a sugary cup of Turkish tea in the lobby of the Istanbul airport Holiday Inn, which has become the informal headquarters of the SNC, a collection of Syrian exiles from around the world. They had just met to elect a new leader, a secular Kurdish academic living in Sweden who was selected to show inclusiveness.
“What can lead to civil war? If revolutionaries have guns and use them against others,” said Marwah, 50. “We have a plan to control all of them so they don’t use their guns.”
The SNC hopes to ensure stability by managing all elements of the transition, from health to the management of petroleum resources, he said. It will also use culture and Islamic values, he added.
Opposition leaders will stress that Assad “abused everyone badly,” including jailing Alawites who disagreed with him, he said. “This isn’t sectarian.”
Adib Shishakly, 43, a Syria-born American who helped found the SNC, said another factor weighing against sectarian strife is that neither Assad’s regime nor its opponents are organized along sectarian lines.
While the officer corps of Assad’s security forces is dominated by Alawites, his ruling leadership isn’t, said Shishakly, grandson of a former Syrian president. Syria’s vice president is a Sunni, as are his interior minister and most of the cabinet. Assad’s defense minister is a Christian.
“The Syrian regime consists of all kinds of sects,” the Houston-based businessman added. “The opposition consists of all kinds of sects. You’ll see some revenge killing, but I don’t think you’ll see a civil war.”
History offers examples to the contrary. The U.S. removal of Saddam Hussein, whose Sunni-led regime repressed majority Shiites, led to Sunni-Shia warfare to a greater degree than many Iraqis anticipated. In Rwanda, Tutsis and Hutus lived together before the 1994 genocide that claimed as many as 800,000 lives in about three months, mostly from the Tutsi minority.
Analysts such as Andrew Tabler, a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, see potential parallels for Syria in sectarian conflicts such as in Lebanon, which was devastated by civil war between 1975 and 1991, and in the Balkans, where international action came only after UN peacekeepers failed to prevent massacres of Muslims by Christian Serbs.
French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said in an interview on France Inter radio today that Russia was holding talks on Assad’s ouster. “We’ll do everything for him to leave power quickly,” Fabius said.
“It’s not true that we’re holding talks on the fate of Syria after Bashar al-Assad,” Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov told reporters in Moscow. “We don’t carry out regime change.”