Anatomy of a massacre that bodes ill for Syria's future
Al Fan Ashamali is a small Syrian village in Hama's northern countryside. Like many Sunni villages in the provinces of Hama, Homs and Tartous, the hamlet adjoins Alawite villages. It also links the Alawite-majority city of Surwan with the Ismaili-majority Salamiyah city.
Exactly a month ago, the village was shelled overnight by the Assad regime's army. The next morning, armed Alawite men from the nearby villages of Telaisiya, Zughbah and Al Fan Al Qibli stormed the village. Armed with knives and light weapons, the militias reportedly slaughtered at least 30 people, including women and children.
During a recent visit to refugee camps in Jordan, I met a few residents from Al Fan Ashamali. Abu Obaida, a bee keeper and the breadwinner of a family of 10, had fled the violence after a previous massacre. One of his sons was wanted by the regime for military conscription and another one for being a member of the Free Syrian Army. When I visited the camp, a neighbour from their village had arrived the day before and he recounted the horrors of the massacre: men, women and children left to die in the streets.
I asked Mr Abu Obaida: before the uprising, did you, as Sunnis, have any clashes or unsettled issues with your Alawite neighbours?
Not only did they not have issues, he said, they married into each other's families and worked together.
Then, I asked, why would they suddenly commit such atrocities? I could understand, I told him, if they shoot anti-regime protesters or fighters because they perceive the uprising as an existential threat. But, why knives? Why children? Why helpless women?
Many of these knife-wielding men were not even part of the regime before the uprising - the regime armed many of them under the banner of "popular committees" to defend their area.
Massacres in Syria happen for several reasons. In "liberated" areas, for instance, the regime shells indiscriminately especially if the area is vital for troops' mobility or to its survival. The regime also attacks rebel hideouts in neighbourhoods.
Or the massacres are sometimes pure revenge, as in Maaret Misreen in Idlib, which the regime's MiG fighters bombed after several military vehicles were destroyed in a rebel ambush in December.
But the massacres that occur in this archipelago of villages in Hama, Tartous and Homs are more worrying. They are usually a result of sectarian vigilantism and typically include children being slaughtered and knives being used. These acts are the hallmark of the Shabbiha, the thuggish Alawite militias that predated the uprising. These areas will remain inflamed for years to come and reprisals and vigilantism are almost inevitable.
In the beginning of the uprising, the Sunni villages protested against the regime but sectarian strife was avoided by community leaders of both sides. The violence then escalated when men from Alawite villages were armed by the regime, and when the army stormed Hama in August last year.
Armed men from Sunni villages established check points to prevent the Shabbiha from going to the city of Hama to attack protesters. Two men from a Sunni village were killed in the clashes and men from several Sunni villages gathered to "wipe out the village" of Al Rabiaa, according to the Palestinian writer Azmi Bishara.
That violence was contained only after intervention from community leaders, though kidnapping and clashes continued. In June, with army cover, Alawite men from nearby villages stormed Al Qubair hamlet and slaughtered at least 140 people, including young children, in the most atrocious manner imaginable. The militias are reported to have deliberately killed children and women with knives before they killed the men.
Although tolerated by the regime, such massacres are more of a grassroots practice than a direct state policy, making them difficult to deal with. These militias follow general instructions from the regime but they execute the orders as they see fit. They have Facebook pages where they post their daily achievements, and encourage more to join their ranks.
Back in Jordan, Mr Abu Obaida suggested such sectarian massacres happen as a result of fear stoked by the regime at the beginning of the uprising. "The regime told them from the beginning that the Sunnis are coming to wipe you out," he said.
Many have suggested these massacres are an attempt by the regime to cleanse areas for a future Alawite state. That does not appear accurate, however: too many Alawites in these villages fled and have since relocated. Many Alawites in Sunni villages also left their villages to avoid the clashes.
More likely is that teams - possibly including Iranian and Hizbollah elements - are deliberately encouraging such massacres to prepare the groundwork for future sectarian militias, through so-called popular committees.
Either way, the future of these once mixed areas is bleak. I asked Mr Abu Obaida's son what happens to the Alawites in these villages when the conflict is eventually over. He said those who were not involved in the conflict will continue to live with Sunnis, side by side. "Before we left, our Alawite neighbour was still living there and we did not have any problems with him or his family".
And, he added, those who were involved in pro-regime militias will have to die. But too many Alawites have joined the militias.
On Twitter: @hhassan140