Lessons from a massacre that Assad looks to exploit

The recent carnage in the Syrian coastal city of Banias over the weekend, among the most grisly in the country's two-year-long conflict, offers lessons into the grim calculations of Bashar Al Assad.

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The details of the human carnage in western Syria over the weekend, in which hundreds of civilians were slaughtered apparently by pro-regime militias, remain shrouded in mystery. But sufficient testimonies, pictures and videos point to a deliberate act of sectarian cleansing in the Alawites' heartland.

It is remarkable that the regime's media, unlike in previous massacres, has neither condemned the killing nor blamed the rebels. Pro-regime Facebook pages even posted pictures of slaughtered children, claiming they were militants.

The carnage is meant to teach a lesson. But to understand what the lesson is, we must first understand the dynamics of the conflict in the country's middle and coastal regions, often referred to as "tamas ta'ifi" - the sectarian dividing lines.

According to testimonies from Al Bayda village in Banias, the site of one of the massacres, some 400 people were killed and 300 disappeared; of those, roughly 200 were buried in a mass grave in the presence of the pro-regime militias on Saturday. And of those, 150 were identified by name, while 50 bodies were difficult to identify because they were too disfigured or were of displaced persons from other areas.

Witnesses say some of the victims were seen killed in the village's central area but their bodies disappeared later. A similar number of people were reportedly killed in the nearby city of Banias.

The pictures and videos that emerged are horrific. Entire families were slaughtered, including children. Pro-regime militiamen reportedly stormed the Sunni areas on Thursday after early clashes with rebels. Hundreds of residents then fled the area, as the pro-regime militias continued to march from one Sunni village to another.

The perpetrators of this massacre are not known, but one man, an Alawite Arab from Turkey's Hatay province who leads groups of Alawite militias in the coastal region, has advocated for such a scenario. Mihraç Ural, who sometimes goes by his nickname Ali Kayyali, has recorded videos threatening the rebels against fighting near the coastline, the heartland of President Bashar Al Assad's clan and sect. Mr Ural speaks impeccable Arabic with a Syrian accent, and is said to have been awarded Syrian nationality by the late Hafez Al Assad for his role with the Syrian intelligence.

In a video posted Sunday on YouTube, Mr Ural speaks of a plan to "cleanse Banias from the traitors". The commander explained to his fighters - known as the Syrian Resistance - that Banias is the only pathway for the rebels to the Mediterranean Sea. He said the rebels could not reach the coast from other areas because those areas were well-protected by the regime's forces.

The details of his talk is revealing:

The video shows Mr Ural sitting next to an Alawite religious leader. Alawite religious leaders had hitherto refrained from involving themselves in the conflict, even publicly distancing themselves from the regime's crackdown. A militia commander unequivocally calling for "cleansing" a Sunni area in the presence of an Alawite leader wearing his religious uniform, and then posting the video on YouTube, was likely calculated by the regime.

Equally important is the use of the word "cleansing"; the commander first said the area must be "liberated", but a man next to the camera then corrected him by repeating "cleansing" and the commander nods and says "cleansing" in the next sentence.

Thousands of Sunni Syrians live among Alawites in the coastal region after they fled violence in their areas. The fact that Alawites and Sunnis still live side by side belies the media's prevailing narrative that all Syrian society is polarised along sectarian lines.

The narrative is that the regime's forces are driving Sunni families from Alawite areas, in Homs and elsewhere, for the purpose of paving the way for a potential statelet on the coast. But that narrative is inaccurate because such moves are not systematic or universal. Sunni families were welcomed in the Alawite heartlands and Alawite families are similarly leaving their areas in the country's middle when there is violence and heading to the coast.

These moves, therefore, suggest that sectarian cleansing is not being conducted for the purpose of establishing a potential state but for other strategic reasons to ensure the flow of Alawite fighters from and into this area. As the rebels close in on the coastline, the regime probably feels that such massacres will deepen sectarian tensions and pit Sunni and Alawites against each other, thereby convincing the Alawites they need to fight alongside the Assad regime for their survival.

A similar ploy was employed in the beginning of the conflict in 2011. A month into the anti-regime protests, pro-regime militias - their fighters with accents and names associated in Syria with Alawites - filmed themselves humiliating protesters in the same village as the weekend's massacre.

The recent carnage in Banias has been among the most grisly in Syria's conflict in terms of numbers dead. The message to Sunni fighters is that the coastline is a red line. For Alawites the message is one of reassurance, that the coast will not face the same fate as Al Qusayr's in Homs, where residents felt the regime could not shield them from rebel attacks last month - when Hizbollah intervened.

Alawite fighters have been steadily suffering losses; if these losses come closer to home, that might push many of them to realise a victory for the rebels is possible. And this is a scenario the Assad regime seeks to avoid.

On Twitter: @hhassan140