More than 10,000 people have been arrested in Homs, Syria’s third-largest city, in the past two months. I’ve been staying near the souk, and every night I hear the sound of tanks patrolling the streets, machine-gun fire, and soldiers shouting orders. Everything else is quiet: as the Mukhabarat takes another Syrian from his bed, the only response is the silence of hundreds of closed windows. Occasionally teargas fills the night air. In the morning, Homs turns back into a rather boring and conservative industrial city. Where buses loaded with policemen were parked the night before, a single traffic cop stands stretching his arms in the air. Everybody is in denial. “You must have heard too much Al Arabiya or Al Jazeera,” they say. It would be hard to believe one’s own nighttime memories were it not for the thirty tanks parked just outside town and the dozens of militiamen leaning on their worn-out Kalashnikovs.
Qassem ended up in Homs after his brother was arrested at a protest rally in Damascus, one hundred miles to the south. His brother has since been released, but only after being abused. “The usual tortures,” Qassem says, shrugging. “Beating, electroshock, that truck wheel you hang from while they whip you, the German Chair—this last one is a chair you’re tied to, with two metal sticks pushing so hard against your shoulders that your nerves running through the arms sometimes get permanently damaged. Your legs are then tied towards your back; the pain is unbearable for more than ten minutes.” Qassem’s brother was lucky, Qassem explains, because he was left without visible scars—apparently Syrian authorities won’t release prisoners if they bear signs of mistreatment. As for Qassem, they don’t want him for the German Chair; they want to recruit him. “They take you for two weeks, place you in squads of ten men each, and use you as irregular, non-uniformed snipers. They give you a weapon and tell you to shoot. If you don’t shoot, they shoot you … they return you to your family wrapped in a white bedsheet, calling you a martyr and saying it was the terrorists who killed you.” If they ordered him to shoot, Qassem says, he would shoot at his commanders. So he hides, even if there are spies from Assad’s regime everywhere. He sleeps in a different place each night with no plan, no job, no idea when he can return to his university studies. When the authorities came for Qassem but could not find him, they took his father to prison instead.
No community adheres more closely to the business-as-usual ethos than the Christian neighborhood in Homs. Here teenagers chat in cafés where the TVs have sports on twenty-four hours a day; old people smile as if nothing has ever happened here. There are 3,000 Assyriac Catholics and Orthodox Christians here. Most are convinced that the protesters, not Assad’s regime, are the threat. “Terrorists, Sunni Muslims. It’s them creating all this trouble,” says Orhan, a fifty-year-old Assyriac, as he drives past a line of soldiers. “They do it because they are fanatics, they hate the president because he’s not a Sunni like them, he’s an Alawite. What does ‘Alawite’ mean? It means good with Christians. That’s what president Bashar is. He is defending us Christians against these fundamentalists trying to take power in Syria and turn it into a caliphate, may God protect him.” After a protest was violently suppressed in the nearby town of Talkalakh, hundreds of Christian families cheered the soldiers as they returned on the highway to Homs.
Assad is marshaling support among the Christians, but the Alawite are at the heart of the regime’s response to the protests. Their tightly knit community produced the top generals working in the Mukhabarat. Some reports from Talkalakh allege that Alawite residents have carried out executions of other civilians. In Homs, the community is a vulnerable minority who work largely as manual laborers. The government distributed rifles and bullets to young Alawite men with the advice, “Defend your family.” People speak of the same thing happening in villages all over the region.
Fearing a backlash from their fellow citizens, especially Sunni Muslims, the Alawite community is now closing ranks. In coastal villages, checkpoints prevent non-residents from entering. Rumors keep spreading, and pressure is high on Alawite to stand by the Assad regime, whom they regard as saviors who rescued their community from poverty and discrimination. An Alawite opposing the regime is likely to be accused of treason by the rest of his family, and may pay a heavy price for his stance: an average Syrian political activist might be sentenced to five years in prison, but an Alawite activist is likely to serve fifteen years for the same crime. State television broadcasts images of alleged violence against Alawite citizens by protesters, or of “Salafists” setting fire to Alawite-owned shops along the coast. According to antigovernment activists, the fires were really set by groups of young men known as the Shabbiha, on Assad’s orders.
I ask Qassem who the Shabbiha (“shadow”) are. “Shabbiha is how we used to call the gangs making money during the Syrian occupation in Lebanon,” Qassem says, lighting a cigarette. “They used to travel in ghost cars without plates; that’s how they got the name Shabbiha. They would smuggle cars from Lebanon to Syria. The police turned a blind eye, and in return Shabbiha would act as a shadow militia in case of need. . . . Now that soldiers are being killed for refusing to shoot civilians, or for refusing to shoot those running across the Lebanese border as refugees, Shabbiha is definitely more reliable than the army.” But as more people are stuffed in jail, and more protests are organized by relatives who want these prisoners released and returned home, more men are needed to suppress the opposition—and that’s why recruiters here come knocking at the door of young men like Qassem. He won’t even tell me what sect he belongs to.
Before we part ways, Qassem drops two empty bullet casings on the table. “Kalashnikov,” he says. “I picked them in the main street of Homs on Friday, the floor was covered with those after the protest.” Kalashnikovs are rough, cheap guns. It’s the illegal groups, the Shabbiha and the snipers enrolled daily, who use them. “Look at the red one in your left hand, look at the numbers on it, you see? That’s not even Syrian-made, that’s made in U.S.S.R., and Soviet Union was decades ago.” Citizens shooting other citizens with second-hand bullets. “That’s how cheap us people are, for this regime,” grins Qassem as he takes the casings and walks away.