In Syria, Sunni Rebels Besiege Shiite Villages
Anyone who dares try to slip out of the Shiite villages of Zahraa and Nubl is risking their life. Sunni rebel snipers outside are ready to gun them down. Roads out are blocked with barricades and checkpoints. Twice a day government helicopters bring residents supplies in a crucial lifeline.
For more than three months, Syria’s rebels have imposed a smothering siege on the villages, home to around 35,000 people, which they say are a den of pro-regime gunmen who have shelled, killed and kidnapped Sunnis from nearby villages.
The scene of bitterness and reprisals between neighbors in the northern Syrian countryside illustrates how the civil war has torn apart the longtime coexistence among ethnic and religious groups under the rule of the secular Baath party of President Bashar Assad and his father before him. It points to the perils of the sectarian divisions that lie ahead for the nation of 21 million as the war worsens.
Zahraa and Nubl make up a small pocket of Shiites, largely Assad loyalists, in the overwhelmingly Sunni region of the north in Aleppo province. The siege has its roots in months of tensions between the two sides since the Sunni-led revolt against Assad began in March 2011. Sunnis in the area say pro-regime gunmen known as Shabiha operated from the two villages, attacking nearby towns as they rose up against Assad. The violence fueled a cycle of tit-for-tat killings and kidnappings and tore apart the social fabric between the sects.
Then in July, rebels overwhelmed most of Aleppo province, driving out government forces and taking control of the region’s towns and villages. The tables were turned: Many Assad loyalists fled to Zahraa and Nubl for refuge, and the rebels clamped down with their siege, seeking revenge.