Along Syria's Mediterranean coast, hundreds of residents have left their homes, seeking safety elsewhere after overnight raids by pro-government forces, fearing for their lives after this week's reports of atrocities and mass killings in a nearby Sunni Muslim village.
Accounts of an apparent bloodbath in the village of Bayda over the past three days triggered widespread fear that the ancient coastal town of Banias might be the next target in campaign of violence aimed against Sunni Muslim residents. Witnesses report hundreds if not thousands of Sunnis have fled their homes in Banias and the surrounding area.
Rami Abdel Rahman heads the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a group based outside Syria that gathers accounts from a network of sources inside the war-torn country. He estimates that 4,000 Sunnis fled from Banias early Saturday. The situation is grim, he told VOA, and the refugee exodus is growing.
Abdel Rahman says security forces that support the Damascus government are responsible.
The human-rights monitor says Alawite Syrian security forces and groups known as national defense forces, made up of Alawites, stormed a Sunni district in Banias Friday. Witnesses' accounts tell of many casualties. Abdel Rahman says dozens of Sunnis were killed - their throats slit, or burned to death in their homes, shot or gravely wounded by shrapnel.
One amateur video said to be sent from Banias shows much of the violence. The Syrian Observatory chief says this could be just the tip of the iceberg - that there may be many more victims whose deaths have not yet been counted - and accuses the Syrian government of “ethnic cleansing” policies against Sunnis in that area.
Middle East scholar Fouad Ajami of the Hoover Institution at Stanford University says the apparent push by the Alawite security forces to force Sunnis out of Banias is part of an increasingly sectarian conflict in Syria. The veteran observer says this could lead to partition of the country. "I think Banias is about one story: it's about ethnic cleansing on the coast. This is a very key city and and, of course, it's one of these very deadly towns, because the population is completely mixed," he said.
Ajami says some argue that Alawites make up a majority in Banias, while others argue that Sunnis are more numerous, but that it “doesn't really matter, since the countryside beyond Banias is Alawi.” And he says the Alawites now appear to be “clearing the coast, to make sure there's no substantial Sunni presence left.”
According to Ajami, Syria's Assad regime has a strong economic motive for gaining absolute control over the region around Banias, because of its large oil refinery.
“[Banias] has a very big refinery, and one of the complaints of the Sunni population of Banias was that very few if any Sunnis were employed in that refinery. So, even though the oil wells in the north east are not in the hands of the regime, the regime would be loath to give up Banias and its refineries, because this is still part of the Alawi patrimony, in many ways," he said.
Heavy fighting and shelling was also reported in and around the mostly Sunni town of Quseir, near Lebanon's northern border with Syria. Anti-government activists told al Arabiya TV that thousands of shells hit the city, and that the population is “under siege.”
If partition along sectarian lines does take place in Syria, Fouad Ajami notes that the Alawite regime now led by President Bashar al-Assad would need to control Quseir and the nearby city of Homs, in order to “link up with the Shi'ite areas of Lebanon” now held by Hezbollah.