The Syrian charnel house

The Syrian charnel house

The above image is actually one of the less graphic photos coming out of Syria today, where President Bashar al-Assad’s forces stand accused of massacring Sunni families en masse. The more gruesome images and videos speak to a brutal campaign of sectarian cleansing that has managed to shock even veteran Syria watchers.

The deaths occurred in two separate massacres: One in the Ras al-Nabaa neighborhood of Banias today, and another on Thursday in the nearby town of al-Bayda. Thousands of Sunnis reportedly fled Banias in the aftermath of the attack. The death toll is still murky: The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights has confirmed a total of 112 people killed in both attacks, but noted that number could rise. The activist group said a paramilitary group known as the National Defense Forces, which is largely made up of fighters belonging to minorities loyal to Assad, was responsible for the killings.

The geography of Banias and Bayda is important for understanding these attacks. Both are located in the governorate of Tartous, which forms part of the heartland of the Alawite sect, the community to which Assad belongs. Destroying these Sunni enclaves could be a precursor to creating an "Alawite statelet" along the coast if Assad loses Damascus — or it could simply be a reflection of the fact that the regime sees any sizable Sunni community living near Alawite cities and villages as inherently hostile.

The massacres also occur at a moment when the Assad regime is moving aggressively and brutally to seize back territory lost to the rebels. Last month, the Syrian military killed at least 100 people in a five-day offensive to retake a Damascus suburb. Last week, it regained control of a central neighborhood in the city of Homs. And it is fighting alongside Hezbollah to reclaim the rebel-controlled town of al-Qusayr, on the border with Lebanon.

As the violence gathers pace, the religious and tribal fractures among Syrians, long papered over by a nominally secular Assad regime, are bursting out into the open. "’Alawis are not always comfortable with the subject of tribal affiliations as the Ba’thist state has striven to replace such categories with the modern notion of citizenship," wrote Patrick Seale in the introduction to his biography of Hafez al-Assad. "[B]ut if pressed every village boy could tell you to which tribe his family belongs."

These days, you don’t have to press very hard.