Is Syria's uprising taking a sectarian turn?(VIDEO)

Weekend violence in Homs reportedly stemmed from tensions between Sunnis and Alawites. Some activists say the government is intentionally stirring up sectarian fighting.

By , Staff writer

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    In this photo released by the Syrian official news agency SANA, Syrian policemen carry the coffins of police and army members who were believed killed in recent violence during their funeral procession outside of a hospital in the central city of Homs, on July 18.
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A weekend of fatal sectarian clashes in the Syrian city of Homs was followed by a military operation last night that increased the city's death toll by at least 10.

The clashes between Sunnis and its Alawites, a minority sect that includes the Assad family, threaten the mostly nonviolent nature of the antigovernment uprising that began in March.

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But activists argue that the regime is intentionally trying to incite sectarian fighting in hopes that the threat of further clashes would cause Syrians to turn toward the regime as a guarantor of stability, Bloomberg reports. The government has repeatedly blamed the violence on religious extremists and foreign saboteurs trying to stir up sectarian strife – something the repressive regime has kept a lid on for decades.

Ammar Qurabi, head of the National Organization for Human Rights in Syria, told Bloomberg that Shabeeha, a group of gunmen with close ties to the government, entered Homs on Monday night and have "tried to foment divisions between the Alawites and the Sunnis, and between Muslims and Christians."

"There is no sectarian fighting," he said. "The government is trying to promote tension to legitimize the use and entry of its army into all areas."

The Local Coordination Committees, the largest activist group, issued a statement, saying "The games and dirty practices of the regime in order to incite a sectarian fight to divide the citizens of (Homs) won’t work … We reaffirm the peaceful nature of the revolution," according to The Washington Post.

The Syrian government has long blamed almost all of the protests on what it calls “armed gangs,” and repeatedly warns that continued unrest could lead to civil war. Democracy activists accuse the government of promoting sectarian tensions in order to justify the brutal tactics used to suppress protests, and to dissuade the international community from backing the protesters’ demands for Assad’s fall.

President Bashar al-Assad's crackdown on the protest movement has left at least 1,600 people dead, the Associated Press reports.

The Army first entered Homs, one of the most consistently defiant cities in the uprising, about two months ago. Reports about the number of people who died in the weekend fighting range from as many as 30 (Associated Press) to as few as seven (Bloomberg). Activists in Homs rejected the higher death toll.

According to The Washington Post's account, the weekend violence began when a group of Alawites surrounded a Sunni mosque in Homs on Friday, chanting anti-Sunni slogans. In response, Sunnis abducted three Alawites and killed them, prompting a looting and burning of Sunni shops. Sunnis and Alawites who were the minority in their neighborhoods have fled to other parts of the city where their religious is dominant.

The Guardian reports that the opposition has been criticized for downplaying the tension between Syria's Sunni majority and Alawite minority. While the movement, until this weekend, was nonsectarian and peaceful, some activists admitted to the Guardian that it has been challenging to "keep it that way."

The task has been particularly difficult in mixed cities such as Homs and in cities along the coast, "the heart of the Alawi homeland," the Guardian notes. Homs is the most religiously mixed city in Syria. The Assad regime has tried to rally support among ambivalent Alawites by warning them that they will be in danger if the Alawite regime falls.

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