Syria’s war in miniature: meeting the Christians driven out of Qusayr

Events in one Syrian town cast light on the nation’s strife

10 August 2013

9:00 AM

10 August 2013

9:00 AM


Ilyas was, he told me, the very last Christian to flee Qusayr. He had been one of just a handful in the town to join the revolution — an odd thing for a Christian to do because the Free Syrian Army (FSA) were and are mostly Sunnis, and the Christians mostly sided with Assad. Still, it didn’t save him. One day he heard banging on the door and saw men with Kalashnikovs standing there. There were familiar faces, some he had known for years. He said: ‘They told me: “You’re a Christian – you’re not welcome here.”’

Qusayr is a grim little town of 30,000-40,000, a few miles into Syria from the Lebanese border. It was once around three-quarters Sunni Muslim, one-quarter Christian, all living peacefully together. It took 18 months from the beginning of the uprising to the knock on Ilyas’s front door, and in that time what was happening in Qusayr mirrored and explained what was going wrong with the revolution across the country.

We happened to be in Qusayr on the day, in January last year, that marked the start of the trouble between Sunnis and Christians. ‘Some hothead is kidnapping Christians,’ said the young FSA commander, leaping up after getting a call on his radio. ‘We’ve got to go.’ His men stirred themselves from their positions sitting cross-legged around a kerosene stove and picked up weapons from a corner. We were taken to see a prisoner they viewed as the cause of the crisis.

Corporal Joseph Hanna was lying on a mattress in a makeshift cell, a dark red bloodstain showing through heavy bandages on his left thigh. He had been at home on leave from guard duty when FSA rebel fighters burst in, shooting him in the leg. ‘I’m just a corporal in the army,’ he said, weakly. His FSA jailer shouted: ‘Liar! You are Mukhabarat [secret police].’

Hanna’s real crime had been to set up a checkpoint in town, to guard the street where he and other Christians lived. This checkpoint inspired fear and resentment among Sunnis. There was firing from behind the checkpoint’s sandbags during the weekly Friday demonstration, it was said. The FSA had decided to put a stop to this.

But things did not go according to plan. After Hanna was seized, his brothers swiftly kidnapped six Sunnis. The families of the six responded by abducting perhaps as many as 30 Christian men. And it was in the middle of this that I first met Ilyas, who as the rebels’ token Christian became the mediator. Ilyas was desperate not to see a Sunni–Christian conflict ignite, which the Christians as a minority would surely lose. The whole town felt the same way and so a deal was hastily struck. Everyone would be released: the 30 Christians, the six Sunnis, Hanna himself, as long as he agreed to leave town. Qusayr exhaled, gratefully.

But that was not the end of Qusayr’s drama — it turned out to be just the beginning, as Ilyas explained when I met him in Lebanon last week. ‘After that, people in Qusayr started to change,’ he said. A couple of months after the tit-for-tat kidnappings, six men from Hanna’s extended family were killed. Next, Ilyas said, Christians with no connection to the police or army started to disappear, bodies dumped in the street a couple of hours later.

So what had changed? Why did the town turn on itself? It started happening after foreign jihadis arrived, said Ilyas. ‘Syrian Muslims are not extremists. It’s outsiders who made this conflict sectarian.’ Ilyas was told to demonstrate his loyalty by carrying a weapon to fight the regime. Still clinging to the idea of a peaceful revolution, he refused, and was threatened by the foreign fighters. His friends in the rebel army couldn’t help him. ‘The FSA couldn’t mount any military operation without the extremists: they had the training, the weapons, the money.’

As the town’s native Sunnis suffered more losses, so their attitude towards the Christians started to harden. One local man formed an Islamist brigade (its ranks filled with foreign fighters) and last summer, he commandeered the mosque’s loudspeaker to announce that all Christians should leave. He was one of those who finally forced Ilyas from his home, last December. ‘I had known him ten years,’ Ilyas said sadly. ‘We used to walk arm-in-arm at the protests.’

Ilyas lasted longer than other Christians in Qusayr because he supported the uprising, but in Lebanon, I also met Samah, a mother of three who was one of the first to flee. At first, she said, their Sunni neighbours tried to protect them. ‘But after a while, the Christians were left with a choice: fight alongside the rebels, or leave Qusayr. Masked gunmen came to our house and shouted for our men to come out. We could see our relatives, already captured, sitting in cars.’

The head of the FSA’s military council in Qusayr, Abu Arab, was incoherent with rage when I asked why he had failed to protect the Christians. It wasn’t his fault, he said. The West had stood by while the jihadis got arms and funding and corrupted the revolution. ‘The revolution was abandoned by its friends in the West,’ he said. ‘We were left to descend into chaos.’

Now, as Assad pushes back against the revolution, it is the Sunnis who have fled Qusayr. The town was recaptured by the government in May and Abu Arab is also now a refugee in Lebanon with his family and most of his men. Samah and her family, meanwhile, are preparing to move back. ‘Assad is the Christians’ protector,’ she said. No Sunnis will return while the regime is in charge — and that was just fine, she said.

The lesson of Qusayr is that conflicts evolve, and as they do so, they change the people involved in them. Friends mutate into mortal enemies. No wonder western governments struggle to keep up. British military planners were in neighbouring countries to see how and where arms would be sent to the rebels, one official told me. Now they have been returned home, the official said. ‘We may all have to eat humble pie and learn to live with Assad.’ Western governments signed up to help a popular uprising, not to get involved in a sectarian civil war. Syria is not that quite yet. But Qusayr is a warning. It could become the kind of war the West does not want to fight.

Got something to add? Join the discussion and comment below.

Paul Wood is a BBC correspondent covering Syria

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Show comments
  • The Laughing Cavalier

    With little or no understanding of the realities on the ground and playing to the cheap seats, as usual, Dave barges in making things worse.

  • anyfool

    What everyone will have to get used to is, in all predominately Muslim countries, other religions will have to leave or convert, the problem we have is that the countries they will want to move to, Europe and the US have already large Muslim communities who are hostile to the host Christians.
    This is a pretty kettle of fish the left has bestowed on their own people, spite and votes the driver of this will eventually lead to large scale disorder in these host countries yet they continue with the importation of the same hostile people instead of trying to reduce the current hostile residents.
    As someone said, to hell in a handcart looks to be the option taken.

    • global city

      sectarian and religious strife is being actively imported into Europe… a hundred years or more after we thought we had seen the back of the worst of our own religious idiocies!

      So much for multiculturalism, hey!

    • Treebrain

      It is Sunni extremists, not the Shia muslims that are the problem.

  • The left is willing to accommodate the Muslim as a barrier, divider or a punisher to the Christian but they have forgotten the Muslim will extract a high price for infidelity to their Satanic book and will put the knife to their throat or exact a tax when they come to power through Sharia law. But then such is the life of useful idiots throughout history.

    • global city

      They are so fixated on their hatred for the west, capitalism and christianity that they make common cause with anyone who espouses any sort of opposition. They even did it with the Nazis before WWII, until Stalin told them to stop, after Germany invaded the USSR.

      They truly are fifth columnists

      • Treebrain

        The left and Muslims are hardly alone in their hatred of Western values such as peace, tolerance and human rights, who killed UN ambassador Count Folke Bernadotte in Palestine?

        • ganef_returns

          What has this article, by Paul Wood, got to do with “Palestine” and Count Bernadotte? Yet again you are trying to introduce Israel into any subject (besides soccer) for your own purposes.

          • Treebrain


            I do understand that once again you are unable to follow the thread of a discussion, just as you write multiple comments on the same subject whilst claiming to be an internet and computing expert.

            You also seem unable to comprehend that DISQUS comments not only address the original article but also the issues contained in Comments that appear under the article?

            To help you out, I once again will explain things to you, but you really cannot expect me to continually provide such a service, I am not a carer or a social worker!

            ‘global city’ made a comment about the left and muslims and I enhanced his comment by making reference to other ‘fifth columnists’.

            You know, if your memory is still functioning, that we have had several discussions about the Jewish terrorists who attacked British troops in Palestine while the British Empire was involved in fighting Nazi Germany, thus causing men and resources to be diverted from the fight against fascism.

            We have discussed how Jewish terrorists led by Ze’ev Jabotinsky actually established a naval base in fascist Italy during WWII in order to train their men to attack the British fighting the Axis powers.

            Clearly they did not learn their lessons well because when they blew up the SS Patria Haganah killed hundreds of Jews on board!

            You know very well that Jewish terrorists have a long tradition of killing unarmed peace makers that started when Haganah murdered Jacob Israel de Haan, continued with more of the same including Count Folke Bernadotte and even YItzhak Rabin!

            Recent examples include Rachel Corrie and Tim Hurndall.

          • ganef_returns

            All totally irrelevant to the subject matter but just look at the response from you that rambles all over the place. ‘global city’ made a comment about the left and Muslims so you enhanced it to include Jews and Israel and now, British troops in Palestine, Nazi Germany, Jabotinsky, fascist Italy, the Haganah, Count Bernadotte, Rabin, Corrie and Hurndall. All totally irrelevant to the article and only YOU chooses to discuss this.

            “I do understand that once again you are unable to follow the thread of a discussion”

            What discussion is that? The article or your personal agenda? What has this article, by Paul Wood, got to do with anything you introduced? So back to your Stormfront/JewWatch sites.

          • Treebrain

            “All totally irrelevant to the subject matter…”

            Not at all ganef, merely essential in order to place current events in context and to achieve a more nuanced view.

            As for your usual slander and smear, in this case about Stormfront and JewWatch, you serve only to further undermine the pitiful amount of credibility you might still retain.

            As with my response to your crony hasbara, I remain relevant and on topic despite your efforts.

            Keep it up ganef, your comments do provide a platform for details and facts perhaps not known to others to be given an airing?

            After all, you must be proud that your comments led to the obscure details of all sorts of events being made public like the Winograd Reports (certainly new to Drakken), the Aushwitz plaque being amended from 4.2 million victims to 1.1 million (news to hasbara) and all the others!

          • hasbara

            You see, you have succeeded in enlarging the subject matter to many different, unrelated, issues but I will not discuss them with you in this blog. They are irrelevant and nobody else is discussing them. Its funny that the Dalek supports you with votes but never words.

          • Treebrain


            You are making yourself look foolish, you claim that I do not reply to you, then that I have not answered the points that you raised but when given a detailed response simply claim that it is not related!

            Please make your mind up with regard to what you expect and stop moving the goalposts?

          • ganef_returns

            And neither will I.

          • Treebrain


            Of course you won’t sweetie, we all know how you refuse to answer any point raised that is too difficult for you to understand, raises issues you do not want to address or is simply uncomfortable for you!

            You simply cannot deal with the Auschwitz victims issue can you, how can six be reduced by three and not leave a balance of three?

            Don’t be upset, Yad Vashem, the Holocaust Educational Trust and the US Holocaust Memorial Museum cannot do the maths either!

          • independent_voice1

            31 posts on 18 different subjects in the past 24 hours. You need to get out more.

          • #confuzzled

            I did some research out of curiosity, and apparently that 1.1 million is the number that was deemed “fit for work” and given serial numbers, and later killed.

            The majority of the victims were simply slaughtered.

          • Treebrain

            Please let us know the source for your research?

            As things stand, 1.1 million is now known to be the TOTAL number of deaths at Auschwitz, not 4.2 million as previously claimed.

            Your assertion that certain people were given serial numbers while others were not does not tally with the meticulous German penchant for ALL prisoners being numbered.

          • #confuzzled
          • #confuzzled
          • Treebrain


            Unfortunately Nizkor is not an accepted, credible of verifiable source, it is actually a lobbying group!

          • Treebrain


            Unfortunately Nizkor is not an accepted, credible or verifiable source, it is actually a lobbying group!

          • #confuzzled

            It cites its own sources, if you look at the link, and cites them in abundance.

            But if that doesn’t satisfy you, the six million number comes from the Nuremberg trials. I sent a quote as well, but it didn’t go through; I believe it was Adolf Eichmann.

          • Treebrain

            The six million was indeed cited in the Nuremburg trials and included the supposed 4.2 million who died at Auschwitz.

            The change in the number of Auschwitz victims came about after the meticulous research of Dr. F. Piper, and the acceptance of his findings led to the change of the memorial plaque in the early Nineties.

            Now if the original number of Holocaust victims was estimated to be six million in 1945 and that included 4.2 million who died at Auschwitz, but that figure has since been amended too 1.1 million, then arithmetic means that there were only three million victims of the Holocaust.

            Well done for pointing this out Eddie, and helping share the genuine facts about the Holocaust and the real number of victims!

          • #confuzzled

            That all happened because the British cut off Jewish emigration to Palestine after the Palestinian Arabs rioted about all the Jews arriving in Palestine.

            At that point, Zionists must have found themselves to have very few friends.

        • ganef_returns

          How clever to give me a negative vote. Or, was it the Dalek?

          • Treebrain


            You and your cronies in the concert part such as hasbara frequently band together to give my comments a negative vote.

            Whilst somewhat unethical and dishonourable, it is your right and that is what free speech is all about, it means allowing others who disagree to have their say.

            How remarkably thin-skinned of you to find that a single negative vote that I cast merits an objection from you!

        • global city


          Islamist extremists are not all ‘Muslims’. That would be like suggesting that you are a BNP supporter.

  • global city

    Presumably Cameron thinks all this is a ‘good thing’?

  • Treebrain

    So if you want to protect the Christian communities in Syria, support the Assad regime and its Hezbollah allies against the Sunni extremists, al-Qaeda supporters and foreign jihadis!