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.
Paul Wood is a BBC correspondent covering Syria