* Minorities form vigilante groups in Damascus
* Residents say groups are backed by security forces
* City's sectarian frontiers fuel fears of civil war
DAMASCUS, Sept 7 For months, most of Syria's
minority sects stood warily on the sidelines of the revolt by
the Sunni Muslim majority against President Bashar al-Assad's
But in Damascus, neighbourhood vigilante groups are arming
themselves in Christian, Druze and Shi'ite Muslim areas,
throwing up sectarian borders across Syria's capital in alliance
with Assad's forces.
"We protect our area from terrorists. We check all the cars
coming in, and anyone we're suspicious of," says Sameer, 32, one
of four men with rifles sipping tea under a stone archway in the
Christian quarter of the historic old city.
By "terrorists" Sameer, a cab driver with the Virgin Mary
and a cross tattooed on his arms, means the mostly Sunni rebels
who have fallen back to an arc of suburbs on the eastern
outskirts after fierce battles with Assad's forces in July.
Residents fear that far from protecting them, the
self-styled popular committees have merely made them targets.
"It's not a matter of whether they become militias. They are
militias already," said a 20-year-old who lives in the old city.
Unwilling to be identified, he pointed to the scowling young
men gathered around the candy and newspaper stands that dot
almost every alley and street corner.
Residents say they are secret outposts for the committees -
"lijan shaabiya" in Arabic, called "lijan" for short.
Larger checkpoints manned by young gunmen, sometimes
teenagers, stand outside most districts home to minority sects,
which had earlier been reluctant to offer more than tacit
acceptance of Assad's rule.
"Security forces are arming the minorities," said the young
resident. "They are preparing for a sectarian war."
Damascus is not the first city to see the lijan phenomenon.
The pro-Assad "shabbiha" militias, which the opposition accuse
of massacring Sunnis, grew out of neighbourhood watch groups in
other cities like Homs and Aleppo. They eventually began roaming
provinces with security forces, joining raids and looting homes.
Shabbiha have so far been made up mostly of the Alawite
minority, an offshoot of Shi'ite Islam, whose members fear
bloody retribution should the 17-month-old uprising succeed.
Residents say lijan from other minorities are now carrying
out extra-judicial executions, creating a cycle of revenge
killings in a conflict that has killed 20,000 people already.
The dangers are all too clear for Syria, whose neighbours
Iraq and Lebanon have both been torn by sectarian conflicts that
killed not tens but hundreds of thousands of people.
The Druze district of Jaramana has become a cautionary tale
of what residents in other parts of Damascus want to avoid.
Amr, a young dentist, remembers the night several weeks ago
when a volley of gunfire in the neighbourhood woke him up.
Gunshots, he sighs, are now common, but this was not.
"Security forces had brought in some guy from Ain Tarma, a
Sunni suburb. They didn't take him to the police. They took him
to the lijan. They told the guys this man killed a Druze family
in Jaramana. So what did the lijan do? They dragged him to the
main square. They sprayed his body full of bullets," Amr said.
His pale blue eyes stared blankly ahead: "Later, we heard
the guy was just an activist."
Now Jaramana has become a sectarian target. The activist's
death lead to a suspected rebel drive-by shooting that killed
four Druze and two Christian lijan members. Two car bombs hit
the district in one week, no one knows who was behind them.
Every few days, a Druze cleric can be heard driving through
the streets, calling people to join the latest "martyr" funeral.
Chanting crowds carrying a white shrouded corpse march past.
Many Damascenes place their faith in community leaders to
soothe tensions between neighbourhoods.
Others say official involvement in the lijan means it may be
too late, saying their members got weapons permits from the
security forces and in some cases weapons from police.
"Security forces created the lijan," says a Druze resident
of Jaramana, who goes by the name Nader. The 23-year old is
secretly sympathetic to the opposition, even though his family
supports Assad and some of them work for the security forces.
"They say the lijan help us protect ourselves, but really
they just wanted to light the sectarian fuse in Damascus."
For Amr, the dentist, the lijan are a source of fear. "They
are thugs, pure and simple," he said. "These guys are above the
Lijan members say their communities are at risk as Syria
slides into an increasingly militarised conflict.
"If the army doesn't call me for reserve duty, I may
volunteer. My brother was a soldier. The rebels in Homs killed
him. These people are radical Islamist terrorists," says Wael, a
33-year-old Druze carpenter sitting at a crossroads behind a
rickety desk which serves as a checkpoint.
He was echoing Assad, who argues that the uprising, which
grew from peaceful protests, is a foreign-backed "terrorist"
The opposition disavows radicalism, but minority fears are
exacerbated by rising sectarian tensions and growing support for
the rebels from Sunni Islamist groups in the Gulf.
In a Shi'ite part of Damascus's old city, Hassan, a chubby
26-year-old in flip flops, patrols a street that leads to the
Sunni neighbourhood nearby.
"They're well-armed over there, thanks to the Gulf. We're
afraid they will penetrate our area. They want to break into our
homes," he says, wiping sweat off his shaved head.
"A few days ago we had a gunfight, three of our guys were
wounded. We called security forces to back us up. But they never
came. This just goes to show, we need to defend ourselves."
Down the street, a Sunni cab driver complained about his
Shi'ite neighbours. "They attack our houses and steal things,"
he said. "We won't let those Shi'ites take our land, we will
defend our honour."
THE LINES BLUR
Opposition factions share some of the blame for stoking the
As explosions and gun battles rocked Damascus in July, some
residents were panicked by reports circulated by activists that
Alawite and Christian men were storming Sunni neighbourhoods,
butchering people in the streets with knives.
No evidence ever materialised to back their claims.
Later on, residents of Alawite and Christian neighbourhoods
said they had heard similar rumours, except they were told Sunni
rebels were coming to kill them.
Rumours have a way of becoming reality. Two months on,
sectarian kidnappings have become common, and sometimes end with
mutilated bodies being dumped in the street.
"That's the thing that really scares you right now, wherever
you live. You're afraid to drive around at night. People get
taken for ransom, to trade for other hostages," said Rula, 30, a
Sunni resident of Damascus.
Like most Damascenes, she is convinced the kidnappings are a
vicious circle perpetuated by the lijan, the rebels, and the
secret police. "What distinguishes them is just a title, I
honestly don't see them as any different."
Soldiers in the city often wear T-shirts or casual clothing
now, just like the lijan, and residents say they take turns to
man many of the checkpoints.
What makes the lijan stand out is their aggressive
questioning of people entering a neighbourhood, says Ayman, a
student in Damascus. "They make you feel you're on their turf."
But the line between the vigilantes and the official
security forces seems increasingly blurred.
"One night, I was driving to Jaramana with friends. It was
dark," said Ayman, adding that residents told him rebels had
infiltrated the area.
"Gunmen were searching the streets. We watched them for a
while, and I realised something: I couldn't tell which of them
were the soldiers, and which were the lijan. Now, it is
impossible to know."