BEIRUT Fears that Syria may slide into civil war are growing after a week when the government said over 120 servicemen were killed at a town near the Turkish border.
As it sent tanks on Friday into Jisr al-Shughour, a mainly Sunni Muslim town whose 50,000 inhabitants had mostly fled, the cause of last weekend's bloodshed was still in dispute -- state media blamed unidentified gunmen but democracy activists said troops mutinied after refusing to fire on unarmed demonstrators.
Whatever the truth, the killings suggest either cracks within President Bashar al-Assad's security forces or the beginnings of an armed revolt -- or some combination of the two.
Either way, the scale of the killing in an area prone to tension between Syria's Sunni majority and Assad's Alawite sect points to a bloodier turn of events after three months of unrest against 41 years of Alawite-dominated Assad family rule.
That in turn would rock the entire Middle East, where Syria, Iran's main Arab ally, sits at the heart of numerous conflicts.
"The country is sliding toward civil war. It is a step toward civil war," said Syria expert Joshua Landis, associate professor of Middle East studies at Oklahoma University.
He noted that the poor area around Jisr al-Shughour, lying at the foot of the "Alawite Mountain," the heartland of the dominant minority sect, was home to conservative Sunni Muslims.
Many Syrians who joined the Sunni Islamist insurgency in Iraq against U.S. forces came from that region, he added.
"It's got a history of anti-government agitations," Landis said. "The Islamic currents are very strong there."
WILL IT SPREAD?
In 1980, the late Hafez al-Assad, who preceded his son as president, crushed a Sunni revolt in Jisr al-Shughour, which lies on a strategically important road between Syria's second city Aleppo and the main Mediterranean port of Latakia.
Two years later, Assad's forces put down an armed uprising in Hama by the Sunni Islamist Muslim Brotherhood, killing many thousands and razing the old town -- an event which still resonates for Syrians considering challenging their rulers.
Those who have taken a lead in demonstrating for reforms, inspired by the Tunisian and Egyptian protests which launched the Arab Spring, stress their insistence on non-violent action.
Few are willing to speak publicly about taking up arms. And some dismiss talk of sectarian and ethnic violence as scaremongering by Assad loyalists intent on keeping power.
However, in conversations this week with a number of Syrian activists, several said they believed some of Assad's opponents were already using weapons, including arms smuggled from abroad.
"Some people have taken up arms against the security forces in Jisr al-Shughour. We know that," said one activist who, like many, would speak on the subject only on condition of anonymity.
"The question is: Is this limited? Or is it going to spread to other cities?"
After years of repression, it is hard to establish the strength in Syria of organised movements like the Muslim Brotherhood, let alone of other anti-government groups.
As in several other towns, residents in Jisr al-Shughour have accused Alawite militiamen, known as shabiha and fiercely loyal to the Assads, of helping the security forces.
Two activists said armed Sunni men, as well as shabiha groups, had set up rival sets of checkpoints on roads -- an echo of the kind of sectarian tension familiar from neighboring Lebanon and Iraq. Guns are widely available across Syria.
"People have taken arms," Landis at Oklahoma University said. "Things are about to get a lot worse than we thought."
Louay Hussein, an activist in Damascus, said he did not know of Sunnis taking up arms in the northwest of the country. But he told Reuters from the capital: "We have warned the authorities from the beginning that the excessive use of violence will, in the end, allow armed groups to use violence against them."
Assad has responded to protests, which began in the southern Sunni town of Deraa, by offering discussions on reform but also by sending in security forces to detain and kill demonstrators.
The government insists it is willing to listen but rejects Western pressure for radical changes. It points out Syria has a potentially volatile mix of ethnic and religious communities, including Christians and Kurds, as well as Sunnis and Alawites.
"Syria is a mosaic," Syrian government spokeswoman Reem Haddad told Al Jazeera this week.
"It is made of many different sects living together."
Many in the Christian and Alawite minorities say they support reforms, but fear that calls for the overthrow of Assad could fragment the country of 20 million and hand it over to hardline Sunni Islamists who would persecute other religions.
Assad's initial response to the protests has included steps toward reforms, including granting citizenship to some ethnic Kurds, lifting a draconian state of emergency, freeing hundreds of prisoners and calling for a national dialogue.
Protests, triggered by anger and frustration at corruption, poverty and lack of freedoms, have been mainly peaceful, though rights groups say the death toll among protesters is over 1,100.
At least 200 security personnel have also been killed, the government says. Activists say that at least some of the dead soldiers were killed for disobeying orders to stop protests.
Syria has expelled Reuters correspondents and barred most foreign media, preventing independent reporting from Syria.
BOTH SIDES DETERMINED
Fayez Sara, an opposition figure who was detained earlier in the uprising, said he still has hopes that a political solution might save the country from descending into chaos.
"We should try till the last minute because otherwise the price tag will be high," he told Reuters from Damascus.
"When we say the time has ran out for a political solution, this means we are opening the country to civil war."
Western powers and their Arab allies have voiced concern but show no appetite for Libya-style intervention in Syria. The gravity of the situation particularly alarms some across the border in Lebanon, where officials with ties to Syria privately express concern that some areas may be headed for chaos.
A Lebanese analyst, who is close to some opposition figures in Syria, said: "We have been warning our Syrian brothers but they do not want to listen. They think the civil war in Lebanon and in Iraq will not reach them. They are wrong."
The possibility of splits in the armed forces, where the top command ranks and elite units are largely Alawite while the mass of conscripts are Sunni, is also a concern.
A Damascus based analyst, echoing many observers abroad, said Assad and his Alawite allies appeared bent on hanging to power at all costs: "The regime has essentially vowed to break the country over the people's heads," the analyst said.
"It will push the country over the cliff unless Syrian society resists its divisive tactics. So the fate of Syria lies not in the hands of the regime, but in that of the people."
An activist who took part in an opposition conference in Turkey last week said he believed that widespread violence was a risk many were willing to take, however, to be rid of Assad.
"Even if there is ... a civil war or anything like that, people are determined to go all the way, to the end, regardless of the cost," he said.
"We want him out and we want to be free of this regime.
"The regime is pushing the country toward civil war and we are heading that way it seems."
(Editing by Alastair Macdonald)