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The violence perpetrated by the Syrian regime has reached new heights, as President Assad turns to a sectarian strategy, pitting his Alawite sect against the Sunni majority.
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An attack by pro-government gunmen on two villages in the Houla Region in late May, leaving 108 people dead, was the first in a series of sectarian massacres.

Assad's Massacres Mount

Struggling to remain in power amid an imploding economy, deepening international isolation and rebel gains in the 17-month uprising against his regime, Syrian President Bashar Assad has resorted to more and more extreme measures to keep his grip on the country. The regime has unleashed helicopter gunships, artillery and tanks on restive cities, while government-hired militias slaughter whole communities, in what U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has described as a “grim catalogue of atrocities.”

Now that Assad has turned to an increasingly violent and sectarian strategy, pitting his Alawite power base against the Sunni majority, Syria’s territorial integrity and the stability of the entire region are at risk.

The Houla Massacre: 'Unspeakable and Inhuman Brutality'

The first indication of a new tactic in Assad’s brutal crackdown emerged on May 25, as reports of an attack on two villages in the Houla Region of central Syria came to light. The more information that accumulated, the more gruesome the picture became.

Security forces first bombarded the villages, softening the opposition. Pro-government gunmen known as Shabiha then entered homes, firing indiscriminately and slitting the throats of whomever they encountered. 108 people were left dead, including women and children.

“It’s very hard for me to describe what I saw, the images were incredibly disturbing,” a Houla resident who hid in his home during the massacre said. “They went after the women, children and elderly.”

The U.N. Security Council reacted swiftly to the massacre, issuing a statement condemning the killings that was supported by Syria’s staunch allies Russia and China. The unanimous statement said that the “outrageous use of force” against civilians constitutes a violation of international law and of Syria’s commitment to abide by a U.N.-mandated peace plan.

Numerous countries, including the U.S., Britain, France and Germany, expelled top Syrian diplomats in response, while the White House said that the acts “serve as a vile testament to an illegitimate regime that responds to peaceful political protest with unspeakable and inhuman brutality.”

The Killings at al-Qubeir: 'Shocking and Sickening'

Less than two weeks after the carnage at Houla, Assad’s Shabiha militias struck again, this time in the village of al-Qubeir, west of the major city of Hama. After regime forces pummeled the village with tank shells, the Shabiha moved in to kill by shooting at close range and by stabbing. Opposition activists reported 78 people dead, more than half of them women and children.

U.N. monitors were initially prevented from visiting al-Qubeir, in an apparent attempt by the regime to conceal what had happened. But once they managed to get through, the monitors found evidence of a mass atrocity, including congealed blood, scattered body parts, shelled buildings, bullet holes and the smell of burned flesh.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton described the violence as “unconscionable.” Addressing the U.N. General Assembly, Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon condemned the “killing of innocents” at al-Qubeir as “shocking and sickening.” “Any regime or leader that tolerates such killing of innocents has lost its fundamental humanity,” he said.

Dangerous Escalation

Just last week, another Sunni village became the target of an indiscriminate assault. Government forces using tanks and helicopters killed more than 100 people in the small community of Tremseh, near Hama.

The massacres at Houla, al-Qubeir and Tremseh signal a dangerous escalation of the 17-month long conflict in Syria. These farming settlements are populated by members of Syria’s Sunni majority and are surrounded by villages whose inhabitants hail from President Assad’s Alawite minority. The regime’s use of the Shabiha militias, most of whom are Alawites, against Sunni communities threatens to further deepen the sectarian divisions in Syria and inflame the conflict, which the International Committee of the Red Cross has already termed a “civil war.”

AIPAC Diamond Summer Intern Elliot Fine contributed to this report.