NEAR QUSAYR, Syria — In the final days of their stubborn but increasingly hopeless stand against an overwhelming assault, Syrian rebels hid among the concrete shells of destroyed houses in the village of Hamediyeh, subsisting on olives and canned beans. They tried to sleep, without much success, in tunnels dug for shelter from government shelling.
Explosions echoed from the nearby town of Qusayr, a besieged rebel stronghold where a humanitarian crisis was growing as trapped fighters and civilians died of treatable wounds and surgeons operated without anesthetics. In the surrounding villages, ripening yellow wheat went unharvested. Apricot orchards stood neglected. Fields were burned, trees chopped for firewood.
Yet even before the rebels fled from most of Qusayr on Wednesday under withering fire, the most striking destruction was intangible: the rending of the area’s social fabric. A patchwork of sects and ethnicities, long intertwined through ties of business, friendship, tribe and family, stretches across the nearby border to Lebanon’s northern Bekaa Valley.
As Hezbollah guerrillas from across the border besieged Qusayr along with Syrian troops, Sunni Muslim rebels and civilians here declared that those ties were broken, perhaps irrevocably, and that their struggle to topple the government had become a sectarian war.
As a reporter traveled last week through Qusayr’s hinterland, rebels and civilian opponents of President Bashar al-Assad said they still dreamed of a better future and a stronger say in their government. But sooner or later, nearly all of them veered into venting rage against other sects they saw as supporting Mr. Assad — particularly Shiite Muslims, whom they blamed for the many casualties they suffered as the well-trained soldiers of Hezbollah, the Lebanese Shiite militia, led an intense assault.
“We will not forget what Hassan Nasrallah did,” Abu Zaid, 40, a fighter from Qusayr, said, referring to Hezbollah’s leader. “We will take revenge from him and his organization even after 100 years.”
People here feel particularly betrayed by Hezbollah, an organization long respected by Syrians of all faiths for its fight against Israel. Because of their proximity to Lebanon, families in Qusayr and the surrounding villages sheltered many Lebanese refugees during Hezbollah’s war with Israel in 2006.
Leading the way through back roads to avoid government checkpoints, where weary-looking soldiers stopped cars carrying young men, Abu Mahmoud, 50, said he and his sons had used the same routes to smuggle many weapons to Hezbollah. Now, he said, he was using them to smuggle rebel arms and fighters to Qusayr.
“Oh God,” he said, “it is like a dream to see Syrians fighting Hezbollah.”
Rebel fighters proudly described the preparations that had allowed their outnumbered and outgunned force to hold off the assault for longer than expected: tunnels that allowed them to slip in and out of the town; underground command rooms stocked with food, water and drugs; booby traps and mines; even cameras that monitored their attackers.
“We got this experience from Hezbollah’s tactics against the Israelis,” said Abu Ali, a fighter in Hamediyeh who, like most people interviewed, gave only a nom de guerre for safety. “Today we are using the same tactics against Hezbollah.”
Taking a break from leading a band of rebels in the village, he added: “They attack us in our villages and homes, we don’t attack them in their houses. So they will see something they will never forget.”
Despite their bravado, fighters around Qusayr said they felt alone, exhausted and abandoned in the face of a more powerful opponent. Strikingly, some seemed to borrow from Hezbollah’s history: a sense of dispossession and grievance that they said would be felt for generations.
That feeling is more traditionally embraced by Shiites, who still mourn the defeat and death of the revered Imam Hussein in a 7th-century battle that cemented the temporal power of the faction that would become known as Sunnis. In Qusayr, as the rebels saw it, it was the Shiites who were allied with the powers that be.
“The Shiites shout at us that we are the killers of Hussein,” Abu Zeid said. “We will call them the killers of women and children.”
One activist, Mohammed al-Qusairi, compared Hezbollah to Nazi Germany. He said it was “placing a burden on the shoulders of generations” of Shiites, like the one borne by Germans after their leaders “committed massacres against the Jews.”
Sunni activists and rebels said other sects, too, were arrayed against them: Alawites, the sect of Syria’s president, Mr. Assad, whom they accuse of attacking Sunni civilians; and other minorities, including Christians, who they say have remained silent on the excesses of the government’s crackdown.
The bigger picture is more complicated. Though it is difficult to gauge events in an area where access has been limited by fighting and government restrictions, sectarian fighting, with attacks by both sides, seemed to begin more than a year ago. Shiite and Christian civilians who, like many Sunnis, have fled to Lebanon, say they too have been attacked and driven from their villages — by Sunnis.
As Hezbollah’s intervention began on a smaller scale months ago, Mr. Nasrallah said the group was acting to defend Shiites and other minorities from the rebels, whom they call extremists led by foreign jihadis. A reporter saw Lebanese Sunnis trying to enter Qusayr; scores, possibly hundreds, of fighters from Arab countries were believed to have joined a larger force of homegrown rebels there. Rebels began indiscriminately shelling the mostly-Shiite village of Hermel, on the Lebanese side of the border, long before Hezbollah’s larger offensive, killing several civilians.
“When they target houses, they don’t discriminate — as if they say all the Shiites are Hezbollah,” Sheik Fawzi Saadullah Hamedeh, the leader of a mostly Shiite tribe that straddles the border, said last week in his mansion in Hermel.
Sheik Hamedeh has not given up hopes for peace. He recently hosted Sunni and Shiite leaders from Lebanon and Syria in an effort at reconciliation. In his house, he shelters Sunni refugees from a clan in Qusayr that includes many rebels.
On the Syrian side, residents said Sunni and Shiite families were trying to restore calm, in part to protect lucrative smuggling of fuel, tobacco, food and electronics. But reconciliation is risky. Residents said one sheik, Ahmed al-Sha’ar, who headed a reconciliation committee and orchestrated several prisoner exchanges, was killed by Alawites who opposed a peaceful solution. They and other hard-liners called instead for the assault on Qusayr, residents said. Anti-government Alawite activists said even their own families were unwilling to welcome Sunnis into their homes.
Rableh, a mainly Christian village, shelters dozens of fleeing Sunni families, mostly women, children and older people. They cannot go to Alawite and Shiite villages, said Abu George, 50, a resident, because pro-government militias there “arrest and sometimes kill any displaced Sunni family.”
He said that although the government has tried to keep them loyal, or at least neutral, by allowing food to reach their villages, Christians want to maintain ties with all sects.
“We are supporting the Syrian state,” he said, “not any other group.”
Inside Qusayr, the situation grew more desperate as the government refused to admit Red Crescent workers until military operations ended.
When his makeshift hospital was bombed, Dr. Qassem al-Zein said, he moved his patients to houses and basements, without anesthetics, antibiotics or oxygen. There was little to offer more than 1,300 wounded people but the blood that others donated as often as possible, said an activist, Ammar.
“Those who are wounded,” he said, “can certainly expect to become martyrs.”
About the authors: An employee of The New York Times reported from villages around Qusayr, Syria, and Anne Barnard reported from Hermel, Lebanon. Reporting was contributed by Hwaida Saad and Hania Mourtada from Beirut, Lebanon.