Now dirt mounds — and in some places limestone blocks — block the roads leading into Zahraa and Nubl. Rebels have set up checkpoints on the roads, and snipers are positioned in empty buildings nearby. Zahraa has its own snipers, in buildings on a hill overlooking the road, and they open fire on anyone they see trying to get into the village, fearful of rebel attacks. The barricades were the closest The Associated Press was able to get to the two villages.
In the distance, Syria's national flag — now the symbol of Assad's regime — was visible flying from a water tower in Zahraa, unlike the rebel flags raised in Sunni towns. The Shiites in Zahraa and Nubl are coping with the siege by relying on supplies from a friendly Kurdish village on the other side. But they cannot venture further than that for fear of being killed or kidnapped. Government helicopters frequently land there, bringing the villagers further supplies.
For Beyanon and a cluster of nearby Sunni villages — Hayan, Retan, Haritan and Mayer — the feud means they can no longer go into the two larger Shiite villages like they used to — for the restaurants, for the better-stocked grocery stores, mechanics and doctors. The two villages have the area's only high school, along with a vocational institute.
"Our villages are poor. Zahraa and Nubl are rich and have so much that we don't have," said al-Hajji, one of six siblings born to a retired military man with 30 years of service in the air force as an aircraft mechanic.
The tears in the social fabric are nationwide. Syria's multiple sects, religions and ethnicities long coexisted — not always completely in tune, but usually more harmoniously than neighboring Lebanon. The country is predominantly Sunni Muslim, while Shiites make up a tiny proportion, less than 5 percent, though exact numbers are not known.
The most serious split now is between Sunnis and Alawites, members of an offshoot sect of Shiism who make up about 15 percent of the population and who dominate Assad's regime. The Assad family themselves are Alawites and elevated their community to many top military and government positions. Like the Alawites, Syria's small Shiite community has largely sided with Assad's regime, as has the small Christian minority, which fears the rise of Sunni fundamentalists if Assad falls.
"Syria has sustained sectarian scars that will simply take a long time to heal," said Loai Hussein, an opposition political activist. "There has been a great deal of polarization, some of which is encouraged by neighboring countries."
There have been countless incidents of slayings between Sunnis and Alawites-Shiites across much of the country. In the main cities, mixed Alawite-Sunni neighborhoods are fast disappearing, as residents of one sect are driven out by the other or choose to flee to the safety of areas where their community is the majority.
In Idlib province, which neighbors Aleppo and has been the scene of heavy fighting, a Shiite leader from the village of Kifaraya said his son-in-law was kidnapped seven months ago by Sunnis.
"I hope it is all part of the war and that it will go away when it is over and we live together again in peace," said Abu Abdullah Hassaneh. "I am not pointing an accusing finger at anyone. It is haram (religiously prohibited) to do so."
In a wider context, Syria's sectarian fault lines reflect a divide in the region, with Shiite powerhouses Iran and Hezbollah backing Syria and Sunni Egypt and Saudi Arabia alongside their smaller Arab allies aiding the rebels and calling on Assad to step down. Syria's rebels accuse Hezbollah guerrillas and Iraqi Shiite hard-liners of fighting alongside Assad's forces, though they offer no proof.
While Syrian opposition politicians in exile abroad speak of inclusion and equality in a post-Assad Syria, the Sunni rebels on the ground bitterly talk of the need to exact retribution against Alawites who they say victimized them for decades
Al-Hajji and fighters of the rebel Free Syrian Army in the area insist they will lift the siege on Zahraa and Nubl if the government forces and Shabiha surrender to them.
But their desire for vengeance against the Shiite residents there at times shows through. They say the Shiite villages are doing much more than providing sanctuary for the regime loyalists, accusing them of actively taking part in kidnappings and sniping at Sunnis. The brother of al-Hajji's wife was wounded when he took part in a recent firefight with Sunnis, said al-Hajji, but her family said nothing of his injury. They are also evasive when she asks them about conditions in the two villages.
Al-Hajji's 62-year-old father, Abdou al-Hajji, adopts a conciliatory tone when speaking about the area's divides. He notes how Sunnis "embraced" Shiites who fled Lebanon during Hezbollah's war with Israel in 2006.
"We have long lived in peace alongside the Shiites," said the senior al-Hajji. "We shared joy in weddings and grief in funerals."
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