Syria appears to b sliding inexorably toward civil war after the government sent tanks into Jisr al-Shughour.

The town’s Sunni muslims inhabitants had mostly fled, following the deaths of 120 servicement earlier in the week. 

“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.”

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?”