As soon as Gen. Robert Mood stepped out of his white SUV he was mobbed by hundreds of men, women, and children.
The leader of the unarmed UN observer mission to Syria had come to the village of Muhassan, and the Sunni population was ready for him. They carried pictures of the "martyrs" killed here since the Syrian uprising began.
The children shouted, "Bashar is a donkey," and everyone crowded around the Norwegian general before he got down to business: A meeting with senior commanders of the Free Syrian Army, the loosely structured rebel army fighting to oust President Bashar al-Assad's Baath regime.
Muhassan is an FSA stronghold, but it is only a short drive from the provincial capital of Deir Ez-Zour near the Iraqi border, which remains in government hands. Between the two is the landscape of a Syrian civil war that has only deepened since Mood's mission began in April.
Rebels from the country's Sunni majority lust for revenge after massacres blamed on the government. Assad supporters, most from his minority Alawite sect, dismiss the rebels as foreign terrorists and call for tougher government reprisals. For many, the conflict has become an existential one: win, or risk being wiped out.
Gen. Mood's job is to convince both sides they're not interested in destroying the other. That proposition grows tougher by the moment. A conversation with the governor of Deir Ez-Zour, Samir el-Sheikh, illustrates how far apart both sides are. He was pleasant enough during the meeting earlier that day, but his tone was anything but conciliatory.
"The government has been far too patient with these people ... the armed groups simply have to give up their weapons," says Gov. Sheikh, an Alawite who was appointed governor after the uprising began. "But they don’t want this situation to end because they are criminals and they are getting rich off this situation. The real opposition is in the parliament in Damascus.”
The governor apologizes for being slightly hard of hearing – a result, he says, “of all the shooting I did in the 1980s.” The early 80's witnessed the last big uprising against the Baath regime, led at the time by the Muslim Brotherhood. Back then Bashar al-Assad's father, Hafez, was president, and the uprising ended in 1982 after the Syrian Army sacked the city of Hama, with at least 10,000 residents killed.
To be sure, the younger Assad's regime has not carried out a massacre on that scale since protests broke out in March 2011. But the US and rebel activists say there is mounting evidence of systemic killing of civilians, as well as rebel fighters, and many expect the violence to worsen. The UN alleges children have been targeted for torture and execution by pro-government militias in the past year.