Syria, like most modern dictatorships, ensures its existence via a large number of intelligence and secret police organizations. There are fifteen of these in Syria, staffed by 65,000 men (and a few women) selected mainly for their loyalty and ruthlessness. Another 40,000 police are also carefully selected, but this force contains more Sunni Arabs. However, most of the security forces are from minorities (which are 26 percent of the 22 million Syrians, half are the ruling Alawites, the rest Christians and Druze). But the army represents the population, and most of the troops, like most of the demonstrators, are Sunni Arabs. A disproportionate number of army officers and NCOs are Sunni, but most of the weapons are held by Sunni Arabs. This has always been a major danger to the dictatorship. The secret police are, of necessity, a minority, and a universally hated one at that.
Recently, soldiers and secret police began shooting at each other in Syria. This happened in the city of Homs, where the police opened fire on the thousands of anti-government demonstrators. Some of the demonstrators ran behind nearby army vehicles. The police kept firing at the demonstrators behind the army vehicles, and the soldiers in the line of fire began firing back. The police yelled at the soldiers to get out of the way, but the soldiers kept shooting. Eventually, the army officers got their troops to stop firing. The soldiers were there to use their armored vehicles, including a few tanks, to intimidate the crowds.
This incident was apparently the first such time soldiers and security people opened fire on each other. Worse, the word has gotten around that the army will "protect the people." With the more loyal army officers and sergeants on the alert (and reminded where their economic interests lie), another spontaneous effort by Sunni Arab troops to protect Sunni Arab demonstrators, is less likely. But the precedent has been set. The people know it, the government knows it and the Sunni Arab soldiers know it.