Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Syria Uprising: Religion Overshadowing the Democratic Push

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Syria Uprising: Religion Overshadowing the Democratic Push

Article excerpt

The fighting in Syria risks being defined less as a popular uprising against a secular democracy and more as an armed sectarian conflict.

The sectarian fault line in Syria is growing more apparent as the conflict steadily intensifies between the Alawite-dominated regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and the mainly Sunni rebel Free Syrian Army.

The regime's reliance on Alawite militiamen, known as the Shabiha, to help suppress the 10-month uprising is mirrored by elements of the armed rebel forces rallying around their Sunni identity through religious and sectarian motifs and language. The minority Alawite sect draws upon some Shiite traditions and is considered heretical by conservative Sunnis.

With the Assad regime showing no sign of caving to domestic and international pressure, the confrontation risks becoming defined less as a popular uprising against a secular autocracy and more as an armed sectarian conflict pitting Sunnis against Alawites and their Shiite allies: Iran and Lebanon's Hezbollah.

"I think there's more and more evidence of that and it's almost unavoidable given how things have developed around the entire region," says Rami Khouri, director of the Issam Fares Institute of Public Policy and International Affairs at the American University of Beirut. "Iran, Hezbollah, and the Syrian regime have been rolled into one" as an enemy of the mainly Sunni Syrian opposition.

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Symbols of Sunni affirmation and religious observance are easily found within the ranks of the FSA from examples as mundane as headbands inscribed with quotes from the Koran to heated anti- Hezbollah and Iran rhetoric. Some of the battalions that comprise the FSA are named after prominent historical Sunni leaders. They include Hamza al-Khatib, a companion of the prophet Mohammed who was a noted military strategist, and Muawiyah bin abi Sufyan, the founder of the Damascus-based Ummayyad dynasty and a figure reviled by Shiites.

"In Syria [sectarian identity] is there. All you have to do is scratch the surface," says Andrew Tabler, a Syria specialist with the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and author of a book on Syria under the presidency of Mr. Assad. "Until now, I don't think you have seen a tremendous amount of organizing along sectarian lines.... But it is natural that the main divide is going to be between Alawites and other Shiite off-shoots versus Sunnis."

Opposition claims 40,000 fighters

The FSA is composed of deserters from the regular Syrian army and is commanded by Col. Riad al-Assad who defected last summer and lives in a refugee camp in Turkey. Its strength is unknown although FSA leaders and Syrian opposition figures have claimed numbers as high as 40,000. Others say the figure is much lower.

In November, Colonel Assad told Turkey's Millyet newspaper that the FSA sought to make Syria a "Muslim country and a secular democracy" like Turkey. He admitted that all his fighters were Sunnis but denied regime allegations that the FSA was allied to the Muslim Brotherhood, the outlawed main Islamist force in Syria.

Still, there was no mistaking the staunchly Sunni identity and religious convictions of the six Syrians, five of whom were serving FSA officers and soldiers, sheltering last week in the home of a radical cleric in a dilapidated apartment block in the impoverished Sunni neighborhood of Bab Tebbaneh in Tripoli, a city in northern Lebanon. Two of them claimed to be sheikhs and all but one were from Homs, the flashpoint city lying 20 miles north of the border with Lebanon.

"We're deserting because the regime makes us kill civilians. The Alawite officers stand behind us and they shoot anyone they see not firing at protestors," says Ahmad, who said he deserted six months ago from a military intelligence unit in Damascus. …

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