Syria uprising: Religion overshadowing the democratic push
The fighting in Syria risks being defined less as a popular uprising against a secular democracy and more as an armed sectarian conflict.
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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.Skip to next paragraph
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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.
Sunni-populated areas of north Lebanon have become relative safe havens for Syrian dissidents and FSA soldiers. The Bab Tebbaneh quarter of Tripoli lies beside the Alawite-populated Jabal Mohsen neighborhood. Decades of hostility and periodic clashes between the two communities has hardened sectarian feeling on both sides. Peeling posters of former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein still dot the walls of Bab Tebbaneh alongside pictures of radical clerics or Sunni combat “martyrs”.
“The only place we feel really safe is here in Bab Tebbaneh,” says Sheikh Zuheir Amr Abassi, from Deraa in southern Syria and spokesman of the Islamic Supreme Council of Syria, a Sunni charitable organization in Syria.
Mr. Abassi, who says he provides logistical assistance to the FSA without playing a combat role, says that the FSA includes religious cadres. While FSA units are granted autonomy to attack targets of opportunity without prior authorization, he says, for pre-planned attacks the more devout cadres seek a fatwa, a religious edict, from Syrian dissident clerics.
"It's up to each unit whether they want a fatwa before any military operation. We usually obtain fatwas for each attack we plan, but for those that don't, if they kill someone, it's between them and God when they die," Abassi says.
Most attacks are directed at interrogation centers, arms depots, and against pro-regime Alawite Shabiha militiamen who have earned a reputation among the opposition for their brutality.