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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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“Look, look,” says the Lebanese sheikh, a small wiry figure with long straggly hair, as he leans forward proffering his cellphone. “This is what the Shabiha are doing to us.”

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The video on the phone showed two prisoners lying on the side of a road with their hands tied behind their back. The video goes on to show their beheading. Another video shows a similar sickening scene. 

It was impossible to confirm the identity of the killers and the prisoners, although there were no Islamic exhortations such as “Allah u-Akhbar” that usually accompany such executions when carried out by Islamist extremists.

But how did the sheikh obtain the video if it was shot by a Shabiha militiaman?

“When we capture the Shabiha, we always check their cellphones for information and sometimes we find these videos on them,” says Abassi.

Hezbollah and Iran involved?

The FSA officers all claimed that Lebanese Hezbollah fighters and Iranian Revolutionary Guard soldiers were active in Syria in helping the regime suppress the uprising.

“Hezbollah, Amal, the Iranian Revolutionary Guards, Muqtada Sadr’s people – they’re all there in Syria,” says Mohammed, one of the officers from Homs, referring to Shiite groups in Lebanon and Iraq.

As the conflict becomes increasingly militarized, secular Syrian voices are likely to be sidelined, analysts say.

"The need for tremendous sacrifice and to shame Sunni supporters of the regime to defect is moving the opposition toward a sectarian logic similar to what we have witnessed elsewhere in the region," says Joshua Landis, a Syria expert and director of the Middle East Center at the University of Oklahoma.

On Friday, an FSA unit claimed to have captured five Iranian soldiers in Homs. Last week, opposition media outlets claimed that Hezbollah militants had fired Katyusha rockets from Lebanon into Zabadani, a resort town lying five miles from the border which is presently under FSA control. Hezbollah, which is a close ally of the Assad regime, has repeatedly denied its cadres are in Syria, and little evidence has emerged to back the accusations of the Syrian opposition.

Still, the claims reflect the deep hostility felt by many Sunnis in Syria and Lebanon toward the Shiite powers of Iran and Hezbollah and the predominantly Alawite regime in Damascus.

“The majority of the Sunnis in the region are fed up with the Alawites controlling power in Syria and the Shia in Lebanon – Hezbollah – having weapons and controlling everything,” says Sheikh Omar Bakri, a Salafist cleric in Tripoli. “The Sunnis feel so weak and fear the Shiites and Alawites so much that they would even accept American forces into Syria if it meant getting rid of them.”

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