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.

Smoke rises over Damascus, Syria, on Sunday.

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 Khaled bin Walid, a companion of the prophet Mohammad 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.

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.

Opposition alleges atrocities

“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.”

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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