What is the X-factor in Syrian bloodshed? DUH! (updated)

It seems that many networkers in the online world remain fired up about that recent Washington Post explainer that ran under the headline “9 questions about Egypt you were too embarrassed to ask.” That’s the one you may recall, in part because of this GetReligion post, that was the first of many similar mainstream media pieces that have tried to explain the rising violence in Syria without including information about its crucial religious divisions.

What kind of religious divisions at the heart of the violence?

Well, how many of you out in GetReligion reader land have seen the following Associated Press report in your local newspaper, a national newspaper or your favorite news (as opposed to analysis) website? You would have seen a headline that looked something like this: “Al-Qaeda-linked rebels assault Syrian Christian village.” A shout out to CBS, by the way, for at least covering that event online.

Anyway, all of that is to point readers toward a long, deep piece that ran the other day at the CNN Belief Blog, written by co-editor Daniel Burke, under this rather remarkable headline, in the current media climate: “Syria explained: How it became a religious war.” Here’s the top of the story:

(CNN) – How did Syria go from an internal uprising to a wider clash drawing funding and fighters from across the region?

In a word, Middle East experts say, religion.

Shiite Muslims from Lebanon, Iraq and Iran have flooded into Syria to defend sacred sites and President Bashar al-Assad’s embattled regime. Sunni Muslims, some affiliated with al Qaeda, have rushed in to join rebels, most of whom are Sunni.

Both sides use religious rhetoric as a rallying cry, calling each other “infidels” and “Satan’s army.”

“That is why it has become so muddy,” said professor Joshua Landis, director of the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma. “The theological question has returned to the center.”

So who is crying out that the key to the rising conflict is religion? That would be the United Nations.

Why does that matter so much?

Religious civil wars are longer and bloodier than other types of clashes, according to studies. They are also twice as likely to recur and twice as deadly to noncombatants.

“People hold onto religious fights longer than battles over land and water,” said Nicole Bibbins Sedaca, an expert on foreign policy at Georgetown University and a 10-year veteran of the U.S. State Department. “It becomes existential and related to belief in a higher calling.”

Some combatants in Syria appear to believe that fighting in the name of God justifies the most barbaric measures.

Remember that video of a rebel eating the heart of a Syrian soldier while shouting “God is great!”? Or the other video showing the beheading of three men with butcher knives, also while praising God?

Of course, as CNN accurately notes, the ruling regime has been just as brutal in many cases. However, one complication — yes, captured in the CNN report — is that Syrian troops are often the only forces that are standing between tiny, in many cases defenseless, religious minorities and the elements of the rebel forces that can accurately be called Islamist and, in some cases, linked to al Qaeda.

So who are the other players on this sectarian chess board?

As mentioned, there are Shiite Muslims and members of the powerful Alawi community, a sect of Islam that makes up 12 percent of the population (although some studies group them with the Shiites). Of course, the Assad family is part of the Alawites.

Thus, who is rebelling against the Assads and the regime’s coalition?

Sunni Muslims are by far the biggest Muslim sect, in the world and in Syria. It’s estimated that Sunnis make up 75% of Syria’s population of 22 million. But they’ve long been sidelined by the Assads. It’s little surprise, then, that most of the Free Syrian Army, the largest rebel group, is Sunni.

Within the Sunni coalition, there are remnants of the Muslim Brotherhood, who were brutally suppressed by the Assads; Salafists, who believe in a purified Islam based on its earliest days; and more secular-minded Sunnis.

In recent months they’ve been joined — sometimes to their consternation — by fighters from al Qaeda-linked groups. Always eager to fight Shiites and sow discord, these jihadists are every bit as fierce and battle-tested as Hezbollah, their sworn enemy.

And who are the unarmed players in this conflict?

Christians, who form about 10 percent of the Syrian population, are essentially middle men in this civil war, caught between Assad’s army and the Sunni rebels.

Under Assad, Christians had more rights than in many Middle Eastern countries, with the freedom to worship and run schools and churches. Their rights were limited however. The Syrian constitution says the president must be Muslim, for example.

According to UN reports, rebel fighters have targeted Christian communities, shooting up factories and detonating car bombs in Christian neighborhoods. In addition, many Christians — in Syria and in the United States — fear the fate of Christians should Sunni fundamentalists take power in Syria.

This is a solid and informative piece that should be getting lots of retweets and social-media links.

Pass it on, people.

UPDATE: Time reports that the Christian village of Maaloula has fallen to the jihadists.

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.


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