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« 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?According to international reports and U.S. intelligence, Assad’s regime has been just as brutal, killing at least 100,000 citizens, including hundreds in a sarin gas attack on Aug. 21.

As Congress holds hearings to determine a response to that attack, Middle East experts say it’s imperative to understand the major religious players in Syria, and why they are fighting.The stakes couldn’t be higher, experts say. »If we come and and give one group a total win, we may be setting up an ethnic cleansing, » Landis said.The situation is Syria is fairly fluid, with lots of conflicting reports and shifting alliances, but here is our breakdown of the religious groups at war and a bit of background on their beliefs.This small, secretive sect makes up just 12% of the Syrian population, but members have held prominent seats of power since the 1970s. Why? Because the ruling Assad family is Alawi.Alawites consider themselves Muslims, but most mainstream Muslims call them heretics. Among the reasons: They believe that Ali, the Prophet Muhammad’s cousin and son-in-law, is divine.They’ve been ostracized almost since their 9th-century founding, so they keep many of their core beliefs secret. During the Ottoman Empire, they were not allowed to testify in court, Landis said. »It was assumed they would lie, because the God they professed was man-made, » he said.In the 1970s, Hafez al-Assad, Bashar’s father, built a brutal security force with fellow Alawites.

They were the fingers of his iron fist.Despite that, many Alawites initially joined the uprising against Bashar al-Assad, calling for greater freedom and government transparency.As the conflict progressed, however, Sunni rebels targeted Alawite communities, pushing them back into Assad’s arms.To give you some sense of how some Syrian Sunnis feel about Alawites, here’s what Adnan Anour, a cleric who fled to Saudi Arabia, has said: « As for those Alawites who violate what is sacred, when the Muslims rule and are the majority of 85%, we will chop you up and feed you to the dogs. »