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Syria uprising: Religion overshadowing the democratic push

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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.

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