Religious Schism

     I was watching news footage last week of Syrian government officials walking quickly into a hall in Damascus for a meeting with the Russian foreign minister. There was a moment when they were jostling and a couple stumbled, as they rushed forward.
     I said out loud, “Those guys are nervous.”
     Their dignity, their pomp had disappeared.
     Ever since I played a lot of pick up sports in college, instead of doing my studies, I have reflexively checked a person’s gait, their physique, the way they move, and it can be telling.
     I thought the sycophants were scared, and had good reason to be.
     Syrian rebels, as both BBC and Al Jazeera reported, had sent a wave of mortar shells into the Syrian capital the day before the foreign minister’s arrival, a wicked kind of “Greetings!” But it also said they were close and they were confident.
     I was trying to explain my remark to my girlfriend Sanae who is less of a news hound than I am.
     She asked if it was the Islamic State that was making headway. I thought not. But they had broken the log jam of the Syrian civil war.
     It seemed like an eternal stalemate, with an ever-climbing number of displaced and dead. And then in recent months, the Syrian government’s dominance drifted away like a time-lapsed puff of smoke.
     As reported by the media, the groups pushing west into the heartland of the Syrian president’s strength and south towards the capital are an ever-shifting polyglot assortment of militias.
     To the north, the Islamic State appears to be stalled, with newspapers reporting effective coordination between Kurdish ground forces and American warplanes.
     Sanae asked a straight-forward question: Did the Russians support the Syrian government.
     Yes, I answered, as does Iran. But Russia seems to be going to a possible middle ground, probably because they are playing the odds that the Syrian government might fall.
     Is the Syrian government Shiite, she asked.
     No, but the government’s tribe of Alawites has historically been opposed by the Sunni tribes of Syria. And, thus Shiite-dominated Iran supports the government because they share an opponent.
     On the other side of the Syrian conflict, the rebel groups are indeed primarily Sunni, as widely reported, whether it is the Al Qaeda-related groups, the Islamic State, or the more moderate reformers.
     A cursory look at the region’s history confirms a thousand years of opposition between the Alawites and Sunnis. Little surprise that the current conflict falls along the same lines.
     What surprised me in my conversation with Sanae was how easy it was to give an analysis of the day’s news in the Middle East when it followed the axis of the great schism within Islam.
     On the same night, the same two news networks reported a similar advance on the capital of Yemen.
     An analysis of that second story based on religion also went smoothly.
     The Houthi rebels in Yemen are associated with the Shia faith and supported by Iran. The Saudis, of the Sunni faith, are the principal force behind the advance of the anti-Houthi forces in Yemen associated with the former government, also Sunnis.
     Like everything in the region, there are shadings in the conflict. The Houthis are renowned for the rugged lifestyle, marksmanship and bravery. They are also poor and looked upon as backwards by the more affluent Sunnis.
     So, yes, there is a class division, as well.
     Finally, on the same news night, the networks showed the images of the immigrants arriving in Greece, mostly from Syria. I looked at the faces, the clothes, the gait. They did not look like the poor, the downtrodden, the suffering. They were well-spoken, comfortably dressed and showed no sign of deprivation. They were mostly young men, fighting age and in good shape.
     And I wondered, can this story too be analyzed along a religious axis.
     Are these folks possibly those who supported the government, and who, like the officials in Damascus, see the rebels gaining strength and are getting out while they can. Only some good reporting will tell us the story behind the boatloads of Syrians now floating towards Greece and demanding entry into “Europa!”

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