The Syrian civil war is taking on an increasingly religious character. For some time now, the insurgents have been fighting more than the dictator. Many are brutally pursuing religious rivalries.
Militarily, the battle lines are clear in Syria: President Bashar Assad's opponents are fighting his supporters - the revolutionary forces are battling the regime's military and security apparatus. But ideologically, connections among the groups on the opposition side are more complicated, because while the soldiers are united by their hostility to Assad, their views vary widely when confronting many other questions.
Many fighters have come to Syria in recent months to help overthrow the current regime. But at the same time they are also pursuing very different goals. Among them were two young men from Libya, whose story was reported in the "Al Quds al Arabi" newspaper this week. They said that the two major branches of Islam, Shia and Sunni, were in conflict in Syria, and the two denominations were engaged in a final battle for supremacy in the region. The fighters are convinced that the Shiites are determined to become the absolute masters in the region, and as Sunnis they had come to prevent that from occurring.
Multi-faceted religious motives
Such religiously charged scenarios motivate many of the fighters in Syria. These insurgents are acting mainly out of religious conviction, according Islam scholar Thomas Pierret. There are some political motives too, but they only play a secondary role, he said. A minority of fighters are global jihadists trying to export their faith around the world by terrorist means, but they do not represent "a particularly big or significant phenomenon," Pierret said.
It is difficult to put the diverse motives of the Islamist fighters in Syria into a one box, said Guido Steinberg, an Islam expert at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP).
"There is almost certainly a significant amount of religious motivation involved - Sunnism is playing a role," he said. "But for some it is Islamism, for others Salafism, and for a few it goes as far as jihadism."
Extremism as a label
But some groups are adopting an Islamist position for another reason, said Pierret. The Sunni fighters have had a disappointing experience - Saudi Arabia, the rich center of conservative Sunni Islam, is providing less support than anticipated. The Saudis are not donating as much money for weapons as had been hoped for, so the Sunni fighters have been looking around for other sources of cash.
"They turned to private sponsors in the Gulf region, from Saudi Arabia as well as other states in the region," said Pierret. "They are very wealthy people who have already supported jihadist groups in Chechnya, Afghanistan and Iraq." And they reportedly have very specific criteria for making donations. The beneficiaries must be devout Muslims, preferably Salafists, said Pierret, which means many fighters present themselves as more Muslim than they actually are. In essence, extremism is a label that is supposed to motivate sponsors to donate larger sums.
The number of foreign fighters in Syria is relatively small, Pierret and Steinberg agreed, but there are still plenty of fundamentalists among the Syrians themselves. "If you look at the number of fighters who traveled to Iraq after 2003, you'll find that the Syrians, after the Saudis, represent the largest contingent of foreign fighters," Steinberg told DW. "That suggests there is a strong jihadist underground in Syria itself."
But the number of religiously motivated fighters is likely to grow as long as the civil war continues. The brutality of Assad's Alawi-dominated troops has prompted more and more fighters to take revenge on Alawi civilians, who follow a branch of Shia Islam. Such revenge attacks have led to a vicious circle of reprisals.
Free Syrian Army desperate
The increasingly religious nature of the fighting is also damaging the Free Syrian Army (FSA), said Steinberg, since the leadership knows that it gives Western powers a strong reason to distance themselves from the insurgency.
Steinberg said that's why the FSA and the Syrian National Council have tried to distance themselves from the overtly religious rebels. "The problem is of course, that these groups are present on the ground, and may be stronger than we suspect," he added.
But the FSA also has another problem, explained Steinberg - it is militarily too weak to do without the Islamist fighters. The FSA is essentially little more than a collection of militias, which makes it dependent on soldiers they would rather not have in their ranks.