09/09/2013 09:41 am ET Updated Nov 09, 2013

Bad News for America: Religion Enflames the Syrian Civil War

Religion is at the heart of the Syrian Civil War and this isn't good news. It means that old animosities will likely survive any negotiated settlement or military solution. It means that while the rest of the world thinks in terms of an army, rebels and contested territory, the combatants think in terms of righteous warriors, a holy cause and the will of God.

It also means that the U.S. government is likely to handle it all clumsily. We don't usually "do" religion well when it comes to international crises.

We Americans tend to think of most wars in terms of our own Revolution. There is an oppressive ruler. There are an oppressed people. The people yearn for greater freedom and democracy for all. The oppressive ruler must fall so that a brighter day may dawn.

If only it were true. Instead, in the global upheavals of recent history, the ruler is often corrupt but still a necessary restraint on greater evil still. The rebels do want freedom but in truth that greater freedom means more power and wealth for themselves and genocide for their enemies. It is all more complex, more shaded in gray, and more tawdry than Americans often understand.

In Syria, religion enflames the current atrocities, though few in the wider world understand it. Most Syrians are Sunni Muslims. They hold to the historic teachings of Islam, believe that the leaders of the faith should arise from the Muslim community, and they look forward to the return of a Mahdi, a "rightly guided one," who will restore the glory Islam to the world.

A smaller number of Muslims in Syria are Shi'ites. This minority believes that the true ruler of Islam is not an approved member of the Islamic community but an anointed descendant of the prophet Muhammad. They also believe the Mahdi is already walking the earth but is in hiding and they are deeply mystical about most other matters of faith.

We should know this because within these Shi'ites--only about ten percent of Islam worldwide--there is a tinier minority still. They are called the Alawites. They are a secretive sect of Islam whose practices are considered so holy that knowledge of them is often kept even from uninitiated Alawites. Persecuted during much of their thousand-year history, they have a fierce animosity for their Sunni neighbors. Not until the end of world World War I did their fortunes improve, though their hatred for the Sunni Muslim majority continued to seethe.

This brief sketch of a religion is required knowledge for understanding events in Syria today. The Assad family is Alawite. Much of the Syrian military is Alawite. Though the Syrian government under the Assads is officially secular, the Sunni majority in Syria has long suspected that the state serves the oppressive Alawite objectives of the ruling family. This is particularly infuriating to Sunnis since Alawites number only about twelve percent of the Syrian population.

Rumor is an effective tool of war in the Middle East and the rumor now swirling throughout the Arab world is that President Bashar al Assad has chosen this moment to destroy the Sunni majority. Thus his brutality with his fellow Syrians--or at least those Syrians not of his faith. Sunnis in the region are being summoned to rally to their Syrian brethren and fight against Assad's forces. The boiling point is fast approaching.

These must seem like overheated religious imaginings to the average American family trying to get through an evening meal without being sickened by the Sarin-gassed corpses grotesquely displayed on the evening news. The truth is that this religious hatred is real and has shown itself again and again in Syrian history.

As recently as 1982, Hafez al-Assad, the previous ruler of Syria and the current president's father, ordered his air force to bomb and his army to invade a Sunni Muslim town named Hama. The president's brother was in command of the invading force and later boasted of murdering 38,000 people, most of whom were fleeing civilians. New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman believes that the number killed was more in the range of 10,000 to 20,000 but that the larger issue is what he calls the "Hama Rule" by which the Assad regime now conducts itself. Total war, genocidal war--a degree of brutality that stuns Western sensibilities and stifles Western response--is the Assad policy. It is a boast, a sneering attempt to expose the cowardice of the West. It is horror in the service of religion.

These things do not die in the Middle East. They live on for generations. I was flying into Amman, Jordan, some years ago and noted to a Jordanian friend the official name of his country: "The Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan." My friend explained at length that the Hashemites had once ruled Mecca. He then said, "And we want it back."

He was not smiling. Remember that the Hashemites have not ruled Mecca for a thousand years.

So it is with the religious tensions in the Middle East and so it will be when Bashar al-Assad is dust. We are not witnessing an American-style revolution in Syria. We are witnessing carnage that is fruit of a culture in which hatred is holy.