ISTANBUL Turkey believes Damascus is now portraying the Syrian crisis as a Sunni-Shi'ite conflict to mask President Bashar al-Assad's loss of political authority, according to a senior adviser to Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan.
This "neo-sectarian" approach aims to rally Syrian Shi'ites to Assad's side and explain away opposition to him by majority Sunni states in the region, Ibrahim Kalin told Reuters.
But Syria's Sunnis and Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shi'ism to which Assad belongs, are not fixed blocs and Turkey does not see the crisis in sectarian terms, Kalin said at a weekend conference of Muslim and Christian religious leaders from the Middle East.
"The Assad regime, because it has lost its political legitimacy, is now trying to present this as a sectarian conflict," he said. "They claim that those who oppose the Assad regime do so because they are Sunnis and they hate Shi'ites.
"The good news is that the vast majority of the Sunnis and Shi'ites don't buy this argument and realise these are political decisions, not a sectarian conflict."
Kalin described as "neo-sectarianism" the growing emphasis on religious identities across the Middle East, but said these trends - while real - were still mostly secondary to the political struggles driving events in the region.
Syrian society is a religious and ethnic mosaic with multiple fault lines. The Alawites who comprise the bulk of the ruling establishment make up 12 percent of the population, while Sunnis, the backbone of the opposition, account for 75 percent.
There are also Christian (10 percent), Kurdish (8 percent) and Druze (less than 3 percent) minorities. Christians have stayed mostly neutral in the fighting, Fearing an Islamist victory if Assad goes. Syrian Kurds have used Assad's weakness to take control of some northern areas of the country.
MORE ABOUT ISRAEL THAN ISLAM
In Ankara's analysis, Shi'ite Iran's staunch support for Assad is partly due to sectarian solidarity, but based more on flawed political assumptions.
"Iran considers Syria to be a sphere of influence and part of a front against Israeli occupation in the region," Kalin said.
"Their calculation is that, if the Assad regime is toppled, the new regime in Syria would not hold its ground against Israeli policies, which is simply wrong."
The newly elected governments in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya have proven to be very concerned about the Palestinian cause, and they now express their opposition to Israeli occupation of Arab land with full democratic credentials, he said.
"Whoever comes to power in Syria will be based on the popular will of the people. The vast majority of the Syrian people, just like the rest of the Middle East, are against the Israeli occupation," he added.
Kalin, a former professor of Islamic philosophy and leading advocate of better Muslim-Christian understanding, said Islam's majority Sunnist and minority Shi'ites have had phases of both calm and tense relations throughout Islam's history.
They also have splits within their own ranks and varied experiences of living together in different countries.
"Both historically and doctrinally, it would be a big mistake to treat the Sunnis as one bloc and the Shi'ites as one bloc," he argued. "There's no one single indicator that can really define that whole identity."
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Kalin said Saudi Arabia and Qatar, which have backed conservative Sunni movements in other recent uprisings in the Arab world, also put politics before religion in Syria.
"They are supporting the Syrian opposition against a brutal regime - that's the bottom line there," he said.
Erdogan, a Sunni, impressed the religious leaders meeting in Istanbul by using an iconic Shi'ite image - the killing of Imam Hussain, a grandson of the Prophet Mohammad, at a battle in 680 in Kerbala in Iraq - to denounce the bloodshed in Syria.
"What is happening today in Syria is the same as what happened in Kerbala 1,332 years ago," he said on Friday, comparing the Syrian people to the slain Shi'ite Hussain and Assad to the rejected Sunni leader who killed him.
"This is not a Sunni or Shi'ite issue, it's a matter of justice and oppression," Kalin said.
Neo-sectarianism is also evident in the radical Salafi ideology that rejects both Shi'ites and other Sunnis as heretics who have strayed from the purity of early Islam, he said, noting that Salafis had recently destroyed several Sufi Muslim shrines in Libya. (Editing by Kevin Liffey)