Muslim Against Muslim: Syria's Secret Civil War

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JERUSALEM, Israel -- The conflict between Muslims in Syria is a civil war you aren't hearing about and the most brutal battle in the world right now.

Grainy cell phone video, brutal fighting, Islamic shouts, and failed negotiations mark the 17-month long Syrian uprising.

"What is happening in Syria is that [President] Bashar Assad and his Alawite elite are fighting a war of self-survival, self-preservation against what is essentially a Sunni revolt against them," Dore Gold, director of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, told CBN News.

This revolt pits Sunni against Shiite.

"The strategic fault line of conflict in the region [is] between the Iran-led regional block on the one hand and, I would say, the Sunni block -- the Sunni group of states, including Saudi Arabia," Gold said.

Jonathan Spyer, a senior research fellow at the Global Research in International Affairs Center, told CBN News "that fault line right now is running through Syria."

The line splits the Middle East into two large Islamic camps. The larger one includes the Sunni nations of Egypt, Turkey, the Gulf States -- and the epicenter of Sunni Islam, Saudi Arabia.

Iran leads the Shiite Islam group, which includes its proxy, Hezbollah, in Lebanon and Syria.

While Assad and much of his regime technically belong to a sect called Alawite, they align themselves with Shiite Islam.

So with both groups calling themselves Muslims, why do they fight each other? The answer goes back to the beginning of Islam.

"The Shiites believe that Islam should have been led from the very beginning by a caliph who came from the family of the prophet himself, in fact from the family of the cousin of the prophet called Ali," Hebrew University Prof. Moshe Sharon, a world-renowned expert on Islam, explained.

"The Sunnis believe that the caliph, namely the leader of the Islamic community, the 'Commander of the Faithful,' should be elected from the community," he said.

This theological disagreement led to the great Islamic divide.

"Of course [it] developed during the years and there was tremendous enmity and tremendous hatred between the two parts," Sharon said.

That hatred is now being fought on Syrian soil.

"It's a very dramatic development, and it's a reflection of this main struggle in the Middle East today," Gold explained.

In this struggle Iran funds and arms the Assad regime, while the Saudis and other Sunni powers back the opposition, which includes elements of the Muslim Brotherhood. The United States is lining up behind the opposition groups.

"There's growing evidence that on the ground and away from the public eye there are American personnel who are helping to direct resources and weaponry to the rebels," Spyer said.

Spyer said the United States and the West have, in effect, given the job of building up the Syrian opposition to the Saudis. Unfortunately, that opposition is becoming more radical and Islamist.

"To put it simply, if you give the Saudis the job of creating an insurgency for you, well don't be surprised if you get a Sunni Islamist insurgency," Spyer said.

The outcome of this struggle between these two Middle East titans will greatly determine the future and fate of the Middle East. It's a conflict Israeli leaders are watching closely.

If the Syrian opposition topples Assad, it's possible Israel could have a second radical Islamic regime on its borders.

Originally aired on Friday, July 13.

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Chris Mitchell

CBN News Middle East Bureau Chief

In a time where the world's attention is riveted on events in the Middle East, CBN viewers have come to appreciate Chris Mitchell's timely reports from this explosive region of the world. Mitchell brings a Biblical and prophetic perspective to these daily news events that shape our world.