Syrian Civil War: The Story of A Sectarian State - ABC FOX MONTANA NEWS, WEATHER, SPORTS - KTMF/KWYB

Syrian Civil War: The Story of A Sectarian State

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MISSOULA - For the first time, the United States is on the brink of directly entering the ongoing civil war in Syria that has cost thousands of lives and forced millions from their homes.

Syria has long played an important role in international trade and commerce, bringing many different ethnic and religious groups to the region.

The struggle going on now partly stems from these different groups of people being forced into one country.

"We are now on the verge of getting involved in a very complex, inter-religious, inter-ethnic inter-regional power struggle, which has been going on basically since 1970."

Dr. Mehrdad Kia is the head of the Central and Southwest Asian Studies Center at the University of Montana.

Kia has followed conflict in Syria for years, long before the civil war broke out in March of 2011.

It's a conflict, he says, that was birthed by French occupation in the 1920's and shares a story of many countries around the world including neighboring Iraq, where many different ethnic groups were forced together by European boundaries creating imminent conflict.

"Syria is not really one nation, it's several nations contained in one. The way the French created it, they forced a lot of different people, with a lot of different religions, with different ethnic backgrounds, with different linguist affiliations to come together," Kia said.

One of these groups, the Alawites, a fringe religious group that makes up about twelve percent of modern Syria, allied with the French even as they left Syria in the 1970's.

As the French were leaving, a group of Alawites gained control of the army and subsequently the new government.

Out of this group rose Hafez al-Assad, an Alawite who led Syria for 30 years before his son and current president, Bashar al-Assad, took over in 2000.

"In some ways the Assad regime, which has been in power since in 1970, is a tribe with a flag. It's actually one region of Syria, a minority group, with the help of relatives, running the country, and keeping the rest of the country under their control," Kia said.

Their regime was challenged in the so called Arab Spring of 2011 by uprisings from a mostly moderate, united, middle class coalition of protestors.

Kia says Bashar al-Assad's brutal response sparked the now bloody conflict different than those in other transitioning countries.

"I think those who are fighting Assad, unlike many in Tunisia and Egypt, are not 'democrats' with small D are not asking for a democratic system. They want to get rid of that minority Alawite rule and replace it with a majority rule, but that majority does not want a democratic system, they want an Islamic system."

Now, those fighting it are no longer the unified group of protestors but several splintered dissident groups including extremists with ties to al-Qaeda.

As there is no single opposing side, striking something like a peace treaty becomes difficult.

But Kia says if the Assad regime is toppled, it is not necessarily the end of the violence.

"Their fear, is that if the opposition wins, they will be eliminated, but together with them, the entire Alawite community in Syria will be attacked and destroyed if the opposition is allowed to seize power."

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