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DAMACUS, Syria – Ahmed Luay's second-eldest son, a soldier in the Syrian army, fell in battle with rebels just over a month ago. Three more of his sons are still on the front lines in the Damascus suburbs. Luay insists he's prepared to sacrifice them all in what he says is a war against a terrorist invasion.
For Luay and other staunch supporters of President Bashar Assad, the rise of Islamic militants among Syria's rebels has crystalized a black-and-white vision of the bloody three-year conflict. The rebellion, they argue, has nothing to do with seeking democracy: It is a campaign by al-Qaida-linked fighters to impose an intolerant rule by strict Islamic law.
Their view hardens with every report of religious extremists eclipsing the opposition's nationalist fighters and secular activists — carrying out suicide bombings, kidnapping moderate rebels, targeting Christians, Shiites and other minorities and implementing Shariah in areas they control.
In the latest sectarian slayings, state media and opposition activists said Friday that al-Qaida-linked fighters infiltrated the Damascus suburb of Adra and killed residents, most from the Alawite and Druse minorities, which largely support Assad. The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said at least 19 had been killed over the past two days, while other activists said the dead could number in the dozens.
Opposition supporters and their international backers have grown increasingly concerned over the Islamic militants, with the U.S. and Britain suspending non-lethal aid to the rebels this week. And fear of these extremists has swung some Syrians who were on the fence to prefer life under Assad.
Among die-hard Assad supporters, it has become the central battle cry, providing a clarity to a complicated and divisive war. It is common to hear them dismiss the idea that there are any "real Syrians" among the rebels.
"We are facing international terrorism, involving all the terrorists of the world," Luay, 53, told The Associated Press. "The war in Syria is not a war against the regime or a civil war or a war for certain demands. The war in Syria is between knowledge and ignorance, between right and wrong, between true and false religion."
Luay spoke last week as he prepared to mark the 40-day memorial of the death of his son Hassan, a 25-year-old lieutenant, was killed in a gunbattle with Muslim extremist rebels in Harasta, one of the suburbs east of Damascus where the army has been trying throughout the conflict to dislodge rebels in grueling warfare with no decisive victories. Two of his other sons have been wounded in battle and returned to the front.
In his phone calls with his sons, Luay says he tells them, "Fight until martyrdom" — and don't get captured.
"It's something we agreed on together at home," said Luay, who also has two more sons still too young for the army. "If you're taken, it means torture and dismemberment. It will demoralize the other brothers. And to negotiate means haggling over the fate of our nation."
"All my children are offered for sacrifice for Syria," he said.
The chasm in the two sides' view of the conflict only reinforces their seemingly unbridgeable differences as the government and opposition head into their first face-to-face peace talks in January.
Those who back the rebellion say the war cannot end if Assad remains in power. On the other side, Assad supporters contend it is simply a matter of defeating Islamic extremists. Once that happens, they say, Syrians will return to peaceable coexistence.
That vision largely discounts the demands for reforms that fueled the first protests against Assad in 2011. It also seems to downplay the difficulty of healing profound hatreds opened up among Syrians by a war that has killed more than 120,000 people, sent millions fleeing from their homes and has seen brutalities and massacres by both sides. Opposition activists blame the government's bloody crackdown on the early anti-Assad protests for the chaos, saying that by choosing to crush dissent it forced the opposition to take up arms.
Luay insists that reconciliation is not an issue. "We Syrians don't have a problem with each other," he said. "Reconciliation with whom? With other Syrians? We don't need that. Most of those fighting in Syria are not Syrians."
Luay is a member of the Alawite minority, the Shiite offshoot sect to which Assad belongs and which makes up the firmest backbone of his rule. The community has profound reasons to fear extremists among the mainly Sunni Muslim opposition, since Islamic extremists consider Alawites heretics.
But fear of militants also keeps some in the majority Sunni community close to the government.
Sheik Maamoun Rahmeh, a Sunni cleric, says the fight is no longer about demands for freedoms or reform.
"Syrians are just killing each other," he says. "This crisis has cost us the most valuable thing we had, security. Now we have lost that freedom." He calls the conflict a "war for existence," blaming "those people of strife who call for jihad."
In January 2012, Rahmeh was kidnapped by gunmen in his home village of Kfar Batna, in the countryside east of Damascus — because, he said, he was urging worshippers not to join the uprising.
His abductors rammed him with a car as he drove his motorcycle, piled him into their vehicle, took him to a secret location and tortured him for three hours. They cut off his ear and shot him through the jaw and in the leg. He says he heard his captors, thinking he was dead, debate whether to dump his body in a sewer or outside his own mosque. In the end, they chose the latter.
Five months ago, still recovering from his wounds, the 41-year-old cleric was named the imam at Syria's most prominent mosque, the historic Umayyad Mosque in Damascus' Old City. Friday sermons from the mosque are aired live on state TV, making it a crucial pulpit for the government to the Sunni community.
"Since the start ... I have told people in my sermons that reform is a great and beautiful demand, but the path to it is not through killing, crime and destruction," he told AP, lifting his cleric's cap to show the stump where his right ear was severed.
Reconciliation, he says, will come easily once Syrians "realize the threads of conspiracy that have been woven, aiming to take us back to the Stone Age."
"If you really call for freedom as you claim, then let's put our hands together and say, 'Freedom comes from respecting each other's rights and preserving each other's blood. Freedom means bringing even greater security than we had before,'" he said.
The loss of security has been a major shock for Syrians. Under the tight grip of the Assad family rule the past four decades, violence and crime were almost non-existent. Government supporters talk with nostalgia of the pre-war days, contending that the country's multiple sects and ethnicities lived peacefully together and that religious extremists are to blame for unleashing sectarian hatreds.
Khaled Mahjoub, a prominent industrialist, says Syria is fighting terrorism "on behalf of the world" — and that the United States and Europe should recognize this if they want the coming negotiations, known as "Geneva 2," to succeed. Like other government supporters, he accuses Saudi Arabia, Turkey and other Gulf countries, which have been the main backers of the rebellion, of sending Muslim extremists to impose Saudi Arabia's strict Wahhabi version of Sunni Islam.
"They came here to kill," he said. "Those guys are not pro-democracy. They are against democracy and want to have Shariah law."
Mahjoub, a Syrian-American who was an old school friend of Assad's late older brother and who has organized reconciliation initiatives, says a two-track approach can resolve the crisis: a reconciliation program to bring Syrians back together, backed by a type of "Marshall Plan" project to rebuild the country, aimed at bringing prosperity.
"We don't give a damn who started it. People are dying. We need to have a solution that will bring a safer today and better tomorrow," he said.
"Reconciliation is: We promise you will get a better tomorrow, and we forgive and forget."