There are 2 competing political theories in the Arabic world:
Arab nationalism (Arabism) equates with an Arabic nation state, which has existed in Syria since just after the 1st world war (1914-1918), though the momentum can be traced back further.
Islamic nationalism (Islamism), whereby all Muslims unite under the Caliphate (a Muslim state), has existed since the time of the Prophet Mohammed.
The two ideologies do not apply solely to the Arabs but to Muslims world wide.
All Muslims live according to Quranic principles and believe the Prophet Mohammed received the word of God (Allah).
step 1, The beginnings of Islam, the Prophet Mohammed
The Prophet Mohammed was born in the city of Medina, now in Saudi Arabia at around 570 AD. His background was nomadic, though he was from a prominent family and was a successful merchant.
Following his revelation from God he set out to promote Islam, and though he didn’t view it as a new religion, he felt the other one God religions, Judaism and Christianity had been corrupted.
The Jewish scholars in his region were divided as some were opposed to his claims and others instructed him on the content of existing biblical testaments.
The Muslim doctrine is found in the Quran and in the Hadiths (the oral reports of the prophet’s words, actions and habits), as recorded by his friends and followers.
There are variations of doctrines among the various strands of Islam derived from the four schools of jurisprudence.
The Islamic groups who oppose the Syrian regime adhere to the Hanbali School, which considers the Quran to be the only real authority, thus the term fundamentalist.
The Prophet Mohammed died in 634 AD and his followers continued to spread the philosophy through a system of Caliphates.
The question of succession was fraught with difficulties and resulted in the Sunni/Shia split.
As a blood relative, the Prophet’s nephew Ali ibn Abi Talib believed he was the rightful successor but so did Abu Bakr who was from the wider Qurayshi (the Prophet’s tribe) community; Abu Bakr eventually became the first Caliph.
Step 2, The significance of the Caliphate for modern day Syria
Syria was governed by a succession of Caliphates for centuries, the last of which, ended with the fall of the Ottoman empire early last century.
Some argue that the Ottoman empire ceased to be a Caliphate a long time before this, though it continued as a world power.
This may be because many of its leading military commanders had partially broken away from the empire over the centuries and set up separate administrations in the regions they conquered.
This factor contributed to its eventual disintegration along with the centuries of war involving Europe and Asia and the rise of nationalist movements in both Turkey and Arabia.
The Islamists in Syria purportedly wish to restore the Caliphate. Among their number is Islamic State who declared the Raqqa province in north east Syria a Caliphate in 2013.
The Raqqa province was the the capital of the Abbasid Caliphate under Harun al-Rashid (786-809). Its era followed the four Rashidun Caliphates, which incorporated those Muslims, who had converted to the faith from the surrounding countries.
In Syria today there are Muslims from the Caucuses, west Asia, Afghanistan and the Indian sub-continent as they passage easily through Turkey. Their number also include Muslims from North Africa, mainly from Libya and Tunisia.
Though Islam did colonise parts of western Europe it is safe to say the majority of Muslims from Europe, who have invaded Syria, originate from those countries already referred to.
step 3, The Sunni/Shia split
Throughout the earlier period alternative philosophies were developing that contibuted not only to the eventual Sunni/Shia split but to differences in the practices and the ideology of both denominations.
The Battle of Siffin (657) took place in the Raqqa province and the Shia founder, the first Imam Ali ibn abi Talib, suffered a major defeat, he eventually was assassinated (661)
According to historian Karen Armstrong the Abbasid ruler, Caliph Abu Jaffar al-Mansur (754- 775) slaughtered all the Shia leaders who threatened his power, a move, which finally consolidated the Shia/Sunni split.
Much is made of this division by the west but it is not irreconcilable as the two cultures co-exist in many countries. They were permitted to inter-marry in Iraq, under the late president Saddam Hussein and Hizb’allah, one of the main Shia political parties in Lebanon, include a Sunni Member of Parliament.
There are no Shias in Syria but the Alawais (President al-Assad’s branch) and the Druzes share a common heritage with them. The Alawais were absorbed into the Shia denomination in Iran in 1974.
Both strands have radical and mystical elements but there are differences in the practices and styles of worship as the Shias tend to regard the Imam as a source of knowledge.
The Shias revered Ali ibn Abi Talib as the first Imam and those known as the Twelvers believe the last Imam is yet to arrive. The Alawais pray in their homes and partake of the wine similar to some Christians.
Islamic scholars are compelled to read and absorb or reject other philosophies including those of the pre-monotheist societies but Islamic revivalist movements reject this practice as heresy.
This view rejects modernity, historical factors and the possibility of mis-interpretation in the translation of the Quran or distortions in the accounts contained in the Hadiths.
All the revivalist movements are or were politically motivated and their grievances often relate to colonialism.
The Salafists and the Wahhabiz movements of the 19th century were opposed to British rule in the India and the Ottoman control of Mecca respectively, while the 13th century theologian ibn Tammiyeh to the sacking of Arabia by the Mongols.
Islamic State is allied to the Islamic Brotherhood the only serious opposition to President al-Assad and Arab nationalism in Syria.
The presence of so many warring factions in Syria means the borders between it and the rest of Arabia are now closed to ordinary travellers. This fulfills one of the West’s geatest ambitions, to break up Arab unity.