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Syrian civil war in photos
September 4th, 2013
01:10 PM ET

Syria explained: How it became a religious war

By Daniel Burke, CNN Belief Blog Co-Editor

(CNN) - How did Syria go from an internal uprising to a wider clash drawing funding and fighters from across the region?

In a word, Middle East experts say, religion.

Shiite Muslims from Lebanon, Iraq and Iran have flooded into Syria to defend sacred sites and President Bashar al-Assad's embattled regime. Sunni Muslims, some affiliated with al Qaeda, have rushed in to join rebels, most of whom are Sunni.

Both sides use religious rhetoric as a rallying cry, calling each other "infidels" and "Satan's army."

"That is why it has become so muddy," said professor Joshua Landis, director of the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma. "The theological question has returned to the center."

That's not to say that the warring parties are fighting over, say, the definition of God.

But the United Nations, in a series of reports, has warned with mounting urgency that the battle lines in Syria are being drawn along sectarian - that is, religious - lines. Both sides fear that whoever wins power will wipe out the loser.

"The conflict has become increasingly sectarian, with the conduct of the parties becoming significantly more radicalized and militarized," the UN said earlier this year.

And that's a really bad thing, foreign policy experts say.

Religious civil wars are longer and bloodier than other types of clashes, according to studies. They are also twice as likely to recur and twice as deadly to noncombatants.

"People hold onto religious fights longer than battles over land and water," said Nicole Bibbins Sedaca, an expert on foreign policy at Georgetown University and a 10-year veteran of the U.S. State Department. "It becomes existential and related to belief in a higher calling."

Some combatants in Syria appear to believe that fighting in the name of God justifies the most barbaric measures.

Remember that video of a rebel eating the heart of a Syrian soldier while shouting "God is great!"? Or the other video showing the beheading of three men with butcher knives, also while praising God?

According to international reports and U.S. intelligence, Assad's regime has been just as brutal, killing at least 100,000 citizens, including hundreds in a sarin gas attack on Aug. 21.

As Congress holds hearings to determine a response to that attack, Middle East experts say it's imperative to understand the major religious players in Syria, and why they are fighting.

The stakes couldn't be higher, experts say.

"If we come and and give one group a total win, we may be setting up an ethnic cleansing," Landis said.

The situation is Syria is fairly fluid, with lots of conflicting reports and shifting alliances, but here is our breakdown of the religious groups at war and a bit of background on their beliefs.

Alawites

This small, secretive sect makes up just 12% of the Syrian population, but members have held prominent seats of power since the 1970s. Why? Because the ruling Assad family is Alawi.

Alawites consider themselves Muslims, but most mainstream Muslims call them heretics. Among the reasons: They believe that Ali, the Prophet Muhammad's cousin and son-in-law, is divine.

They've been ostracized almost since their 9th-century founding, so they keep many of their core beliefs secret. During the Ottoman Empire, they were not allowed to testify in court, Landis said.

"It was assumed they would lie, because the God they professed was man-made," he said.

In the 1970s, Hafez al-Assad, Bashar's father, built a brutal security force with fellow Alawites. They were the fingers of his iron fist.

Despite that, many Alawites initially joined the uprising against Bashar al-Assad, calling for greater freedom and government transparency.

As the conflict progressed, however, Sunni rebels targeted Alawite communities, pushing them back into Assad's arms.

To give you some sense of how some Syrian Sunnis feel about Alawites, here's what Adnan Anour, a cleric who fled to Saudi Arabia, has said: "As for those Alawites who violate what is sacred, when the Muslims rule and are the majority of 85%, we will chop you up and feed you to the dogs."

Shiites 

In May it appeared the rebels had the momentum and Assad's fall was just days away. Then Hezbollah, a Lebanese militant group, announced that it was joining the fray, and backing Assad.

Within weeks, this fierce group, led by Hassan Nasrallah, had managed to wrestle key cities from rebel control, turning the war's tide.

There aren't many Shiites in Syria, but the Assads courted them from neighboring Iran, Iraq and Lebanon, allowing them to build major shrines to the faith's founders in Syrian cities.

The strategy seems to have worked.

When Sunni rebels attacked those shrines, Shiites rushed in to defend them. Not that Sunnis and Shiites need many excuses to fight. They've been battling since the earliest days of Islam and continue to clash in Iraq and other countries.

Nasrallah harkened back to those early clashes when Hezbollah entered the fray, calling the Syrian Sunni rebels "murderers of Hussein."

Hussein ibn Ali was the Prophet Muhammad's grandson who refused to pledge allegiance to the ruling Muslim caliph in the 7th century. Shiites believe that he and his family were the rightful rulers of the Muslim community.

Sunnis 

Sunni Muslims are by far the biggest Muslim sect, in the world and in Syria. It's estimated that Sunnis make up 75% of Syria's population of 22 million. But they've long been sidelined by the Assads.

It's little surprise, then, that most of the Free Syrian Army, the largest rebel group, is Sunni.

Within the Sunni coalition, there are remnants of the Muslim Brotherhood, who were brutally suppressed by the Assads; Salafists, who believe in a purified Islam based on its earliest days; and more secular-minded Sunnis.

In recent months they've been joined - sometimes to their consternation - by fighters from al Qaeda-linked groups. Always eager to fight Shiites and sow discord, these jihadists are every bit as fierce and battle-tested as Hezbollah, their sworn enemy.

It's unclear, however, how al Qaeda itself is involved in Syria.

The Iraqi-branch commander reportedly overstepped his authority in June by announcing a merger with Syria's al-Nusra Front, earning a smackdown from Ayman al-Zawahiri, al-Qaeda's global leader.

At the same time, some Syrian fighters say they pretend to be al-Qaeda just to annoy the Assad regime.

Still, prominent Sunni Muslim cleric Sheikh Yusuf Qaradawi has called on all Sunnis to join the fight against the Shiites and Hezbollah, calling them Hizb al-Shaytan, the “Party of the Devil”

Saudi Arabia and Qatar are backing that call with their wallets, according to international reports, hoping to prevent Shiites from gaining a stronghold in the region.

Christians 

Christians, who form about 10 percent of the Syrian population, are essentially middle men in this civil war, caught between Assad's army and the Sunni rebels.

Under Assad, Christians had more rights than in many Middle Eastern countries, with the freedom to worship and run schools and churches. Their rights were limited however. The Syrian constitution says the president must be Muslim, for example.

According to UN reports, rebel fighters have targeted Christian communities, shooting up factories and detonating car bombs in Christian neighborhoods.

In addition, many Christians - in Syria and in the United States - fear the fate of Christians should Sunni fundamentalists take power in Syria.

They, like the Alawites, have been pushed back into Assad's arms.

Republican Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky, perhaps with an eye towards a presidential run in 2016, is among the latest to express concern for Syria's Christians.

"I think the Islamic rebels winning is a bad idea for the Christians," Paul said on NBC's "Meet the Press," on Sunday. "All of a sudden we'll have another Islamic state where Christians are persecuted."

- CNN Belief Blog Co-Editor

Filed under: Christianity • Foreign policy • Iran • Iran • Iraq • Iraq • Islam • Lebanon • Middle East • Muslim • Saudi Arabia • Syria

soundoff (414 Responses)
  1. Matt

    Christians did fair to well in Iraq either after the invasion it is a non issue in military planning Syria is no different. Part of it is they are no neutral religious figures support Assad so they get harsh treatment when area changes hands. Same with the Kurds, Assad withdrew from those areas they thought they would sit it out let others do the fighting and declare a Kurdish State. That create animosity. So it is a bit of both religious fault lines and strategic animosity. The beginning of the sectarian conflict started when Assad used Alawaite death squad militias. As his largely Sunni military defected due to the unarmed killings of civilians and he could risk using them on the new front lines. Prior to that is was a regime vs the people non sectarian. It is also led to a call for Jihad which saw Sunni's flock to fight against Assad. Also as Condi Rice said when you subcontract things out to regional powers they shape events and use methods they see fit. Which may not fit with the western view. The Iranians and Hizbullah have to justify why the dead are returning and maintain support so protection of shrines is used, if there is a religious overtone people will support it and accept any block back inside Lebanon. They claim that if the Saudi and Qatar would halt support the war would end. Well Ar Riyad did not directly support the insurgents against the US in Iraq, Assad did give the some support. But it is private donors and there of course is a blackmarket global arms trade. Money and guns. So it is a simplistic view of Iran and Assad that this will lead to peace all they, are looking for it a strategic edge that would make the war more in their favor. A military option is the only solution. Assad talks about Chechnya to justify brutality in the end it was not a military win, Putin split the clans gave semi autonomy to the region they have a Chechen President from that clan, some autonomy and there religion in use. So that compromise pulled support away for full independence, while the insurgency moved to other border regions. The Chechens got semi autonomy and use of their religion. What is being proposed for Geneva 2 falls far short of that, the Russian position on Syria is do as I say not as I do. As these peace summits offer up no solution all they do is in the lead up is increase the violence on the ground as both sides try to pressure the other. But if there is no agreement on the fundamentals it is a waste of time. One is better not putting any additional resources in to playing a short game and continue the long game especially for the insurgents, the insurgents have always played a long game deconstructing the Assad force structure and resources. Also there are really two wars going on one in the north and Damascus. Assad is fighting both the west at least are really only focused on Damascus, that is where mainly western support limited it may be has gone for the battle of Damascus. Damascus is worse by the day no one can dispute that it, was almost untouched in the early years in that he could use troops, not rely on air power and artillery. That was why they had reserved the gas for Damascus so he did not have to destroy the capital as he has do to the rest of the country.

    December 2, 2013 at 10:43 pm |
  2. L

    The Alawites did not go against ASSAD. The Christians and the Kurds started out mainly neutral but have been basicall forced into the Assad camp by the behaviour of the extremists oon the rebel. I doubt very much that the organisers of the originzal rebellion forsaw the present situation and the West has entirely underestimated the support that ASSAD had and has. Not all sunni are extremists and many of them did and still do support Assad especially those of a secular and tolerant bent. Like it always does AQ and it's fellow travellers will eventually have to be faced. I am of the opinion that now the Syrian Kurds and Kurds from regions other than Syria regions are getting involved it will change the game. When the Kurds roll they roll. and they include their womenfolk in their battle line up and very effectively at that. Women make up probably 25% of the basic fighting echelon and more in the logistical set up. Overall the Kurds are probable the most professional of all the irregulars and have had decades of ppractice against one of the best trained and equipped armies in the area the Turks. We shouild be aware by now that any ASSAD replacement is unlikely to be better than he is. an we afford the risk of a n extremist Islamic state of Syria . The Russians and China ans their allies obviously think not and for once, in my humble opinion are RIGHT. Even though most would disagree with most of their internal and corrupt policies it does not mean that tyhey are always wrong.

    November 7, 2013 at 4:43 am |
    • Danske

      Very well said. I agree also in this case with the Russians & Chinese, that a radical Sunni state run by people even more extreme than the Brotherhood would turn quickly into a genocide of Alawites, Christians, and likely, the Kurds.

      November 15, 2013 at 11:56 am |
  3. sjdsh

    The religious and sectarian differences only exist in the minds of the west's terrorist mercs and media, but not among Syrians.

    November 6, 2013 at 10:55 am |
    • Travis

      Are you serious? Those people have been killing each other for centuries now! Look at Iraq...once Saddam was gone, the different religious groups started killing each other by the thousands. Pretty much the only thing that prevents sectarian violence in this part of the world is an iron-fisted dictatorship that keeps everyone in line. Democracy brings chaos and mass murder to these people. THAT'S what the West doesn't get. Granted, many of these fighters may only be using their religion as a badge rather than out of any real religious fervor, but that doesn't change the fact that everyone they kill goes to a different church than they do. That can't be coincidental.

      November 16, 2013 at 10:32 am |
  4. Ryan

    How many lives would be saved if there were no religion, no ONE god? It's like politics, every religion means well but in the end they do more harm than good because they cannot compromise with people who do not think EXACTLY as they do. How ignorant do you have to be to think that 4.9 billion people (if you are Christian, more if you are not) are going to "Hell" and deserve to die because they don't believe the same thing you do? Most of which never had a choice in what to believe. They only believe in what they do because that's what they were told to believe in as a child and the same ridiculous fight continues generation after generation, its just sad.

    November 1, 2013 at 10:59 am |
  5. Steve Finnell

    WHAT DID THE FIRST CHRISTIANS BELIEVE?

    THE CHURCH OF CHRIST HAD ITS BEGINNING ON THE DAY OF PENTECOST 33 A.D.. WHAT BELIEFS AND ACTIONS DID THE THREE THOUSAND CONVERTS TO CHRIST HAVE IN COMMON? DID GOD APPROVE OF EVOLVING BELIEFS, DIFFERENT REQUIREMENTS FOR SALVATION? IF THAT WERE TRUE, THEN WOULD IT NOT BE FOUND IN THE NEW TESTAMENT SCRIPTURES?

    Acts 2:41 So then, those who received his word were baptized; and there were added about three thousand souls. Acts 2:47....And the Lord was adding to their number day by day those who were being saved.

    All three thousand believed the apostle Peter's message and were baptized in water. Then they were added to the Lord's church by the Lord Himself. The Lord did not add the unsaved to His church. They had to believe and be baptized in water prior to being added to the body of Christ.

    1. Acts 2:22 Men of Israel, listen to these words: Jesus the Nazarene, a man attested to you by God with miracles and wonders and signs which God performed through Him in your midst, just as you yourselves know-

    All three thousand believed Jesus was a miracle worker.

    2. Acts 2:31-32 he looked ahead and spoke of the resurrection of the Christ, that He was neither abandoned to Hades, nor did His flesh suffer decay. 32 This Jesus God raised up again, to which we are all witnesses.

    All three thousand believed in the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

    3. Acts 2:36 Therefore let all the house of Israel know for certain that God has made him both Lord and Christ-this Jesus whom you crucified."

    All three thousand believed that Jesus was Lord and Christ.

    4. Acts 2:38 Peter said to them, "Repent, and each of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.

    All three thousand repented in order to have sins forgiven. (repentance meant that they made the commitment to turn from their unbelief and sinful lifestyle and turn toward God).

    All three thousand were baptized in water in order to have their sins forgiven.

    All three thousand received the indwelling gift of the Holy Spirit after they believed, repented, and were baptized in water.

    5. Acts 2:40 And with many other words he solemnly testified and kept on exhorting them, "Be saved from this perverse generation!"

    All three thousand were saved after they believed Peter's message: They believed, repented, confessed, and were baptized in water. (Mark 16:16, John 3:16, Acts 3:19, Acts 2:38, Romans 10:9-10, Acts 8:35-38) THEN THEY WERE ADDED TO THE LORD'S CHURCH! (Acts 2:47)

    WHAT THINGS DID PETER NOT PREACH AND WHAT THINGS DID THE THREE THOUSAND NOT BELIEVE.

    1.Peter did not preach that men were saved by grace alone.

    2.Peter did not preach that men were saved by faith only

    3.Peter did not preach that God had selected a few to be saved and that all others would go to hell.

    4. Peter did not preach that water baptism was not essential to salvation.

    5. Peter did not preach that Jesus was just one of many Saviors.

    6. Peter did not preach that once you were saved, that you could continue in a sinful lifestyle and still be saved.

    7. Peter did not preach that God did not have the power to give us an inerrant translation of the Scriptures.

    8. Peter did not preach that God would provide hundreds or thousands of different Christian denominations, and that they would teach different ways of being saved.

    9. Peter did NOT preach that you had to speak in tongues as evidence that you were saved.

    AS BELIEVERS IN CHRIST, MEN SHOULD USE THE BIBLE AS THEIR GUIDE FOR SALVATION. Looking to man-made creed books, Bible commentaries, denominational statements of faith, and church catechisms, is looking in all the wrong places for the absolute truth!

    YOU ARE INVITED TO FOLLOW MY CHRISTIAN BLOG. http://steve-finnell.blogspot.com

    October 28, 2013 at 9:00 am |
    • Narg

      "4. Peter did not preach that water baptism was not essential to salvation."

      Is that a double negative? So is it not essential or is it essential?

      November 1, 2013 at 8:58 am |
  6. gc1956a

    The war from the outset was the destruction of the pluralistic state, that has the Alawites as the main enemy.

    "Despite that, many Alawites initially joined the uprising against Bashar al-Assad, calling for greater freedom and government transparency."

    That part of the article is a necessary myth to justify a belief in the United States on the part of its own citizens. From the beginning the protesters were referring to the Alawites as 'vermin'. So reminiscent of the Hutu view of opponents in Rwanda. Turkey and the two Wahhabi monarchies, Qatar and Saudi Arabia, want to destroy the Alawites.

    The Christians have to leave, is the other part, Turkey and the two Wahhabi monarchies do not want any Christians in Syria.

    October 28, 2013 at 12:01 am |
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About this blog

The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke and Eric Marrapodi with daily contributions from CNN's worldwide newsgathering team.