September 4th, 2013
01:10 PM ET

Syria explained: How it became a religious war

By Daniel Burke, CNN Belief Blog Co-Editor
[twitter-follow screen_name='BurkeCNN']

(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.


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."


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.


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, 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 Religion Editor

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

soundoff (414 Responses)
  1. CommonSensed

    When muslims can't agree on who's the better muslim and kill each other over it, then how can you expect the different religions to get along?

    September 4, 2013 at 2:58 pm |
  2. Job

    "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."

    –So, the middle east is trying to get the Islamic radicals placed in power– that does not sound wise!

    September 4, 2013 at 2:56 pm |
  3. Bohn

    One of the best new writers on CNN! Well done Mr. Burke!

    September 4, 2013 at 2:55 pm |
    • Larry

      Agree, very nicely written article!

      September 4, 2013 at 2:57 pm |
  4. Alias

    This is what George W Bush was talking about!
    Keep 'em fighting over there so they don't bring the fighting over here.
    I say we promote GWB to 'Genious' status and supply arms to the side that is losing!

    September 4, 2013 at 2:52 pm |
    • Akira

      Somebody posted this yesterday, and it's so appropriate. (Sorry, I don't remember who, but thanks!)

      Politicians hide themselves away
      They only started the war.
      Why should they go out to fight?
      They leave that role to the poor.

      "War Pigs", Black Sabbath

      September 4, 2013 at 3:00 pm |
      • Blessed are the Cheesemakers

        In the fields the bodies burning
        As the war machine keeps turning
        Death and hatred to mankind
        Poisoning their brainwashed mind

        Nice Akira!

        Just got back from seeing Sabbath in Va.gas on Sunday!

        September 4, 2013 at 3:17 pm |
      • Doc Vestibule

        I wouldn't be me if I didn't toss in a little Bad Religion:

        "Ignorance is the root of fear
        And fear is the kindling of anger
        War is the bringer of shame
        But never has the burden lain to heavily upon the victim.
        Rage and desolation, pain and loneliness
        Isn't it all a bit alarmingly familiar?
        Hey hey hey, silence is a killer"

        – "News From the Front" (Dr. Greg Graffin)

        September 4, 2013 at 3:25 pm |
  5. dsdfg


    September 4, 2013 at 2:47 pm |
  6. You don't need a gun for Peace, you just need a big heart and some intellect!
    September 4, 2013 at 2:38 pm |
  7. palintwit

    Bristol Palin's next novel should be hitting bookstore shelves soon. Her recent memoirs about her life as a drunk, pregnant teenager sold an astounding 1,500 copies and buoyed by this success she has worked very hard to write the sequel. Her adoring public expects no less because after all, the Palin family is known for not resting on their laurels as well as not being quitters.

    September 4, 2013 at 2:24 pm |
    • Sue


      September 4, 2013 at 2:35 pm |
  8. Lawson

    Hope the entire ME region can find a peaceful solution to all the warring that is going on.

    September 4, 2013 at 2:08 pm |
    • Jon

      Don't draw out your guns, draw out a PEACE plan.

      September 4, 2013 at 2:15 pm |
      • Lucifer's Evil Twin

        President: "can there be peace between us?"
        Alien: "Peace?... No peace..."
        President: "What do want us to do?"
        Alien: "Die... Die..."

        September 4, 2013 at 2:29 pm |
      • Make 'Peace' your goal.

        If they don't pursue peace with a vengeance then war is sadly the outcome.

        September 4, 2013 at 2:33 pm |
      • Lionly Lamb

        Sires Jon...

        Warring elitists see only the money signs leading to the USA's missile use and the end profits that are made by the missile weapons' companies on the stock-markets commissioned trades...

        September 4, 2013 at 2:37 pm |
    • Doc Vestibule

      Since the mid 20th century, the middle east has endured the Israeli War of Independence, Suez War, Iraqi Army Revolt, Lebanese Civil War, Mosul Revolt, Kirkuk violence, Kurdish Revolt, North Yemen Civil War , Dhofar Rebellion, Six-Day War , The War of Attrition, Jordanian Civil War, Yom Kippur War, Egyptian-Libyan Border War, Intra-Iraqi Kurdish warfare, Iraqi Shia unrest in Karbala, Yemeni War, "The Tanker War", Osiraq Reactor Raid, Israeli Invasion of Lebanon, South Yemen Civil War, 2 Intifadas, Sa'dah Insurgency, Gaza War, invasions from Russia and America..... the list goes on.
      To compile a compendium of all the wars that have been fought over religion from the Crusades on through to today would take more space than this blog allows.

      I doubt there'll be peaceful resolution anytime soon.

      September 4, 2013 at 2:19 pm |
      • Brother Maynard

        I totally agree.
        I'll never forget when I was like 20 years old ... 1985, my family always watched 60 minutes. They were in Isreal or Palestine or some Mideast country and this old man about 65 – 70 years old, with a huge white beard was being interviewed.
        "This is our land. This is OUR LAND!! We will never give it up. We will die before we let them take it from us!! "
        At that moment I new that peace would never happen in that area. You could play that same clip now and nobody would know that it was taped almost 30 years ago.
        I say fence them off and give them knives.

        September 4, 2013 at 3:25 pm |
    • CommonSensed

      Keep hoping. 4 centuries of violence and counting.

      September 4, 2013 at 2:50 pm |
      • Doc Vestibule

        Try 14 centuries.

        September 4, 2013 at 3:06 pm |
  9. Lionly Lamb

    My being a pacifist and lover of peaceful means I see the war machines money grubbers wanting to make top dollars their missiles that will most likely murder many innocents as they are targeted rather aimlessly yet with subversive diplomacies... I am watching and awaiting to see how the USA's executive bodies will or will not back their supreme leader's desires to wage a "limited war" in a land far away... I have heard it said that Russia has placed a small armada of warships close to the USA's warships near Syria... It is shameful that the USA's supreme leader is nothing but a scapegoat for the henchmen war mongers staying out of the lime lights... It will be a sad day should the USA wage a "limited war"...

    September 4, 2013 at 1:53 pm |
    • Dyslexic doG


      September 4, 2013 at 2:19 pm |
      • spam filter

        lilliputian's are sexy when they are sesquipedalian where it counts

        September 4, 2013 at 2:35 pm |
        • spam filter

          Oops – before Dippy gets here – scratch the possessive – just "Lil·li·pu·tians"

          September 4, 2013 at 2:37 pm |
  10. Colin

    Protestants v. Roman Catholic in Norther Ireland
    Alawites v. Sunni Muslims in Syria
    Jews v. Muslims in Palestine
    Christians v. Muslims in Nigeria
    Coptic Christians v. Muslims in Egypt
    Buddhists v. Muslims in Myanmar
    Eastern Orthodox v. Catholic v. Muslim in the former Yugoslavia
    Hindus v. Muslims in Kashmire
    Buddhist v. Hindu in Bangladesh

    Anybody ever heard of an atheist or secular humanist running into a church with a suicide vest strapped to his chest screaming "Darwin al-akbar, Darwin al-akbar....."

    September 4, 2013 at 1:51 pm |
    • Dyslexic doG

      Darwin al-Akbar ... LOLOL

      September 4, 2013 at 1:55 pm |
    • Doc Vestibule

      All those atheist sects are constantly warring over who believes in God less.

      September 4, 2013 at 1:58 pm |
      • Bootyfunk

        ooooh, it's me! it's me!

        September 4, 2013 at 2:13 pm |
        • Alias

          I never thought I would see an arguement with the winner being who is smallest.
          Size and context do matter?

          September 4, 2013 at 3:19 pm |
    • CommonSensed

      Funny stuff.

      September 4, 2013 at 2:51 pm |
    • Blessed are the Cheesemakers

      Well we have been accused of starting the "War on CHristmas".....Seems to have very few casualties though....as in none at all.

      September 4, 2013 at 2:56 pm |
    • Kenosis

      Probably Colin that the atheists and secularists are not passionate enough about their beliefs to act upon them. They gurgle under the surface in the sulleness.

      September 4, 2013 at 5:24 pm |
    • gc1956a

      Darwinism is the science of materialism in a universe created from northing.

      October 28, 2013 at 12:06 am |
  11. Dyslexic doG

    let's read comment after comment after comment from all the religious folk saying that their religion is a religion of peace and that atheists are the people who cause all the violence in the world because they do not have religion's guiding peaceful rules and principles.

    oh what a crock of sh1t!

    September 4, 2013 at 1:48 pm |
    • Dyslexic doG

      Christian reply method. Please choose one of the following:
      1 – ignore the comment and pretend they never read it
      2 – talk in circles without actually saying anything and think they proved a point
      3 – insult an atheist and change the subject
      4 – accuse an atheist of something and change the subject
      5 – quote a random bible passage
      6 – accuse CNN of bias or anti religion
      7 – blame another religion
      ... any suggestions for 8 – 10?

      September 4, 2013 at 1:54 pm |
      • Colin

        8. Claim that the atheist can't see the truth because they have not opened their heart to god
        9. Abruptly stop posting
        10. Flat lie about historical facts.

        September 4, 2013 at 1:57 pm |
        • stillwaiting aka Basho1644

          So grateful to you, guys, for pointing these out! Religious means of argumentation disgust me.

          September 4, 2013 at 6:24 pm |
      • Rainbow

        For every Christian that posts, why are there 10 atheists that respond to each post; each one running off on its own taking the conversation in ten different directions?

        September 4, 2013 at 2:21 pm |
        • stillwaiting aka Basho1644

          No, sorry, taking the conversation in 10 different nonsensical directions is just another religious tactic.

          September 4, 2013 at 6:23 pm |
        • gc1956a

          Turkey and the Wahhabi monarchies were counting on President Obama throwing the Christians of Syria to the dogs, and sure enough he did precisely that. Hatred of Christianity in America is also part of the Syrian war.

          October 28, 2013 at 12:08 am |
      • Doc Vestibule

        11) Revel in schadenfreude while passive-aggressively condeming non-believers to eternal torment.

        September 4, 2013 at 2:26 pm |
      • stillwaiting aka Basho1644

        You got it!

        September 4, 2013 at 6:22 pm |
    • Vic

      Stalin's genocides were to eradicate religion, how is that not religious?!

      September 4, 2013 at 1:55 pm |
      • Tony

        Atheists suffer from a condition called 'strabismus' , their vision to see the truth is blurred.

        September 4, 2013 at 2:03 pm |
        • TGI

          Wouldn't call that blurred vision, it is more like 'focus gone astray'

          September 4, 2013 at 2:05 pm |
        • Doc Vestibule

          We have a hard time seeing gods, grendels, leprechauns, faeries, ifrits, succubi, cherubim, demons, loch ness monsters, goblins, ghosts and other supernatural enti/ties.
          This is due to the fact that none of them actually exist and therefore require a degree of suspension of disbelief and double-think that most realists find anathemic.

          September 4, 2013 at 2:08 pm |
      • Doc Vestibule

        Stalin's Great Purge primarily targeted military leaders, the Bolsheviks of the 1917 revolution, writers, intellectuals, artists, former kulaks, ethnic minorities and the families of all those listed.
        He was interested in eliminating anyone he saw as a political rival and/or a threat to his dictatorship.

        September 4, 2013 at 2:04 pm |
      • Johnny

        NO they weren't Vic, where did you hear that?

        September 4, 2013 at 2:16 pm |
      • In Santa we trust

        The deaths that Stalin was responsible for fall mainly into those killed for power and those killed as a consequence of failed policy. Millions died of starvation in the Ukraine alone because of strict adherence to the misguided agricultural policy.

        September 4, 2013 at 2:24 pm |
      • Tam

        Go ahead and take it to the next level, Vic: Hitler was an atheist, too, right?

        September 4, 2013 at 2:48 pm |
        • Vic

          Adolf Hitler, although was brought up a Catholic, was obsessed with the power of the Roman Catholic Church while despising its teaching, trying to unify Germany's Protestant Churches under a Nazi movement but failed, fascinated by the aggressiveness of Islam (he believed Islam fitted Germans more than Christianity) while despising Muslims, and a power hungry deranged individual with extreme socialist views. He was recruited, promoted and brought to power by the National Socialist German Workers Party, aka NAZI, which was an extreme form of Socialism, that planned and carried out the horrific crimes against humanity of the Holocaust.

          September 4, 2013 at 4:14 pm |
        • Vic

          Adolf Hitler discarded Christianity, and operated as an extreme socialist under the cover of believing in God!

          "According to Max Domarus, Hitler had fully discarded belief in the Judeo-Christian conception of God by 1937, but continued to use the word "God" in speeches – but it was not the God "who has been worshiped for millennia", but a new and peculiarly German "god" who "let iron grow". Thus Hitler told the British journalist Ward Price in 1937: "I believe in God, and I am convinced that He will not desert 67 million Germans who have worked so hard to regain their rightful position in the world."[46]"


          September 4, 2013 at 4:19 pm |
    • stillwaiting aka Basho1644

      Second that motion!

      September 4, 2013 at 6:20 pm |
  12. Colin

    My favorite was when the Iranians were fighting the Iraqis. Both Saddam and the Ayatola had teams dedicated to convincing their respective armies that they were martyrs for Allah and that the other side were godless heathens

    September 4, 2013 at 1:45 pm |
    • Doc Vestibule

      "Gott mit uns"

      September 4, 2013 at 1:47 pm |
  13. Vic

    With just reading the short post for now, I couldn't agree more with Daniel Burke!

    September 4, 2013 at 1:43 pm |
  14. Colin

    Ah yes, religion. It just ruins everything. Now we can't even have a good old fashioned war without religion screwing it up. Is there anything that religion dooes not make worse?

    September 4, 2013 at 1:43 pm |
    • Kenosis

      Sounds more like people are the cause of all the problems. You just want to blame something that has no ability to do anything of itself.

      September 4, 2013 at 5:25 pm |
  15. Doc Vestibule

    And now lets sit back and enjoy the rationalizations employed by religious apologists to counter the fact that religious conflicts are longer, bloodier, more dealy to non-combatants and twice as likely to recur.
    I've got 2 bits that says it won't be long before communist dictatorships are brought up as "evidence" that atheism is worse.

    September 4, 2013 at 1:42 pm |
    • Doc Vestibule

      And in less than 15 minutes, Vic fulfills my prediction.
      I am a prophet!

      September 4, 2013 at 1:59 pm |
      • stillwaiting aka Basho1644

        Ha-ha! Thanks, Doc, you're doing great! 🙂

        September 5, 2013 at 3:07 am |
  16. Lionly Lamb


    September 4, 2013 at 1:39 pm |
  17. Lionly Lamb


    September 4, 2013 at 1:35 pm |
  18. Lionly Lamb


    September 4, 2013 at 1:28 pm |
  19. Her Royal Highness, Princess of Peaceville

    🙁 🙁

    September 4, 2013 at 1:21 pm |
  20. joncraft84

    Reblogged this on Handicap and commented:
    Yeah but what are we going to do about it? There's nothing we can do about it safely.

    September 4, 2013 at 1:20 pm |
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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 with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.