September 4th, 2013
01:10 PM ET

Syria explained: How it became a religious war

By Daniel Burke, CNN Belief Blog Co-Editor
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(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. Dyslexic doG

    If I had the power to bring peace to the world I would.

    What sort of a sadistic monster do you all worship if he has the power to let us all live in peace but he chooses not to. He chooses to look down on all this misery and torment and pain and he is either not doing anything to stop it, or he is actually actively causing all this horror to happen.

    and you worship this?!?!

    September 6, 2013 at 9:23 am |
  2. Doc Vestibule

    SS vows?
    Are you saying that the Schutzstaffel would support gay marriage?

    September 6, 2013 at 8:07 am |
    • Doc Vestibule

      That's a misplaced reply to Prince lol?? The Incoherent's latest nonsensical ramblings.

      September 6, 2013 at 8:11 am |
  3. Reality

    Citizens of Syria,

    Mohammed was an illiterate, womanizing, lust and greed-driven, warmongering, hallucinating Arab, who also had embellishing/hallucinating/plagiarizing scribal biographers who not only added "angels" and flying chariots to the koran but also a militaristic agenda to support the plundering and looting of the lands of non-believers.

    This agenda continues as shown by the ma-ssacre in Mumbai, the as-sas-sinations of Bhutto and Theo Van Gogh, the conduct of the seven Muslim doctors in the UK, the 9/11 terrorists, the 24/7 Sunni suicide/roadside/market/mosque bombers, the 24/7 Shiite suicide/roadside/market/mosque bombers, the Islamic bombers of the trains in the UK and Spain, the Bali crazies, the Kenya crazies, the Pakistani “koranics”, the Palestine suicide bombers/rocketeers, the Lebanese nutcases, the Taliban nut jobs, the Ft. Hood follower of the koran, the Filipino “koranics”and the Boston Marthon bombers.

    And who funds this muck and stench of terror? The warmongering, Islamic, Shiite terror and torture theocracy of Iran aka the Third Axis of Evil and also the Sunni "Wannabees" of Saudi Arabia.

    واطني سوريا،

    وكان محمد على الأميين، معاشرة النساء، وشهوة يحركها الجشع، تجار الحروب، تهلوس العربي، الذي أيضا قد تزين / تهلوس / يغشون كتاب السيرة طباعي الذي أضاف ليس فقط "الملائكة" ومركبات المتجهة الى القرآن ولكن أيضا جدول أعمال العسكرية لدعم نهب ونهب الأراضي من غير المؤمنين.

    يستمر هذا البرنامج كما هو موضح من قبل MA-ssacre في مومباي، AS-SAS-sinations بوتو وثيو فان جوخ، وسلوك من سبعة أطباء مسلم في المملكة المتحدة، 11/9 إرهابيين، والسنة انتحاري 24/7 / على جانب الطريق / السوق / المفجرين المسجد، و24/7 الانتحارية الشيعية / جانب الطريق / السوق / المفجرين المسجد، والقاذفات الإسلامية القطارات في المملكة المتحدة وإسبانيا وبالي المجانين، وكينيا المجانين، والباكستاني "koranics"، على الانتحار فلسطين المفجرين / مطلقي الصواريخ، وnutcases اللبنانية، وظائف الجوز طالبان، و FT. أتباع هود من القرآن الكريم، والفلبينية "koranics" وقاذفات القنابل Marthon بوسطن.

    والذي يمول هذا الوحل والرائحة الكريهة للإرهاب؟ وتجار الحروب والإسلامية والإرهاب الشيعي والثيوقراطية التعذيب من إيران ويعرف أيضا باسم المحور الثالث من الشر، وكذلك "Wannabees" السنة من المملكة العربية السعودية.

    September 5, 2013 at 5:27 pm |
  4. Dyslexic doG

    when was the last time 2 groups of atheists went to war over who disbelieved in god more?

    September 5, 2013 at 4:23 pm |
    • lol?? Pithiest, YES!!

      Daddy dog and son dog fight over mama dog. Who gets the pleasure this time around??

      September 5, 2013 at 6:41 pm |
      • lol??

        Geriatric meddling overseer plum rides. Goober raisinette ganders hogswallow pithiest NO!!

        September 5, 2013 at 8:44 pm |
  5. Ken Margo

    The one time I agree with Sarah Palin. "Let Allah sort it out" This would be a good time for Allah to show up and put an end to this once and for all. Just like the christian god that didn't show up on 9/11, Allah seems to be sleeping through this one.

    September 5, 2013 at 4:22 pm |

      Godless Vagabond
      I think we're all going to sleep through this one (since it ain't never gonna happen).

      September 5, 2013 at 7:12 pm |
  6. Anon

    Bunch of morons fighting whose imaginary friend is better and yes they all worship the same mythological piece of shít desert god.

    September 5, 2013 at 3:52 pm |
    • lol?? Pithiest, YES!!

      The fallen sons of God are ticked they're bein' replaced by earthlings.

      September 5, 2013 at 7:07 pm |
      • Anon

        Are you by any chance a Scientologist?

        September 5, 2013 at 8:03 pm |
        • Theresa

          He is definitely a freaking alien lifeform.

          September 5, 2013 at 8:53 pm |
    • Sara

      One of the issues in these areas is that the group in power, which is usually ethnic as well as religious, tends to get most of the cushy government jobs and contracts, so livelihood is at stake. It's not just about belief.

      September 6, 2013 at 8:22 am |
    • sarah divine

      .........hey pal....just blow in from stupid town....

      September 11, 2013 at 1:45 pm |
  7. jonathanlockwoodhuie

    The statement "Assad's regime... killing at least 100,000 citizens" is incorrect and misleading. Of the total of 110,000 dead in the Syrian civil war, about 40,000 are civilians. More important, the Al Qaeda-affiliated opposition is responsible for about half of the deaths in the Syrian civil war.

    September 5, 2013 at 3:46 pm |
    • Ken Margo

      I have the perfect weapon to put an end to the syrian conflict. Radar Air Interplanetary Defense. In other words RAID.

      September 5, 2013 at 4:29 pm |
    • maybe

      Members of the military or the rebels are not citizens? Good to know.
      Do you mean that 40,000 are civilians? Does that lessen the death toll any? Sheesh.

      September 5, 2013 at 5:51 pm |
    • Thinker23

      Jonathan... Are you trying to say that the 40,000 or so dead Syrian civilians were NOT citizens?or, alternatively, that the remaining 70,000 or so "not civilians" were NOT citizens?

      September 6, 2013 at 8:11 am |
  8. Anonymous

    So the comments section is filled with people blindly quoting from a book meant to explain to the uneducated masses how the world came to be, a person saying that the war on drugs is worse than the current turmoil in Syria, and the rest chiming in how religion is the root cause of all the world's problems.

    When someone walks up to me and says that the world is only 5,000 years old (thereabouts, some Catholic monk set about finding the age of the Earth via the bible), I'll look at them and laugh. I'll point to a cliff face and say this rock represents millions of years of Earth's history (Dr. Michio Kaku, Time).

    When someone tells me that women were created from the spare rib of a man, I'll point to a picture of Charles Darwin, and say evolution dictates propagation of the species, that propagation requires (in most cases) a female and a male. We are animals yes, but saying that I'm "less of a person" for not having spirituality is wrong. I look upon the night skies in wonderment and contemplate our tiny blue jewel's place in the infinite expanse of the Universe. "We are all made of star stuff" – Carl Sagan.

    That is close enough to spirituality for me. Saying that one all-powerful deity created the Universe in a fortnight is total nonsense. It's taken billions of years just for our solar system to form, and millions of years from life first forming on the planet for man to come into existence.

    All the bible is good for is a loose, if outdated, guideline of how to treat other people in a morally right and respectable manner, but the text gets abused and the believers in it deny or ignore its teachings to kill, injure, or persecute those who don't. Taking your lord's name in vain is a sin, and so is the senseless murder of other human beings, so using his name to justify this destruction must also be a sin.

    September 5, 2013 at 3:32 pm |
  9. thnk101

    Stay out of Syria- both party's are terorist, let them war against each other til there are none.

    September 5, 2013 at 3:01 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.