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. GodIsBogus

    God is bogus and fake. When everyone finally realizes that, there will be more war over religion and a belief in a God(s).

    I always laugh when people say "there is only one true God". How do you know your god is the "one true God", and the guy next to you – their God is not real? Come on ADULTS; stop believing these fairytales.

    September 9, 2013 at 2:34 pm |
    • byklopp

      Who are you to say that any god is bogus? Relgion is something that comes from the heart, you feel it with heavy emotion its not just a fairytale which are takes that are made up within the mind , it is something way deeper suvh as the tradition, the heritage, or its past. You can laugh and say its bogus all you all you want, but no matter what you say they will always beieve it weather you think iits real or not. People are going to have religion weather you think its a fairytale, just get over it because this fake vs real thing is getting annoying.

      September 10, 2013 at 10:03 pm |
      • Anna

        Let me laugh. There is a valid question there, how do you know your god is the right god? All the backwards people turning away from logic to follow religion, just how ##### can you be?

        September 11, 2013 at 12:53 am |
        • byklopp

          I'm not going to lir, you are right. But, the thing us how do we know it doesn't? The I. See it, ANYTHING can be possible.. And its not that some people give up logic to follow thir religion, you have some people that just go by its teachings. And I see nothing at all wrong with that

          September 11, 2013 at 7:31 am |
        • sarah divine

          Excuse me, let me take a momeent and tell you why that is COMPLETE N UTTER BULL.
          logic is the profound knowledge of what an indivisual believes, logic is something can be made up in your case.
          Logic itself as well as religion is the logic and beliefs of many, in other words saying that religion is illogical is also off focus from logic

          September 11, 2013 at 1:57 pm |
    • Sarah Divine

      Good lord not this crud again...

      September 10, 2013 at 10:13 pm |
    • Sol

      Its not a fairy tale. Its faith, if you don't understand it then leave it and just live a good life by your conscience. I have faith in God, and i have had many experiences that have strengthened that faith. I have also been able to change to become a better person and while I'm not perfect yet I believe that one day I will be – its a work in progress.

      September 12, 2013 at 10:03 am |
  2. Lionly Lamb

    Religious Islamism is made up of many varying sects being somewhat very similar in natures toward Christian varieties yet there are marked differences. Although some Christians tend to feed rather liberally upon simplified religious adversities around different Christendom valuations: there is a marked difference within many chauvinistic male dominated Islamic sects…

    The male dominated Islamic religions seem to render becoming likened toward Islamic fascism. These male dominated fascist Islamic regimes of broken brotherhoods bear marked tendencies toward upsetting the socialized religious mainstays of Christian and other multi-various religious folds setting forth and establishing multi-disciplined interdependencies within their Quran written understandings being terminally shed within their vocalized Islamic schisms…

    While regarding their religious continuities becoming liberally more fascist: Islam suppresses the women of Islamism via Islamic male infidelities being the dominant factors of Islamic women’s servitudes. Today’s so called Muslim Brotherhoods are but fascist bands of youth orientated Islamists seeking out socialized nationalistic power thru physically violent means as is nowadays being played out within the Middle East nations which is now the case in Syria….

    September 9, 2013 at 5:12 am |
    • Anna

      Islamists and extreme right nationalists both have a superiority complex and are intolerant to minorities.

      September 11, 2013 at 12:58 am |
  3. Extra Medium

    Shiite God is better than Sunni God but the Sunni God is better than the Shiite God.

    September 8, 2013 at 3:17 pm |
    • Sarah Divine

      Sitting here wandering if i should laugh or just.....meh.

      September 10, 2013 at 10:22 pm |
  4. Jonah

    Is anyone suffering from conflict, regrets, unhappiness, or poverty? Maybe you need to change your life. The true gospel of Jesus Christ will bring peace, prosperity, and happiness into your life. Go to mormon.org where kind, selfless, unpaid volunteers will show you the way.

    28 ¶Come unto me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.

    29 Take my yoke upon you, and learn of me; for I am meek and lowly in heart: and ye shall find rest unto your souls.

    30 For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.

    (Matthew 11:28-30)

    September 8, 2013 at 10:58 am |
    • truthprevails1

      Or go to exmormon.org for the truth about this cult.

      September 8, 2013 at 11:01 am |
    • Richard Cranium

      You are of course aware that Joseph smith, not only was not a prophet, but a con-man, convicted no less. That his father in law had testified in court that as a younger man, joseph smith had done that seeing through his hat trick on many occasions to bilk people out of money., that he then used it in creating his religion that is more false than the other relgions, right. You know that the whole mormon belief system was created by a con man and a criminal with a known pattern of deceiving people for his own gain...you know that right?

      September 8, 2013 at 11:07 am |
      • truthprevails1

        My daughter got involved with them and has recently left. I watched as they told her how her parents were going to 'hell' for our disbelief in their god (Dad is pagan); they claimed family values to be part of their tenet but yet they encouraged her to cut ties with her parents. It's a pathetic cult built on lies, money and hate.

        September 8, 2013 at 11:16 am |
      • Richard Cranium

        You should have seen the look on the last pair that came to my door when I showed them the info I had on Joseph Smith. They walked right out of my neighborhood and did not knock on any more doors.
        I think I made them realize that they should look into the history of the religion, not just listen to what is taught to you.

        September 8, 2013 at 11:19 am |
    • Jonah

      Thank-you for providing a contrast. A light is more easily seen which is surrounded by darkness. If you are sincere, god will show you the way.

      September 8, 2013 at 3:43 pm |
      • allisonisa39e

        Thank god for showing the way to all Mormon's, Scientologist's, Buddhist's, Hindu's, Wiccan's, Allwite's, Sunni's, Shiite's, christians.
        Since God or Allah has shown the way to all of these(and many others) we can now live in peace and tolerance. After all God is good, tolerant and understanding.

        September 8, 2013 at 7:03 pm |
    • Jonah

      I know beyond any doubt that Joseph Smith was a true prophet of God. He spoke face to face with him and, like prophets of old, he sealed his testimony with his own blood. He restored the gospel as prophesied by Paul.

      September 8, 2013 at 4:00 pm |
      • Richard Cranium

        If you believe that, you do not know the history of the man. Try again. Learn his history. If you still believe the lies he made up, more's the pity.

        September 8, 2013 at 4:03 pm |
    • Haha

      The Mormons would be a lot more convincing if they weren't stealing kids and selling kids hand over fist through adoption fraud in Utah. The Bible says "Thou shall not steal," and of course that would mean don't steal a persons child. But Mormons don't seem to have any problem stealing a child from a father married or single and that's pretty much proof that their religion is crap. The Utah state motto:Industry, and they have sure made a business out of stealing kids. What did Jesus Christ say: the love of money is the root of all evil.

      September 9, 2013 at 1:36 pm |
  5. sjorsdude

    The problem is with religion itself. This problem is currently greater in the muslim world, but it has always existed in all religions of the world and because religious beliefs are so fixed, such strife and violence is never far away. It is ironic that christians in the US are now worried about the christians in Syria, because of what the big bad muslims might do to them, yet are blind to the underlying cause in all this, which is religion itself. Including theirs.

    September 7, 2013 at 7:22 pm |
    • GJW

      I agree wholeheartedly, although I'm by no means an atheist. It is up to each one of us, individually, whether we want to ignore or pay attention to our spirit, the driver of this vehicle that we call our body.
      Do we need to find God? Do we need to adhere to doctrine, dogma, ritual and tradition? Do we have to have an intermediary, a priest or minister, to reach out to God? No, no and no.
      Jesus said "The Kingdom of Heaven is within you."
      To those that say that we must go through Jesus, I must remind you that Christ was doing the work of his Father, who stipulated several times that the effect of Christ's death is global and eternal. Paul wrote in II Corinthians 5 that "God was in Christ, reconciling the world unto himself."
      I'm convinced that, when somebody truly seeks God, and goes beyond what they've learned to establish their own faith, it doesn't matter what their cultural/religious upbringing, they'll have that inner peace and light.

      September 8, 2013 at 1:08 am |
    • josephthedreamer2323

      @PressTV @StateDept So now look for Persons 'in Elijah's Spirit' that are in charge of https://twitter.com/Joseph2323/status/360215624934363138 … & https://twitter.com/Joseph2323/status/371912095945592832 … #UN

      Pasted from https://twitter.com/Joseph2323/status/377327641696538624

      September 10, 2013 at 4:04 am |
  6. GJW

    The author of this article wrote: "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."
    That, right there, is the root of the problem in the Middle East. What can be done to put an end to the squabbling and violence between these 2 sects? Will the other Islam sects PLEASE STEP BETWEEN YOUR BLOOD-THIRSTY BRETHREN AND MAKE PEACE BETWEEN THEM???
    The world is tired of their behavior.

    September 6, 2013 at 10:36 pm |
  7. Hearst

    It's absurd that we're wasting time with wars in the Middle East when the biggest program of genocide ever is being carried out across the Western world. This program is not being
    carried out with gas, or bullets, or starvation; it's being carried out by force integration and assimilation of non-Whites into EVERY White country and every White community on earth. Whites have no choice but to accept forced diversity. Jews, Muslims, Arabs, Africans, Asians are all free to have spaces to pursue their own destinies. ONLY Whites are denied this right. This will lead to the end of White humans on earth. This is White genocide.

    September 6, 2013 at 9:33 pm |
    • HotAirAce

      And when there are no more 100% or even 51% "whites" what will it matter? I'm "white" but I don't think the demise of "whites" or any other color group is necessarily a bad thing. It's just the way evolution works. Get over yourself and stop hating everyone that doesn't look like you.

      September 7, 2013 at 11:51 am |
    • Phelix Unger

      Well let's see, white's have only been able to control their own destiny for the last 600-800 years. Now rather then been inclusive what did we as a race do, nothing so smart as developing the rest of the world and educating everyone so as to have equal footing in the world, nope not us white guys we were to smart.

      We oppressed and tortured and enslaved our own brothers, its no different then religion suppressing women for the even longer back into history, mankind can't figure out it's easier to carry the load with two hands rather the trying to lift with one and oppress with the other. There are people like you in every race and religion and people like you will always exist of this I have no doubt.

      The majority of the rest of us will continue to educate and evolve though while you will and others like you will not be tolerated and will be called out for what you are, a racist and promoter of hate. Instead of fearing the world you live in, embrace it, we only have so many years on this rock and they are few.

      As for the rest of you religious nuts, read what he has said very closely, there are some scary similarities between his words and those who think their religion is the right one.

      September 7, 2013 at 8:27 pm |
    • ssl_smf

      Nothing compared to the following Genocides "successfully" conducted and completed by the "white" Europeans on the
      rest of humanity in the very recent past.
      – The almost complete genocide of Native Americans "Red Indians" form the fact of North America. Once there were
      conservatively estimated to be around 16-20 million pure blooded Native american tribe members in North America.
      After a few decades of massace and racial genocide by "white" european settlers and colonists their numbers have
      dwindles today to less than 2 million (whrein today they should have numbered ~ 250-300 million considering natural
      population growth primarily ghettoeed in "concengtration camps" called "Indian Reservation" which are nothing but
      open-air prisons. Add to the the cultural and racial genocide by White european colonists in Central and South America
      you have the greatest genocide ever (racial/religious/tribal or otherwise) ever commited on any one group by another!.

      September 8, 2013 at 7:16 am |
  8. goodwithnogod

    The Syrian conflict is religion mixed with oil. The Sunnis want to build a gas pipeline from Qatar thru Syria nd Iran to transport gas from the South PARS gas field to Europe. Th Shiites want o build one from Iran thru Russia to supply Europe.
    Qatar has already given $3B to the rebels.

    September 6, 2013 at 7:10 pm |
  9. Reality

    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 6, 2013 at 11:35 am |
    • rumple

      there is a website that exposes Islam

      answering – islam dot org

      google it. you will know the truth.

      September 6, 2013 at 4:01 pm |
    • His Noodly Master

      A google translation:

      And Syria اطني,

      Muhammad was on the illiterate, cohabiting women, lust-driven greed, warmongers, hallucinating Arab, who also had adorn / hallucinating / plagiarizing biographers typographical who added not only "angels" and vehicles flying to the Koran but also the agenda of the military to support the plundering and looting of land non-believers.

      Continue this program as it is described by the MA-ssacre in Mumbai, AS-SAS-sinations Bhutto and Theo Van Gogh, the conduct of the seven doctors Muslim in the UK, the 9/11 terrorists, and Sunni suicide bomber, 24/7 / roadside / market / suicide mosque, and 24/7 suicide Shiite / roadside / market / suicide mosque, and bombers Islamic trains in the United Kingdom, Spain and the Bali crazies, the Kenya crazies, the Pakistani "koranics", to commit suicide Palestine suicide bombers / rocket launchers, and nutcases Lebanese, Jobs nut Taliban, and FT. Hood followers of the Koran, and the Filipino "koranics" launchers of Marthon Boston bombs.

      And which funds this muck and stench of terror? And warlords and Islamic Shiite terror and torture theocracy of Iran, also known as the third axis of evil, as well as "Wannabees" Year of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.

      September 7, 2013 at 11:36 am |
      • Reality

        A good translation considering it is free. BTW, it is estimated that ~100,000 translators have lost their jobs because of Google Translate.

        From p. 4 of the comments:

        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.

        September 7, 2013 at 5:03 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.