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. Choir Loft

    Did anyone actually READ the article Mr. Burke wrote? It's basic stuff, a review of the process of conflict in the Levant, and it was good. If Burke did anything wrong, it was to employ too many words with more than one syllable. Other than that I though it was a good job. Burke attempted to educate a bunch of pin heads. Nice try, Dan. Next time use pictures and diagrams.
    For some people, certainly not the self-gratifying gullible brain-dead folk in the west, religion lies at the core of life and its meaning. It gives purpose and defines meaning for one's life. It's something worth dying for.
    All Muslims are not the same. Here's another basic point. Think of conflict between Christian Catholics and Christian Protestants. It's like that. Think Sunni=Protestant and Shiite=Catholic. If that's still too much to wrap your brain around think Sunni=American League baseball vs. Shiite=National League baseball. The allusion doesn't even come close, but for those who are mentally challenged it ought to get you into the ball park as it were.
    Try putting your BS opinion to one side for a minute and go back and study Mr. Burke's article. You might learn something.
    and that's just me, hollering from the choir loft....

    September 13, 2013 at 2:44 pm |
  2. Johnny

    Please, this is a money game. Oil, oil, oil. Lets have the U.N. remove these chemical stockpiles, and let their civil war play out.

    September 13, 2013 at 12:25 pm |
  3. Who

    These guys just like to kill....that is all they have ever known.

    September 13, 2013 at 11:46 am |
  4. krehator

    Which war in the area has ever NOT been about religion?

    It is a religion of war.

    September 13, 2013 at 7:58 am |
    • Johnny

      Christianity isn't?

      September 13, 2013 at 12:19 pm |
  5. Martel Hammer

    In Islam all wars are holy.

    September 13, 2013 at 4:04 am |
  6. Sol

    You can't just say its "religiion" . It is ISLAM.... We who have left the middle east know this without being professors or so called "experts" in the middle east. ISLAM equals unbridled desire.. Unbridled violence and no respect for the authorities of the time. Don't say its Religion and then put Christians in the mix as if being a christian is part of the problem. Christians obey the authorities and thats why people like saddam and assad, as brutal as they are, leave them alone. The problem with the middle east is partly Islam, and the also the wests blundering appeasement of Muslims in the last 100-110 years. e

    September 12, 2013 at 9:52 am |
    • Johnny

      Please don't have an intellectual conversation on religion and government ever again. There are countless examples in history where Christianity was used to instigate war, and many authoritarian figures who used Christianity to consolidate their power. Just because you don't currently does not mean it never happened.

      September 13, 2013 at 12:31 pm |
      • Tjhmax

        Correct. There was a time when Catholics and Protestants fought each other to the dead, but no longer! Christianity is 700 years behind islam and learned from their mistakes. So, Islam may still have a very long time to stop killing each other for essentially nothing.
        Here is the difference today: when a Christian leader says to go and chop up the other guy. The vast majority of Christians call that guy a nut case. In Islam if a leader says to chop up the other guy, they will actually do it!!
        Major difference here.
        Best outcome in Syria (unfortunately): Assad wins and keeps the radical groups in check. No one there is ready for democracy ie power sharing. They need to try again in 100 years or so.
        Sad, but true.

        September 15, 2013 at 12:15 pm |
    • Choir Loft

      Sol, you made several good points. It was good of you to share.
      One of the reasons the USA is now a third world country as far as education is concerned can be clearly evidenced in the responses on this page. Nevertheless such people continue to believe that America is the only standard of civilization on the planet – despite the fact that they don't believe in any standard but their own.
      and that's just me, hollering from the choir loft...

      September 13, 2013 at 2:55 pm |
      • Mr. Hoyt

        1400 years of INBREEDING , has left these countries of Muslims with serious mental deficiencies . Its no wonder no one in the world can reason with them.

        September 13, 2013 at 4:24 pm |
  7. Mr. Hoyt

    1400 years of INBREEDING, and you wonder why no one can reason with these people!They are all half baked and a looney as magpies.

    September 11, 2013 at 4:29 pm |
    • Johnny

      Very doubtful that inbreeding is the root of all this strife...

      September 13, 2013 at 12:21 pm |
  8. Bubba

    In the Middle East, everything becomes a religious issue. If a dog farts in an alley, it becomes an insult to someone and someone declares a holy right to revenge.
    This is probably why there are so few stray dogs in the Middle East.

    September 11, 2013 at 3:49 pm |
  9. The Real Islam

    Those Muslim sects including Sunnies and Shiites are actually not followers of Prophet Mohammad. What they follow is Books written more than 200 years after the death of Prophet Mohammad. They consider the book Quran (brought by Mohammad) as sacred, but they do NOT follow it, instead following Hadith books written 200 and more years after his death. The similarity between Quran and Hadith are like Torah and Talmud. Quran has clearly said that 'Indeed, those who have divided their religion and become sects – you, are not associated with them in anything' (Quran: 6:159). So they are NOT followers of Prophet Mohammad. But the world is not listening to Millions of actual followers of Mohammad, serving the one and only true God without any sects or partiality. Quran teach us to love one another not to fight as specified in corrupted Hadith books. Before people blame Prophet Muhammed, read his own book Quran and not those corrupted Hadith books written after centuries.

    September 11, 2013 at 1:27 pm |
  10. syeda

    I am sunni muslim. Let me tell you something, syrian sunni and shiites are bogus and stupid. They are all using religion to fight for resources. It has nothing to do with ISLAM. They all should burn in hell for tainting the name of ISLAM.

    September 10, 2013 at 8:48 pm |
  11. Carlos

    Please focus. It became religious war because the Saudis use religion to promote war. Fanatics are very easy to be used. The use of religion, started with the Mujahedin, used by the Americans in Afghanistan, against the Russians. They became Al Qaeda later. This group was brought to us by Prince Bandar, the Saudi Ambassador to the US in the eighties. Saudi Arabian cash was also used in the Iran Contras fiasco. Prince Bandar became the head coordinator of the Rebels in the Syrian war 3 years ago. He brought the bad guys to the equation. Prince Bandar also provided the Sarin gas, according to the surviving rebels of the last chemical attack (http://www.examiner.com/article/breaking-news-rebels-admit-gas-attack-result-of-mishandling-chemical-weapons). Surprisingly, the Wall Street Journal has a good article about the Saudi use of Al Qaeda and prince Bandar. The New York Times has an article about the control that Al Qaeda has over the Rebels. (http://www.nytimes.com/2013/04/28/world/middleeast/islamist-rebels-gains-in-syria-create-dilemma-for-us.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0)

    September 10, 2013 at 7:24 pm |
  12. D. Mama

    Believe what you want. All I ask is you are a decent human being. Try that on for size no other beliefs needed!!!!

    September 10, 2013 at 4:05 pm |
  13. Unanomous

    Revalations...... Every one needs to read the whole book of Revalations or no one will understand this. The Bible the last book, the end of days

    September 10, 2013 at 7:32 am |
    • BC

      You spelled unanimous wrong.

      September 10, 2013 at 9:02 am |
  14. 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

    September 10, 2013 at 3:21 am |
  15. Jack M

    Kind of strange that this article leads us to believe that Assad use poison gas on his people. That has not been proven. There is evidence that it was used by the rebels. Keep the article on the subject.

    September 9, 2013 at 8:13 pm |
  16. What if Putin is correct?

    Did you see where the "moderate" rebels have taken over a Christian village northeast of Damascus? Torturing the priests. Vowing to level the place so it cannot "hurt" islam anymore? Admiral Nimitz would roll in his grave knowing that his ship would become air support for these throat-cutters. May a well run up the black Al Qaida flag up on the Nimitz.

    September 9, 2013 at 4:45 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.