On Thursday, February 28, the U.S. government offered humanitarian aid and other help to the rebels fighting against Syria's Arab Socialist Ba'ath Party government run by President Bashar al-Assad.
BBC News reported that Secretary of State John Kerry said the aid was intended to increase the pressure on President Assad to step down and allow a democratic transition.
According to BBC, "'The US decision to take further steps now is the result of the brutality of superior armed force propped up by foreign fighters from Iran and Hezbollah.
"'President Assad is out of time and must be out of power,' said Kerry, adding that the Syrian leader could not 'shoot his way out' of the situation."
Kerry's reference to Hezbollah helps demonstrate that the conflict has some religious overtones. The main opposition to Assad's government is a group known as the Free Syrian Army, a predominantly Sunni Arab organization. Assad's government is primarily controlled by Alawites, members of an offshoot of Shia Islam.
Earlier this year, some rebel groups were accused of looting religious sites that were sacred to Shia Muslims and Christians in northern Syria.
Religious differences play other roles in the conflict.
According to Al Jazeera, "Assad's main allies are Shia Iran and the Shia group Hezbollah in Lebanon.
"Hezbollah leader Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah... warned on Wednesday against sectarian infighting in Lebanon related to the Syrian civil war.
"'There are some who are working night and day and pushing the country toward civil and religious strife, and specifically Sunni-Shia strife,' Nasrallah said on the group's Al-Manar TV.
"If this were to happen, he said, it would 'destroy everyone and burn down the entire country.'"
On Thursday, February 28, Michael R. Gordon of the New York Times said the aid promised by Kerry shows that the Obama administration is being cautious because it does not include weapons and other equipment the Free Syrian Army requested.
According to Gordon, "The United States is also providing $60 million to help the political wing of the Syrian anti-Assad coalition improve the delivery of basic services like sanitation and education in areas it has already wrested from the government’s control."
Gordon added that the U.S. is also helping the rebels in other ways.
"A covert program to train rebel fighters, which State Department officials here were not prepared to discuss, has also been under way. According to an official in Washington, who asked not to be identified, the C.I.A. since last year has been training groups of Syrian rebels in Jordan."