Archive | June, 2014

What’s going on in the Middle East (Iraq/Syria/Iran, Sunni vs. Shia)

13 Jun

(Many thanks to the Generational Dynamics website which is linked to a few times here as having very much helped me keep up and make sense of the Middle East happenings).

What’s going on in the Middle East is important, but I think if you are just listening to the news, you are missing a lot of key elements.  I’m not expert on the situation, but here is my attempt to explain it and its implications going forward.  Comments are appreciated if anyone has anything to add.

Sunni and Shia Islam

First you have to understand the Sunni/Shia dynamic here because it is very important (far more important than any Catholic/Protestant/Orthodox divide is today).  Sunni Islam is the larger branch world wide, but Shia Islam is big in several countries in the Middle East.  Of particular importance, Shia Islam is the religion of Iran, a majority in Iraq, and the government (but not the majority) in Syria.

Conflicts between the groups have been widespread throughout history and increasing lately.  Al Qaeda is a Sunni group, Hezbollah is the Iranian backed Shiite group operating out of Lebanon.  While the media often lumps these together as Islamic terrorist groups, the distinction is very important.  You currently have conflict in several countries with violence occurring along Sunni/Shia lines.

Shia-Sunni percentages

Above map found at:


President Bashar al-Assad is part of the  Alawite ethnic group which is mostly Shia.   Al-Assad is determined to remain in power in Syria and has used chemical weapons against the population to preserve his position.  There are both moderate rebel groups and the extremist Islamic Sunni group, The Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (a couple different translations for this I’ve seen, but we’ll stick to this one, or ISIS for short), which was an off shoot of Al Qaeda, but has since broken off.  With the failure of the moderate groups, the extreme ISIS is increasingly becoming the central rebellion group and the lines of the civil war follow largely along the Alawites vs. the majority Sunni  population.

From outside the region, Russia has aided President Bashar al-Assad considerably which is a big reason he is in power still.  The West meanwhile has been reluctant to get heavily involved (the refusal to help the moderates, is the reason Robert Ford, the American ambassador to Syria, recently resigned).

The situation has spiraled out from this unfortunately.  Syria has become a magnet for recruiting Sunni jihadist with many coming from Europe and even a few from America as well as from the Middle East (more on this below).

This has prompted a direct response from Iran, which has directed it’s Lebanon based terrorist group Hezbollah (Shia led) to support the Syrian government (and given their dependence on Iran financial support, no was not an option).  Within Lebanon we have actually seen what had been secure Hezbollah areas attacked by Sunni led terrorist in turn as a result of this.


Iraq, while a majority Shia, was led for years by Saddam Hussein, a Sunni.  It had a brutal war with Iran in the 80s (in general dynamic terms, it’s last crisis war) in addition to all its smaller wars with the West and the general population is not one that is exited or wants any part of another big war.  When confronting Americans, Al Queda had to import suicide bombers as even among supporters, they weren’t getting volunteers among the native population.

If you remember a few years back, there was “The Surge” by the US.  This was directed at Al Qaeda backed groups and was actually quite successful.  The reason for that success largely that it was able to get the support of the Sunni population which was happy to be rid of the terrorist group made up of large number of foreigners causing problems for them.  That was several years ago though and since then, Iraq’s current government has been very anti-Sunni and this has led to a reversal.  Many of the same people who were happy to see the Al Qaeda linked groups pushed out before are now on the side of ISIS (which has broken off from Al Qaeda and considered by many to be more extreme) .

With support in a region going through much of Syria and Iraq and with large number of jihadists coming into the region, ISIS’s power has grown considerably.  They have taken Mosul (Iraq’s 2nd biggest city) and Tikrit (Saddam Hussein’s home town).  Much of the Iraqi army does not seem to want to be risking their lives and we’ve seen mass abandonment in those areas despite actually outnumbering and out gunning the ISIS.  In some ways that will only get worse as the ISIS has now been able to take over some left behind American equipment with the fall of Mosul and secured a great deal of financing from the city.

Where things will go from here is an open question, but we’ve already seen responses from both Iran and the Kurds in the north.  Iran has sent parts of the Revolutionary Guard to defend Baghdad.  While I heard radio broadcasters somewhat confused by this earlier, it makes within the framework of the widening strife between Sunni/Shia players.  Iran does not want Iraq to fall to Sunni extremist group as that will put the group right on their border.  The ISIS is also the exact group they are supporting the Syrian government against.

Meanwhile in the north, the Kurds, who have long had a desire for independence (or at least greater autonomy) have taken over most the areas from the Iraqi military largely leaving the entire northern part of the country without an Iraqi government presence.

Going Forward

Where things will go from here is a very open question, but even if it can’t hold what it’s taken, the ISIS has a clear area of strong influence through Syria and Iraq.  Further, the rising and escalating violence between Sunnis and Shiites is worrying to say the least.  We’ve now seen separate, country specific issues spiral out to become larger regional issues.  These are spread even beyond the confines of this post and countries like Saudi Arabia have shown they are very concerned with Iran.

Beyond the long term geopolitical concerns though are also the Western domestic concerns.  Large numbers of migrants have made their way to Europe (and to a lesser degree the United States) over the past few decades.  In this conflict in Syria, a great many have traveled to to help fight Bashar al-Assad and have been fighting through the ISIS.  Given the extreme radicalism of the group, several western countries are very concerned with those coming back.  They won’t have the language/customs barriers of many previous terrorists, but will have spent a great deal of time in a group that actively sponsors terrorism.