The crisis today
There is upheaval in the Middle East again as Islamic separatists sweep south from Syria through Iraq. The Sunni separatists, known as ISIS or ISIL, have seized control of vast areas including the second largest city, Mosul, and threaten the West-friendly government in Baghdad.
At the core of the conflict is the ancient divide between two Islamic sects, the Sunni and the Shi’a. The sectarian divide, going back over a thousand years, has caused mass disruption and violence amongst Muslims in many places including Pakistan, Syria and Iran and persists to this day. As in Iran, the majority of the population – and the present Government of Iraq – adhere to the Shi’ite sect. The separatists, like the former dictator Saddam Hussein, are Sunni adherents.
The historic divide and animosity between the groups has been deepened by the 11-year US and allied occupation which established Shi’a control over Iraq and effectively sidelined the Sunni population. Saddam’s government, packed with trusted Sunni supporters, oppressed the Shi’ite population for over 30 years.
There is a further complication at the heart of any attempt to understand and resolve political and territorial divisions in the Middle East: the legacy of borders imposed by an insensitive carve-up of territory and spheres of influence by the great Western powers after World War One.
There had been no Iraq, Syria, Jordan or Saudi Arabia as we know them today. Power was wielded ineffectually by the Ottoman empire in the north and disputed by the nomadic tribes of the Arabian peninsula.
The religious, ethnic and tribal affiliations that characterised the region were largely ignored as French and British civil servants drew neat lines on maps, creating states in which historically antagonistic groups were lumped together by the Western powers. As the new countries gained political sophistication, traditionally antagonistic factions vied for power. In most countries the controlling faction has sought to oppress tribal or religious opponents and suppress opposing political movements.
In Syria and Iraq, the Ba’athist movements gained the ascendancy. In Iran after the fall of the Shah in 1979 a militantly Shi’ite majority imposed a vehemently anti-Western government which soon went to war with Iraq’s then Sunni government. Iraq, a dynastic Baathist regime has lost control allowing multiple factions including ISIS to take control of much of that country. Saudi Arabia has stuck with an oppressive monarchy backed by a religious government.
Syria, which has been in crisis for the past three years as dissident groups rebelled against the authoritarian Assad government, is predominantly occupied by Sunnis who make up 74 per cent of the total population. It also has a substantial population of Kurds concentrated in the north-east.
Iraq is geographically divided by religious affiliations, with the south primarily Shi’a and the north-west Sunni. The north-east is predominantly Kurdish, who adhere to the Sunni doctrine but see themselves as culturally discrete and wish to establish an independent Kurdish state. The Iraqi Kurds have so far not actively given alliance to the rebellion although they too have been sidelined by the Shi’ite government. They have certainly not opposed the rebels.
Iran, which is principally Shi’ite, is now extending military assistance to the Iraqi government with which it was at war for eight years when Saddam’s Sunni-based government attacked Iran. Iran also has a substantial Kurdish population mostly lining its western borders.
Turkey, the northern neighbour, has a large Kurdish population (25 per cent of its total population). It is affected because of its concern for the integrity of its borders, and the safety of millions of Kurds who would be affected by all-out war in Iraq.
The Shi’ite government of Iraq, led by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, has oppressed and sidelined the Sunnis since 2006, when it first came to power. Maliki’s Government overturned the Sunni domination that blighted Iraq for 30 years, replacing it with an equally exclusive Shi’ite regime.
His failure to establish a unified state with religious equality has played a major part in triggering the current insurgence. The Sunnis, driven from office after the US invasion, have never accepted their newly diminished status in the country and were hungry for a greater say in their destiny.
The Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), also known as The Islamic State in Iraq and The Levant (ISIL), is an Islamic separatist militant group that now controls large areas spanning the Iraqi/Syria border – territory it has declared a new, independent state. ISIS also lays claim to much of Lebanon, Israel, Palestine, Jordan, Cyprus, and Southern Turkey.
It pledged allegiance to al-Qaeda in 2004 but as of this year it has broken away and now operates as an independent jihadist militant group.
ISIS is the primary force driving the insurgency. Apart from Mosul, it has seized key military installations once housing US Forces. The Iraqi government forces failed to defend the city and fled along with 500,000 Shi’ite occupants of Mosul. As ISIS advances towards Baghdad is has taken cities like Jallulah and Saaiydiyah and villages in the southern parts of Salah al-Din province. It has also seized key towns controlling Baghdad’s key supply routes from the west. The extent of ISIS gains and the divisions in the country are clearly shown in a map published by Secureenergy.org.
The United States, the former occupying nation, has offered diplomatic help to resolve the conflict but has insisted it will not send ground forces to support Mr Maliki’s government. President Barack Obama has however sent US military advisers to assist the Iraqi security force’s planning.
Iran, the one-time enemy, has also shown support, sending elite forces to help Iraq fight ISIS. Iran says it qwill consider any request for military aid.
The Australian government has avoided involvement. Prime Minister Tony Abbot has said that Australia will support the US in its efforts to suppress the insurgency. “As you’d expect the Americans are weighing their options. They’ll speak to us and we’ll talk to them and we’ll see what emerges,” he said. Canberra has sent a small military team to Baghdad to protect the Australian embassy.
Effects on Australia and the world
Iraq is the world’s sixth largest exporter of petroleum products, supplying about 4 per cent of the world’s oil, primarily from the southern oil fields that comprise 75 per cent of Iraq’s reserves. Though exports remain stable for the moment, world oil prices could be affected if the government in Baghdad does not re-establish authority. Business markets are highly sensitive to conflict. Any suggestion that instability may affect one of the world’s biggest oil exporters could be enough to ramp-up prices.
Where things stand now
Pressure for reform and inclusion of dissident Kurdish and Sunni elements is escalating in Iraq. Even the US has put pressure on Iraq to accommodate Sunni aspirations, but Mr Maliki has rejected such calls.
Iraq will struggle to contain the rebellion unless it accepts a political solution. to restore peace in the country it must transition from being a majoritarian government without associated depoliticisation of ethno-sectarian identities.
Foreign assistance might help quell or slow rebellion, but Iraq must resolve the ethnic/sectarian conflict that has plagued the country if peace is to be restored.
The big question though, now that ISIS has flexed its muscle and effectively gained control of much of the territory it claims… will it ever be willing to, or why should it, back down and allow Baghdad any control over the north of the country? – Compiled from Internet and agency sources by Mohammad Rassawala
Top photo taken from an ISIS propaganda film.