The Sunni-Shia Islamic Divide Brought To A Crossroads By ISIL
The Sunni-Shia Islamic Divide Brought to a Crossroads By ISIL
The most critically important foreign policy issue facing the United States today is how to respond to the ISIL (Islamic State of the Levant) or ISIS (Islamic State of Iraq and Syria) threat in the Middle East. The most prominent question raised by our politicians and the media is whether we should "put boots on the ground" or not. It is a legitimate question but it is addressed in a very shallow and inadequate manner. Rarely does anyone ask about the nature of this group and what the implications are for the Middle East countries.
ISIL is an extremist Sunni Islamic group that desires to create a religious Islamic state or "Caliphate" throughout most of the Middle East. I have written previously about the Sunni-Shia divide and how it threatens to create a wide war within the Middle East. I believed this would be driven by sovereign governments in the region not by an extremist religious terrorist group. This new and disturbing development by ISIL could have very critical consequences for both the Middle East and the rest of the world.
The major goal of ISIL is to take over Iraq and Syria first and later most of the Middle East. Then they plan on installing their particular brand of draconian Sharia government throughout their new empire. The Shiites are natural enemies of ISIL due to their different religious sect. ISIL is a Sunni group but the majority of the Sunni governments and most of their citizens fear the possibility of this extremist group coming to power and restricting their rights to an extent never seen before. ISIL's current strength in Syria and Iraq derives from the people's antithesis to their current oppressive governments and heavy handed U.S. applied power.
How should the United States proceed considering the context of this conflict? I will explore the history and nature of the Sunni-Shia divide to provide this needed context. I will then give a brief analysis and explanation for the rise of ISIS in the Middle East. Finally I will state how I believe the Middle East nations, the United States, and the rest of the world should respond to this dire threat to world peace and why.
The nature of the Sunni-Shia divide dates back many hundreds of years as a result of succession disputes after the death of the prophet Muhammad in the year 632. The first three successors to Muhammad were accepted by all Muslims. The fourth, Ali, was disputed as a rightful leader by the Sunnis. After Ali's death, a new sect Shi'a (Party of Ali) developed who believed only Ali and his successors were the true heirs to Muhammad.
Sunni Muslims greatly outnumber Shiite Muslims worldwide. The majority of Shias live in Iran and to a lesser degree in Iraq. Bahrain and Azerbaijan are also majority Shia while Lebanon has a substantial and strong Shia minority. Syria is dominated by the minority Alawites who are an offshoot of Shia Islam and thus very close to other Shia countries.
Most Islamic countries outside of the Middle East see little difference between the sects though most of these people are Sunni. The differences between the sects, besides the historical succession conflict, revolve around their different religious rituals and practices. They are both the same in regards to their adherence to Muhammad and the Quaran. Still, the ancient succession differences have lived through to the present in the Middle East. This is where the split ostensibly exists and is often quite acute and deadly.
These differences between the Sunnis and Shias have ebbed and flowed for centuries. Islam had a tremendous rise in power and influence from the time of Muhammad through the Thirteenth Century. They were world leaders in education, science, and innovation. This prominence then began to decline due to push backs from the Christian crusades and more importantly by way of Mongol invasions from the East.
The Islamic civilization progressed on a road of slow decline for several centuries afterwards. By the Eighteenth and Nineteenth centuries, the Middle East had fallen under the choking purview of European colonialism. The Versailles Treaty that concluded World War I in 1918 divided much of the Middle East up among the European victors. These were primarily England and France.
These colonizations and artificial rule managed to keep a relative cap on the simmering animosities between the Sunnis and the Shia. World War II severely weakened the European powers and independence for the Middle East steadily followed. The regaining of sovereignty for these nations slowly began to release the historic tensions between the two major Islamic sects. The overthrow of the Shah of Iran in 1979 allowed the Ayatollah Khomeini to come to power in Iran and install a strict religious regime.
Russia invaded Afghanistan soon after the Iranian revolution installing their own puppet government. Anti-Russian Islamic forces quickly formed, with substantial aid from the U.S., with the purpose of overthrowing this government and repelling the Russian occupying force. These forces quickly adopted the name of Mujahideen. The term is one that Muslims use to describe those who fight for Allah. They were primarily Sunni and they eventually won out over the Russians.
Many of these fighters eventually formed into the Taliban which eventually wrested control over Afghanistan from other rebel forces. The Taliban is and was a fundamentalist Sunni group that immediately installed Sharia law in Afghanistan. Other Mujahideen formed under the leadership of Osama bin-Laden as the fundamentalist Islamic group Al-Qaeda.
Al-Qaeda came into prominence after the first Iraq War. Saudi Arabia had agreed to the formation of U.S. bases in their country to expel the occupying Iraqi army out of Kuwait. Bin-Laden argued vehemently against the installation of these bases. Saudi Arabia is considered to be Holy Land by Muslims due to it being the home of Muhammad. Bin-Laden offered the help of Al-Qaeda instead but was quickly rejected.
The bases remained in Saudi Arabia after the war and Al-Qaeda became the sworn enemy of the United States, Saudi Arabia, and its supporters. He pronounced a Jihad (Holy War) against these nations which eventually led to the 9/11 terrorist attacks against the United States.
ISIL is an offshoot of Al-Qaeda and was initially one of the rebel groups fighting to overthrow President Bashar Al-Assad in Syria. They soon consolidated power and have now taken over large swaths of territory in both Syria and Iraq. Ironically, Al-Qaeda cut off ISIL from their ranks because they considered them too murderous and ruthless especially against Islamic peoples.
What is the difference between ISIS and ISIL if any? The answer is twofold. They are both the same group but each name signifies different goals. ISIS represents their immediate short term goal of forming their own fundamentalist Islamic state encompassing Iraq and Syria. They are currently more than halfway to achieving this goal. ISIL goals are longer term and much more ambitious. They wish to rule over the "Levant" which is an old term referring to the eastern Mediterranean region including Cyprus, Israel, Palestine, Jordan, Lebanon, as well as Iraq and Syria.
Why has ISIL shown such a dramatic rise in power? Let us first look at Syria. President Assad is a Maronite with very close ties to Shia leadership in Iran. ISIL became the strongest rebel group fighting Assad in large part due to their religious zealousness in defeating an old religious foe. They believe that their fight is a righteous religious one and therefore they do not fear death. This makes them a formidable foe and they have procured large areas of territory within Syria.
ISIS then launched the second leg of their short term goals by invading Iraq from their newly consolidated base in Syria. Their advance in Iraq has been dramatic and they have currently advanced to within miles of the capital of Baghdad. The U.S. trained Iraqi troops have proven to be no match for these fearsome fighters. They apparently lack both the skill and the dedication of ISIS fighters. Most of this Iraqi army has fled the battlefield in the face of the ISIS onslaught.
The Kurds in northern Iraq are proven excellent fighters. Unfortunately they also were overmatched in the face of ISIS. They could not match the firepower of ISIS who have amassed a huge arsenal. ISIS has absconded arms from all of the many armies they have beaten making them the best armed force in the region. The Kurds appeared to be the last hope for Iraq of halting the ISIS army.
The United States responded to the threat of this deadly terrorist group by ordering air strikes against ISIS targets along with adding a limited amount of elite forces that would train and consolidate existing Iraqi ground forces.
The U.S. also supplied the Kurds with some additional arms. Turkey is seeking to limit this supply of lethal arms. They are fearful that the Kurdish terrorist organization (PKK) within Turkey will eventually obtain these arms from their Iraqi sympathizers. The PKK seeks a unified independent nation which Turkey is vehemently opposed to. The U.S. is working very hard behind the scenes to soften Turkey's stance and make them a closer ally in this conflict. This is where we stand at this point though the situation is very fluid. How should the United States and the rest of the world proceed in regards to this ISIL threat?
ISIL is clearly a mortal threat to the Middle East nations and beyond. ISIL's territorial goals include most of the Middle East region. Therefore my view is that this is existentially a Middle East problem. That is not to say that the United States and the rest of the world should wipe their hands of this mess and stay completely out of the conflict. They also have stakes in the outcome.
ISIL is likely to mount terrorist attacks against the West whom they consider to be infidels. We also have economic stakes in the region. Oil supplies, of course, are the major resource that the rest of the world still needs to operate factories, buildings, automobiles, and more. Humanitarian concerns are also crucial since ISIL has already murdered masses of citizens whom refused to bow to their demands. That being said, this is still essentially a Middle East problem.
What should the United States do? I believe that most of the actions that the Obama Administration has taken to date regarding the halting and degrading of ISIL forces have been largely sound ones. Our previous efforts to be the muscular enforcer of democracy and stability in Afghanistan and Iraq have proven to be tenuous at best.
Our military presence in these countries and others have usually been resented in a very deep manner. Democracy has been a very slow learning experience for these countries especially since they have no past history with democracy. Peace and stability have suffered because of this problem. Corruption has also proven to be endemic in these situations.
The only way to defeat ISIL in the long term is to develop a wide network of alliances both within the Middle East and outside of it. This would be similar to the coalition that President George H.W Bush put together to repel the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait of 1990. This alliance, led by the United States, would provide logistics, supplies, training, and air cover to help Middle Eastern countries defeat ISIS.
The bottom line is that we need to support the effected Middle East countries and enable them to defeat these terrorist killers. The citizens of the area have been unhappy with us and often with their own dictatorial governments. This initially inclined them to welcome ISIS as a group that would improve their lot in life. Unfortunately they have proven to be equally dictatorial and much more murderous.
These new conditions have opened an opportunity for a large coalition to form to defeat ISIS. The leaders of the Middle East countries fear and loathe ISIL as the citizens themselves have recently learned to do. The United States and their allies must now support these Middle East nations as they themselves fight this ISIL peril. This way we become an ally and not an occupying force.
Our work will not be finished by simply supporting these Middle East nations. We must ultimately spur these governments to open themselves up to elections and to governmental transparency. It will not be enough to defeat ISIS. We must also cure this region of their endemically abusive and corrupt governments. The Afghanistan and Iraq wars have proven that this cannot be accomplished simply by force.
We must remain actively engaged with these nations and constantly cajole and stress the necessity of clean and transparent elections and government. The days of simply solving a problem and then getting out are behind us. These systemic governmental abuses always help to fester problems and new and worse bad actors rise upon the Middle East landscape.
It is time for us to support this region and then stay to help it become permanently stable and strong. The alternative will be to return continuously to this troubled region to deal with larger and more sinister enemies. Let us get it right now both for our sakes and for the constantly embattled Middle East people.