If you’ve listened to the news this past week you’ll know that something is going on in Iraq right now and it looks pretty crazy. This is a very simplified explanation of what is happening and what it means for everyone involved.
What is happening in Iraq???
Right now a military group called ISIS is trying to take over Northern Iraq. So far they have been shockingly successful.
ISIS: Who and what is ISIS?
ISIS is a military group that wants to create an Islamic state. They are at war with anyone who opposes them. ISIS has been fighting in Iraq for about ten years and Syria for about three years. They are currently fighting the Iraqi government, the Syrian government, the Syrian rebels, Al Qaeda, and anyone else in Iraq and Syria who gets in their way.
How has ISIS suddenly gained so much territory in Iraq?
This week ISIS took over a large amount territory, including a few cities. It took them just a few days. The army of ISIS was 800 men while the Iraqi government troops were numbered at least 30,000. How could 800 militants defeat an army of 30,000? We need to go back in time for the answer.
This is the important part:
I’m going to backtrack a bit. Both Iraq and Syria are fragmented countries, and have been since their creation. This is because the countries have a bunch of completely different groups of people in them competing for power (and survival.) They are so fragmented because 70 years ago the British and French governments created Iraq and Syria by randomly drawing some borders on a map and then gave control to the two countries to foreign-born kings. It would be like if someone did this to Europe:
Since the two country’s artificial creation, various religious and ethnic groups within the borders have tried to become independent while dictators, kings, and outside governments have tried to keep Iraq and Syria from breaking apart. What is happening in Iraq and Syria right now is a continuation of this struggle.
Back to ISIS:
I’ve been hearing a lot lately that ISIS stands for “The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria.” This translation is not 100% accurate because it makes ISIS sound like they want to conquer all of Iraq and Syria. They don’t. But ISIS does want to conquer large portions of it. These portions are based off religion and ethnicity. This is the territory ISIS wants to take over:
Why does ISIS want these areas?
You may have heard of the two major sects in Islam: Sunni and Shia. I don’t want to get into the differences between them right now. Just like how in Christianity there are Catholics and Protestants; in Islam there are Sunnis and Shias. Simply put, ISIS wants to turn the Sunni areas of Iraq and Syria into a single Islamic country.
Yeah, but a lot of people want a lot of things, so how is it that ISIS has been so successful?
This week when ISIS conquered the northern half of Iraq, they did so with only 800 men. The 30,000 Iraq troops guarding the territory fled. So what, the Iraq troops are cowards or something? Definitely not. There’s more going on than meets the eye. But it requires a little more explanation to see what’s really going on.
This is the other important part:
I’m going to back track again. In 2003 the US and Briton invaded Iraq. The Iraqi people were liberated from Saddam but still squashed together within the boarders of Iraq. Now that they were free from Saddam’s oppression, various groups in Iraq wanted more freedom and power. They began fighting each other for it. The US and Briton did not want to see Iraq divided so in order to keep the country together, they began fighting the Iraqi groups that were fighting each other. In turn, the Iraqi groups began fight the US/UK troops and each other. This is what the 2003-2011 Iraq War was all about.
During the war the US made this man Prime Minister (the most powerful position in the government) of Iraq:
His name is Nouri al-Maliki and he is still Prime Minister.
Remember how Islam can be divided into two groups: Sunni and Shia? Al-Maliki is Shia. This makes sense because Iraq is about 60% Shia. The problem is, what about the 40% that are Sunni? It has become a very big problem in Iraq. This is where ISIS comes in.
Where did ISIS come from?
Once Al-Maliki became Prime Minister of Iraq he started given government positions to his friends. Because Al-Maliki was Shia, he friends were Shia too. Eventually Shias began to gain more and more power in the Iraqi government, and Sunnis began loosing power.
When the Sunnis began loosing their strength in the government, Sunni groups turned to more drastic measures. Sunni areas of Iraq began forming their own militaries to fight the Iraqi government and the US/UK troops that protected it. One of the main Sunni militaries that grew during this time was ISIS. The worst fighting in the Iraq War was between the US/UK troops and ISIS.
*note: Anyone who knows their Iraqi history knows that it didn’t exactly happen like this, but come on, it basically did.
As the war in Iraq continued, Sunnis lost even more power in the Iraqi government. By the time Obama pulled out the last troops in December 2011, Al-Maliki had replaced key Sunni military and governmental positions with Shia ones. Sunni groups accused him of trying to become a Shia dictator.
In 2012 and 2013, many Iraqis (mostly Sunni) became fed up. With the threat of the US gone, Sunnis took to the streets in mostly peaceful demonstrations. They demanded better representation and an end to their repression. At first Al-Maliki ignored their demands, then he began shooting them.
ISIS moves from Iraq to Syria
Meanwhile in Syria, a similar thing was happening. In 2011-12 Syrians were also having anti-government protests, and having their protests crushed the government. By 2013 the anti-government protests in Syria led to civil war. In the chaos, ISIS fighters were able move across the Iraq/Syria border and conquer large amounts of land in Syria, including Syrian cities. ISIS fighters already had plenty of experience from fighting the Americans. As of now, they have been able to hold on to most of the Syrian territory they gained in 2013.
ISIS in Syria ಠ╭╮ಠ
It is important to note that ISIS is not loved in the territory they conquered in Syria. Syria is a historically secular and tolerant country. When ISIS takes over a city, they are the opposite. ISIS makes strict laws based on their skewed interpretation of Islam and do things like force women to cover their heads and loose their jobs. They have harsh punishments for anyone who doesn’t follow their laws. They are basically a militarized version of an Islamic Westboro Baptist Church. Though there have been protests against ISIS as well as open war between ISIS and both the Syrian Government and Syrian rebels, civilians living under ISIS are understandably more focused on surviving the war than stirring up trouble.
Putting the pieces into place:
- Iraq and Syria have different groups of people all squashed together.
- Iraq is 60% Shia and 40% Sunni.
- For the past 10 years, the Shia groups have been gaining more and more power in the Iraqi government, while Sunni groups are getting less and less.
- ISIS is a Sunni military group that wants to create a Sunni-only Islamic country from the Sunni parts of Iraq and Syria.
- Peaceful protests by Sunnis (and many others) in Syria were crushed by the Syrian government in 2011-12. This led to fighting between military groups by 2012-13.
- In the chaos of the Syrian civil war, ISIS, a Sunni military group that already has a lot of experience from fighting Americans, moved into Syria and conquered a lot of Syrian territory. It proclaimed the territory a separate Islamic country.
- Peaceful protests by Sunnis (and others) in Iraq were crushed by the Iraqi government in 2012-13.
- Support of ISIS in Iraq began to grow again in 2013-14.
The events that immediately led to the ISIS take-over this week:
- In January 2014 ISIS re-took Falluja, a Sunni city in Iraq that ISIS had originally lost to the Americans in 2004. A side note: The worst fighting of the 2003-2011 Iraq War was between the Americans and ISIS in Falluja. After re-taking Falluja in 2014 ISIS proclaimed it part of their Islamic State. The Iraqi government tried and failed to take it back.
- On June 5th 2014, 800 ISIS troops began fighting the Iraqi military in the Sunni north of Iraq. By June 9th they had taken some major Sunni cities. At the time of writing this (June 17, 2014) ISIS continues to take Sunni territory in Iraq, and remains an hour drive away from Baghdad.
For the last time, how could ISIS suddenly conquer half of Iraq??
Now that we have some context, let’s look at how 800 ISIS troops could overtake 30,000 Iraqi government troops.
The simple answer is incompetence. In his attempt to become a dictator, Al-Malilki has replaced experienced generals with weaker, more subservient generals. In addition to this, Iraqi troops may not want to fight and die for a government that has become so corrupt and weak. Many many many Iraqis (both Sunni and Shia) are not happy with Al-Malilki and his government that is dominated by Shias. How would you like to be living under a government that George W. Bush selected for you? After 11 years of war? Without any hope of it changing?
The Iraqi people want a better life and Al-Malilki’s greed is preventing a stronger government. ISIS may bring a stricter government to the territories it conquers but at least they are competent, and most importantly, they are taking power away from Al-Maliki. In short, ISIS is Sunni and is bringing Sunni power back to the Sunni areas of Iraq and Syria.
Basically, I see three things going on here:
1. Al-Maliki’s attempt to become a dictator has significantly crippled the Iraqi army and government.
2. ISIS has gained significant support from Sunnis in Iraq, and significant experience from fighting the Americans and in Syria.
3. Not enough Iraqis care about Al-Maliki’s government to try to save it from ISIS.
This does not mean that Sunnis in Iraq and Syria are glad to see ISIS. Last week when the 800 ISIS troops thundered through the Sunni areas of Iraq, 500,000 people fled their homes. With them 30,000 Iraqi government troops fled as well. This shows that ISIS certainly can’t win the hearts and minds of the Iraqi people, but with Iraq’s current government so hated, ISIS can shoo away an army that is unwilling to fight.
That’s what’s happening in Iraq right now. Read further if you want to know the future…
What does this mean for the future?
***If things in Iraq run their current course*** two things are guaranteed to happen:
1. Al-Maliki will to hold onto his crown until it is pried off him. How will he do this? If things run their current course in Iraq, things will get ugly. If Al-Maliki gets desperate, he will use all means necessary to start an ethnic war between the Sunnis and Shias. In other words: he is going to use genocide and civil war to gain power. A civil war will guarantee him the dictatorial power he’s always wanted because if the Shias and Sunnis are fighting each other, it will force the Shias to his side.
In other words if a civil war begins between the Sunni and Shia, the Shia will be forced to go to Al-Maliki for protection and stop complaining about their lack of democracy. Iraq is 60% Shia. That’s a lot of people to bring to his side.
2. ISIS wants the same exact thing to happen. Ethnic conflict between Sunni and Shia will force the Sunnis to ISIS for protection. And after all, Iraq is 40% Sunni. That’s a lot of people to bring to their side.
Of course, it’s not that simple, but you get the idea.
So let’s end this mess and just eliminate ISIS! We have to stop genocide before it begins! Al-Maliki may be bad, but at least he is the real government, and once we prevent ISIS from taking over, we can try harder to fix things in Iraq.
This is the kind of thing that people are telling Obama right now. “Just eliminate ISIS and we can begin to fix things in Iraq! Just eliminate ISIS before it’s too late!”
There are two problems with this:
1. We’ve tried to eliminate ISIS before. The 2003-2011 Iraq War was all about the US, UK, and Iraqi government trying to eliminate ISIS. In 2004 we almost completely leveled the city of Falluja in an attempt to get rid of them. It didn’t work. ISIS has already proved that they are not a problem war can fix. ISIS is created by war.
2. Many Iraqis will see an American attack on ISIS as the beginning of the civil war between Sunni and Shia. By trying to prevent genocide we will more likely start it. This is because the battle lines are already drawn. Even if we mean to only attack ISIS, it would be seen as an attack the Iraqi Sunnis. Many Iraqis felt that the Iraqi War in 2003-2011 was about the US, UK, and Iraqi government waging war against the Sunnis. An attack on ISIS today would not be perceived any differently. Anyways, they wouldn’t be wrong. Most of the people we killed in the Iraqi war were Sunnis. Bush preferred calling them “Bad Guys,” but they were Iraqi Sunnis all the same.
Most importantly, it is likely that once we fire upon ISIS, it will be seen as a Shia attack. There is no real difference between the US attacking ISIS, and the US fighting for the Shia government. An attack on ISIS will result in retaliation attacks against Shia. In turn, the Shia will retaliate, and the ethnic war Al-Malkiki and ISIS are seeking will have begun.
But we have to prevent genocide! How do we prevent genocide if we don’t bomb the culprits?
Well, we don’t have to bomb people to prevent genocide. In fact, I can’t think of a time when bombs have done much to prevent genocide. So what can we do? We can do really really really boring things. Un-newsworthy things. We talk with ISIS and Al-Malilki. Not these bullshit “peace talks” crap. We can talk peace and mean it. We can pry the crown off Al-Malilki. We put him on his throne – we can take him off! Put someone in his place who is willing to work with the Sunnis. If Sunnis see a government trying to include them, it would make ISIS look like the tyrants, rather than the Iraqi government.
I know a lot of young’ns are reading this last paragraph and thinking, “That paragraph is not cynical enough, therefore it is not realistic.” Well fuck you young people! You’re wrong! The US used to resolve conflicts all the time. I already know what you’re thinking, and yes, we didn’t solve every conflict you cynical bastards, but we did a lot of trying and sometimes we succeeded. And then Bush came on the scene and ruined it for everyone. (by bombing everyone.)
I’m obviously getting a little tired so I’m going to end it here. But I’d like to end this how I like to end a lot of my talks/presentations/blog posts, and put in a bunch of pictures of the normal people living under the crazy governments that I focus too much on. It is the people that are important. It’s the peoples and cultures that I love. They are the reason why I have no problem spending my time writing blog posts like this.
Also, if you want to do tell Obama and Congress not to bomb Iraq, call his office and call it now! (They close at 2:00pm PST, 5:00pm EST and the line is very busy today.)
The number is (202) 456-1111. All you have to say is “Hello my name is _____ and I’m calling to tell the president not to bomb Iraq. Thank you.” *click*
Here are some pictures of Iraqi people to look at while you ask Obama not to bomb them: