Some of you may have heard that the ancient Egyptian goddess Isis has returned to Earth and is wreaking havoc in Iraq, with plans to expand her new empire to engulf the world. Well, you heard wrong. The ISIS in the media today has nothing to do with Egyptian mythology. Who is this ISIS, then, you ask? To answer that question, first we have to look at the two main factions of the Islamic religion: Shiite and Sunni.
Fundamentally, both sects follow the same basic teachings of Islam. The main difference is one of politics and not religion, and it reaches back through the ages to the death of the Prophet Muhammad himself. Upon his ascension, there was a debate over who should carry on as the leader of Islam. The Sunnis followed the beliefs of many of the Prophet’s companions, which stated that a new leader should be elected from a group of those qualified to take up the mantle. The word “Sunni” itself means “One who follows the traditions of the Prophet.”
The Shia (Shiite) Muslims believe that leadership should have stayed in the Prophet’s family line, and should have passed to Muhammad’s son-in-law, Ali bin Abu Talib. Shiites have refused to acknowledge the leadership of elected Muslim officials. Rather, they follow Imams that they feel would have been appointed by the Prophet or by God Himself. The word “Shia” simply means a supportive group of people, but the Shiites have also gone by the name Shia-t-Ali, meaning “Supporters of Ali.”
ISIS is a Sunni group that has grown out of al-Qaeda forces fighting against the FSA (Free Syrian Army) in Syria. ISIS takes their Jihad to a whole new level, however – a level so extreme that even al-Qaeda has disowned them. After securing territories near the Syria-Iraqi border, ISIS carried its Jihad into Iraq to combat the U.S.-established Shiite government under current president, Jalal Talabani. Talabani is the first non-Arabic leader of Iraq, as he is from the Kurdish side of the tracks. He is known as “Mam Jalal” or “Uncle Jalal” among the Kurdish people. ISIS moved into north-western Iraq, where there are several disenfranchised Sunni tribes, many of whom are hoping to restore the Sunni glory days as they were under Saddam Hussein before the U.S. invasion.
Gaining support in the region, ISIS spread quickly, taking control of Anbar, the largest province in Iraq, and then securing cities, from their stronghold in Al-Qaim to places further south such as Rawa, Ana, and Husaybah, which is only 100 Km (62 mi.) from Baghdad. Recently, ISIS has strengthened its grip on this territory from Syria to Iraq so much that it has officially declared itself an independent Islamic state, calling itself the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant.
ISIS has swept across Iraq enforcing brutal control, putting down any resistance from Shiite-friendly fighters and moving itself into a position that could potentially topple the Iraqi capital and the government therein. Their ultimate goal, they say, is to bring the Muslim regions of the world under their direct control, starting with regions like Jordan, Lebanon, Kuwait, Cyprus, Palestine and even Israel. I may not know much about the geopolitical climate of the region, but I am fairly certain that if ISIS ever does attack Israel… well, suffice to say, I will be getting the hell out of this part of the world ASAP.
So what does all of this mean to the Middle East? What new sort of wackiness has the sudden rise of ISIS brought to the region? Strangely, it has proven to be somewhat of a unifying force, bringing together different (and often conflicting) Muslim peoples and governments in a unified front against the push of what they see as Takfiri militants. “Takfiri” is a term used for a Muslim who accuses another Muslim of apostasy, or the abandonment of their religious beliefs. ISIS is basically calling other Muslims infidels, and other Muslims are basically telling ISIS to shut their collective pie hole. Indeed, the CCG (Cooperation Council for the Arab States of the Gulf) is rallying together to face this sudden and unexpected threat, and it is actually kind of beautiful in a horribly bloody way. Enemies are becoming friends, which is always a good thing – and yet it is due to horrible violence, which is never, ever a good thing.
Wouldn’t it be kind of nice if ISIS’s plan the whole time was to play Devil’s Advocate with the true intention of uniting the differing factions of Islam? They play the bad guys in order to unite Muslims against a common enemy created by ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi in a bid to bring about peace and brotherhood through turmoil. In truth, then, their intentions would actually be kind of noble, if misguided. I would like to believe that this is the truth behind the atrocities… I would like to believe it, but I can’t. In reality, ISIS is most likely just out for blood against those they see as not being true to the faith.
Back in reality, there is even more strangeness afoot, as the rise of ISIS is not just making new alliances among the Muslim nations, but several other nations are getting in on the mutual admiration game. Case in point, the United States – the empirical power that many see as the root cause of the unrest in Iraq – is reaching out to its old enemy Iran for two reasons that, on the surface, may appear separate, but in truth are very much tied together. The first reason is, of course, the U.S.’s ongoing battle against nuclear proliferation. Rumor has it that Iran is working on a bomb, and the U.S. and its allies – particularly Israel – take issue with that. The other reason the U.S. is reaching out to Iran is that Iran has both the military might and the ideology to be the greatest force against ISIS in the region. Iran is already placing its elite IRGC forces in preparation for an all-out assault on ISIS. The U.S. and the rest of P5+1 (AKA the U.N. Security Council plus Germany) have a vested interest in seeing Iran not only enter the fray, but to emerge victorious. To that end, the new discourse being broached by the U.S. with Iran to broker a new nuclear deal is very telling, as they may use these negotiations to get Iran to fight on their behalf against what the P5+1 sees as the REAL threat: ISIS.
In short, the U.S. needs Iran to quell the growing influence of ISIS in the region. Iran considers this a win-win as it not only will mean more negotiating power in its nuclear deals with the U.S. but it also means greater influence over the Gulf region as it will use its sacrifice in the struggle against ISIS to establish itself as a recognized world power. This probably does not sit too well with the CCG, but they, too, are relying heavily on Iran’s strength to stop the spread of ISIS. The Saudis already have troops placed on the border they share with Iraq, but regional geopolitical experts have warned that an intervention now by the Saudis could serve only to exacerbate the situation. Some say the best path to resolving the conflict will be through an agreement between Saudi Arabia and Iran. As journalist Bob Dreyfuss wrote in an article for The Nation (14 July, 2014):
“The easiest way to resolve the Iraq-Syria civil war is through an accord between Saudi Arabia and Iran. Although Saudi Arabia supports the Sunni side in a broad, regional proxy war throughout Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, the Persian Gulf and into South Asia, and Iran supports the Shiite side, neither side tolerates either Al Qaeda or ISIS. Both Riyadh and Tehran are worried about the rise of ISIS, and the common ground is there for both countries to establish a détente and try to resolve the civil war.”
Dreyfuss also states that the chances of ISIS progressing much further are zero. Still, the region waits on pins and needles, as here in the Gulf we are in the midst of the holiest month of Ramadan, and both sides are using this time to build up support for what many see as inevitable conflict. ISIS is recruiting downtrodden Sunnis in Iraq, growing their forces the same way they did in Syria, and Iran is rallying its forces and brokering deals with the West. Sides are forming for what could be a major kerfuffle here in the Gulf: A unified front of Islamic nations led by Iran and backed by the U.S. against ISIS, a terrifying and fast-growing new threat to stability in a region that is not known for its stability. Keep in mind that much of the military equipment that the U.S. left in Iraq is now in the hands of ISIS, ISIS has taken control of a large chemical weapons plant in Iraq, and they are not hurting for money as they have begun selling off the oil from fields that they have taken so far at a rate of $1 million per day. ISIS is serious, as their ultimatum/motto “Repent or die” would seem to indicate.
The climate is always changing, and there really is no way to predict on which side of the line the ball is going to drop. If the conflict in Iraq boils over, we will see a lot more bloodshed in the region. If not, then perhaps we can find a silver lining in that ISIS may have served, in a limited extent, as a blessing in disguise by opening constructive discourse and creating a path for cooperation in the region.
As it stands, the peoples of the Gulf will prepare for war, and pray for peace.
I am an American expat that has been living overseas since 2007. Most of that time has been spent in East Asia as I lived in Korea until 2012. Currently I reside in the Sultanate of Oman. I enjoy traveling, and I always bring a towel, but ultimately I hope to return home to Pittsburgh. So if you hear of any jobs...
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