Sectarian Strife in the Middle East : What it is all about

Of late, Newspapers are choke-full about the Civil Strife in Iraq and every one come across the acronyms ISIS and ISIL. News has been breaking every other day that the Extremist Group ISIS is claiming territory after territory in Iraq and is fast advancing towards the Capital Baghdad.  Some Papers name the group as ISIS and some others as ISIL. As a frequent commentator on various threads on the issue and with my some-what little knowledge about the internal politics of Iraq, thanks to two of my media friends who hail from that region, my other friends in my social networking circle have been asking me as to what the confusion is all about regarding the name of the Extremist Group.  Simply speaking, they wanted to know whether ISIS and ISIL are same and if same, then as to why they are called differently by different sections of the Media

Through this post, I am attempting to clear the confusion of many, through the limited knowledge I have about this.  The articles I read in Reuters and Le Monde Diplomatique, through my friends has been of immense help to me in understanding the issue here. 

In Arabic, the Extremist group is known as Al-dawa-Al-Islamiya-Al-Iraq-wa-al-Sham or simply the ‘Islamic State of Iraq and the Al-Sham.  ISIS actually refers to Islamic State of Iran and Syria.Al-Sham refers to the region stretching from Southern Turkey through Syria to Egypt, including Lebanon, parts of Israel, the Palestine, and of course Jordan.  The group is headed by Abu Bak'r al'Baghdadi and the stated goal of the Group is to restore the Islamic State or the ‘Caliphate’ in this entire area.  The standard term for this broad territory - otherwise known as Al-Sham -  is the “Levant”.  And hence the Acronym ‘ISIL’ which stand forIslamic State of Iraq and Levant.The current crisis is triggered by the extremists belonging to Sunni Iraqis and the Sunni Syrians who are against the Bashar regime and though the group mainly refers itself to Iraq and Syria (and hence ISIS), the Syria here,  may actually refer to Greater Syria (which is what Al-Sham is all about) and hence the group is sometimes called as ISIL.  

The Civil Strife has its roots in the idea called Baathism, which Saddam propagated during his lifetime.  Baathism is based on the principles of Arab Nationalism, Pan Arabianism and Arab Socialism.  It is a secular ideology and it may be remembered that Saddam Hussein was largely Secularevenduring his dictatorial reign.    As on today, there are two versions of Baathismi.e the Arab Socialist Baath Party, which has its presence in many Middle East Countries, and is now ruling Syria, with Bashar-al-Assad as its head and the Baghdad based Baath Party, which ruled Iraq and was decimated during the US Invasion of Iraq. 

Some insight into the current Iraq Crisis
Presently, the Middle East is split between a pro-Saudi political block and a pro-Iranian political block.  It is rumoured that US itself funded the ISIS for a brief while as it was fighting against the pro-IranBashar-al-Assad regime of Syria.  US itself was trying to contain Iran at that point of time.  The Syrian Civil war was all about the majority Sunni Muslims pitted against the brutal Shia Dictator Al-Assad, who had the active support of the Shia’ite Iran regime. 

The present conflict is further complicated by the other regional players like Saudi Arabia which is again a Sunni Majority Country and where Shias are in a minority.  Saudi Arabia is lucky not to have seen any sectarian strife as the whole country is ruled by the strong authoritarian Royal regime.  Iraq is actually a diverse country made up of three distinct groups – Shias on the South, Sunnis on the West and Kurds on the North.  During the Saddam’s regime, the comparatively minority group Sunnis ruled the minority Kurds and the majority Shias.  After the US invasion of Iraq and the toppling of the Saddam regime, the US propped up a Shia regime which also had the active support of the Shia’ite Iran. 

What I think on the contrary is that, the entire Civil Strife has its origins in the famous Arab Spring.  It triggered everything as the people of the region rose against their dictators but sadly, their revolution was since been hijacked by the religious fanatics looking to create a domination of Islamic fundamentalism.     The ISIS, or ISIL (whichever way we call it) is looking to re-create the Caliphate or a greater Islamic region comprises the Sunni fighters, once defunct but now realigning Iraqi Baath’ists and Jihadist Al Qaeda fighters.  The Kurds too have joined the fight as they had always believed that they were deprived of their rights and territories as also their claim to the Oil wells in their region during the Saddam regime.  After the US invasion, even though the Kurdish areas have been designated as autonomous regions with their own prime minister, they still want their piece of cake.ISIL's objective is common :  overthrow the Shia regimes of both Al-Assad as well as the Iraqi government, and restoration of the Islamic State, thereby reducing the dominion of the Western powers. They may be actively funded by the Saudi royals too, as the Saudis have a huge stake in the region.  

In all, Iraq is staring at a three-way split along the ethnic lines with probably the Kurds standing to gain the most as they will be declaring Independence. Some of the biggest oil fields are also in this area and the Kurds definitely stand to gain from it.  



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