Thoughts on the Middle East crisis

Well, I think this has been a long time coming.

I’d like to start by welcoming everyone to my new “political/social commentary” blog. I’ve been wanting to do something like this for a long time, and I think this is a reasonable way to start. My goal with this blog is to provide some insight into what I believe as well as, hopefully, to allow ways for liberals and conservatives to find some common ground. I personally would definitely consider myself very much a progressive, but I definitely enjoy having dialogues and debates with people from both sides of the aisle. Having a dedicated area like this, where I can take the time to flesh out my thoughts and explain my premises, should really aid in maintaining high-quality dialogues.

To open the blog, I’d like to share my thoughts on the current situation in Iraq. This past Thursday, I attended a symposium discussing the situation there. I think perhaps the most interesting thing to note is that the conflict – indeed, the entire Middle Eastern region – is far more nuanced than people think. It’s not just about the Sunnis and the Shi’a, or about the plight of the Kurds. There are a lot of factors that go into the situation that we have today, and I’ll give a quick outline of what’s happened in the past, as I understand it, that has led to the current conflict before I get deeper into the atrocities currently occurring in the region. I’ve chosen to focus specifically on Iraq, but it’s definitely worth keeping in mind that the modern Middle East stretches all the way from Iran and Afghanistan in the east all the way across North Africa to Mauritania in the west. It’s a lot of land with a lot of culture – and it’s definitely worth keeping this in mind, just to give you an idea of how complex things really are there.

History and Demographics

Over the last 35-plus years, Iraq specifically has been stuck under various extraordinarily oppressive regimes. Of course, there were countless instances of ethnic oppression and religious discrimination under Saddam Hussein for years, but also more recently, former prime minister Nouri al-Maliki, selected to lead the country in 2006 (with U.S. support), had also committed similar acts before relinquishing power earlier this week. Most notably, he had embarked on a Husseinesque quest to consolidate power – essentially, he had used the Iraqi army to further the interest of Shi’a Muslim areas in Iraq, while withholding funds to other regions. (Kurdistan regions in northern Iraq are still owed $7 billion, for example). His divisive policies probably led to a greater potential for sectarian violence in the region; the following maps, showing religious distribution in Baghdad in 2003 and 2009, do a good job of illustrating how much more segregated the area became (Source: Dr. Michael Izady’s maps, hosted by Gulf/2000).

Baghdad's religious distribution in 2003

Baghdad in 2003. Note the large amount of culturally mixed neighborhoods.

Baghdad religious distribution in 2009

Baghdad in 2009. Note how the neighborhoods have changed. Interestingly, the Sunni Muslims have moved out of a lot of the city, and many more neighborhoods are much more Shi’a dominated.

As you can see, Shi’a Muslims have taken a lot more of the area in Baghdad in this six-year period. In the text on the second image, Dr. Izady notes that

ethnic cleansing by rival Shi’a may have been largely responsible for the decrease in violence and not the much-advertised U.S. troop surge in Iraq. Essentially, [UCLA geographers’] interpretation corroborates the fact that civil war ended in Baghdad because of intercommunal violence that reached a climax as the US surge of extra troups into the battlefield was just commencing. “By the launch of the surge, many of the targets of conflict had either been killed or fled the country, and they turned off the lights when they left.”

The patterns are very indicative of al-Maliki’s policies. It’s really unfortunate that the U.S. media didn’t realize what was going on when these trends started to take shape, as I think that had we been able to analyze this as it was happening, a lot of the current instability in the region could have been prevented.

Of course, Iraq’s problems go deeper than who’s in power and who’s oppressing who – the nation itself is ranked as one of the ten most corrupt nations by Transparency International. Over 80% of its jobs are government jobs, leaving room for leadership to discriminate, and it’s home to the largest food welfare programs in the world.

I don’t mean to imply that the only parties in this conflict are Sunni and Shi’a Muslims, of course. There are plenty of other groups involved. Perhaps one of the most notable groups are the Kurds, a large ethnic group with a diverse set of belief systems (including Judaism, Islam, some Christianity, and many others) and a nation-spanning territory. They’ve made strides towards autonomy in both Syria and Iraq in recent years, and have a rich cultural history. They also fought alongside US troops in Operation Iraqi Freedom – not surprising, since they were one of the groups that Hussein oppressed heavily. (Unfortunately, as noted above, al-Maliki also oppressed them quite a bit, denying billions of dollars in funding and infrastructure). They’re really important in this conflict because they’ve taken in many of the Yazidi, Christian, and other refugees from the ISIS offensive in Syria and western Iraq, and are leading the resistance against the ISIS push.

Ethnic distribution map of Iraq

Ethnic distribution map of Iraq – note how regionalized it is, and how diverse the varying belief systems are.

BBC map of population density in Iraq - to put into perspective the previous image.

BBC map of population density in Iraq – to put into perspective the previous image.

The Yazidi are the last group I want to cover before I start talking about ISIS. They’re a small community – between 400,000 and 500,000 left in the world – that practice a belief system that combines elements of Islam, Mithraism, Zoroastrianism, and some other ideologies. They’ve been routinely persecuted – in this most recent incursion, almost all the Yazidis in the Sinjar region of Iraq have fled north to Kurdish territory – half the remaining Yazidi population in the world. They’ve been subject to – according to them – 72 different genocide attempts, dating back at least to the Ottoman Empire.

Finally, let’s discuss ISIS, the organization at the heart of the current conflict in the region. They’re a Sunni jihadist group that formed out of al-Qaeda and various jihadist militias originally fighting the Syrian pro-government forces. Since then, they’ve evolved into a self-sustaining organization, maintaining their force via captured oil fields, stolen money from banks, extortion, and human trafficking, among other things. Their stated goal is to establish a Sunni Muslim state stretching from Syria through Iraq into eastern Iran, and they view any non-Sunni people as heretics or apostates who must be killed. They’ve actually become a haven for international jihadists, including U.S. and European citizens. (For more on how ISIS split off of al-Qaeda and how they moved into their current role on the international stage, Aaron Zelin wrote a wonderful piece for the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.)

Whew. A lot to take in, right? I’m only about halfway done, though – it’s time to walk through the current conflict.

Conflict in Iraq

To really get to grips with how we came to the point we’re at now, we have to look back to the Arab Spring earlier this decade, when previously-peaceful Syria exploded in civil war. Anti-government demonstrations turned into full-blown war, spurred by both dissatisfaction with the existing government as well as religious extremism. Looting, kidnapping, and violence became commonplace. I recently had the opportunity to hear from the Reverend Rami Al Maqdasi, a refugee from Iraq who also spent time working in Syria. He witnessed firsthand the inhumane acts of rebels in Syria, ranging from kidnapping to firing on funeral processions. I won’t defend the acts of the regime in Syria – how could anyone, especially now knowing what we know about the al-Assad regime? – but I will say that there were atrocities committed by the rebel forces as well.

Anyway, as the anti-government forces in Syria began to coalesce, they started breaking away from al-Qaeda, who had been influential in directing the forces, to form ISIS. They initially became self-sustaining through looting banks and capturing oil fields, and went on to capture military equipment (including armored Humvees, helicopters, and other heavy weaponry) from the Iraqi army, who actually fled the ISIS advance. (By this time, ISIS’s reputation for merciless treatment of the opposition was well-known – they had, by this time, a history of crucifying their Syrian opponents – and the Iraqi army, as the enforcement arm of the Shi’a prime minister, would not have been treated particularly well). They’ve since used this equipment to capture numerous cities and villages across central Iraq, including Mosul, where they marked the homes of Christians with a red Arabic “N” – standing for “Nazarene” – to target them for extermination or seizure of property. They eventually forced all Christians out of the city with only the clothes on their backs, even confiscating diapers from months-old infants. In other villages, ISISburied Yazidis alive, threatened others with a “convert or die” ultimatum, and raped women, also keeping them to sell later.

Needless to say, they’re not a particularly nice bunch of individuals.

Their offensive has gotten a bit stalled out recently, however. The Kurdish forces in northern Iraq have done a good job of pushing them back in recent days, and have been holding the line. However, the situation is dire – those forces do not have a lot of supplies, and hosting millions of refugees is costly (estimated at billions of dollars at this point, money that they simply do not have).

The international community has, in general, done a good job of stepping forward and helping out. The U.S., as most of you know, has begun a campaign of airstrikes on ISIS strongholds and has pledged to supply the Kurdish forces with weapons and the refugees with humanitarian aid. Germany and France have also pledged both military and humanitarian aid, and other countries, including Canada and Australia, have also stepped up to provide humanitarian aid to refugees. Finally, the U.N. has set up refugee camps in the Kurdistan region. However, it’s my belief that more needs to be done, and it’s incumbent on us as global citizens to help out.

What Can You Do?

Contacting your local representative to express your support is often the single biggest thing you can do; government is often a fairly slow-moving beast, but it actually does respond when a bunch of people start poking it. Letting the people who speak for you in government know that you support continued humanitarian outreach doesn’t take long, and it can really make a difference.

Despite the horrors that ISIS is perpetrating in Iraq, I’ve held the belief that all military action is wrong for a very long time. I won’t lie, though – the degree of extremism that ISIS practices made me really think about it. I’m standing by that principle, though, and to that end I’ve chosen to turn my energies towards humanitarian aid. If you’re interested in supporting the humanitarian work in Syria and Iraq, there are plenty of organizations who have been providing aid in the region. Among those are Catholic Relief Services, CARE, and my personal favorite charity, Doctors Without Borders. I personally will be contributing to Doctors Without Borders, although there are plenty of other options.

Finally, as the new Iraqi prime minister settles in, I think it’s important that we make a point of being more aware of the issues in the region. I firmly believe that a lot of the current situation in Iraq could have been prevented or, at the very least, alleviated had we been more cognizant of Nouri al-Maliki’s policies after he took office; it seems like Iraq kind of dropped off of the media radar after the troop surge in 2007, which is really kind of a tragedy. It’s certainly incumbent on the U.S., as the country who kicked this whole thing off back in 2003, to be aware of the situation in Iraq and to do what we can to ensure that we haven’t simply exchanged one dictator for another as we did with al-Maliki.

Thanks for taking the time to read this post. I hope that I’ve been at least somewhat coherent. I encourage comments below; I’m looking forward to the opportunity to not only have this blog as a place for my views, but also a forum for open discussion of various issues as I continue to write.

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