In a continuation of last week’s article regarding the rise of the Islamic State, we will examine the political and theological aspects of the Middle East and how they have contributed to the rise of the Islamic State.
Of course, we can examine the Middle East through the lens of the Sunni/Shia divide, a division dating back to the earliest days of Islam; however, the Islamic State and the factors that contributed to its rise to power requires us to delve deep into centuries of tension between Sunnis, Shias, and members of their offshoots.
Syria, a majority Sunni country, ruled, in the loosest sense of the word, by an elite Shia minority, is ripe with age-old religious tension. Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has played the role of “Antagonizer-in-Chief.” Not only is he Shia, but he is Alawi, an offshoot of the Shia sect considered heretical by much of the Muslim world. Although al-Assad considers himself a secular head of state, his private religious convictions have certainly further tarnished his already rusty image.
Of course Syrians took to the streets by the thousands in search of political freedom, but it is the division of Syrians that gives this a religious connotation. An overwhelming majority of protestors identify themselves as Sunni, as Alawites have long been recipients of al-Assad’s favor since his rise to power in 2000. Al-Assad found friends outside of Iran in the overwhelmingly Shia Islamic Republic of Iran and neighboring Lebanon’s military group, Hezbollah.
By this point, you are probably asking, “What do al-Assad and the Alawites have to do with ISIS?” Al-Assad’s attack on the Sunni majority and his willingness to utilize any method to save his rule, including chemical weapons, quickly radicalized the majority against him. The Guardian’s Ali Kehdery explains that when the world did not quickly rush to the aid of the Sunnis, they embraced the one group who did: Al Qaeda.
In neighboring Iraq, embattled Shia Prime Minister Nouri Al Maliki, now former prime minister, openly worked to eliminate his political opponents, while simultaneously persecuting wide populations of Iraqis. As Maliki expanded his rule over the country, provincial Sunni councils sought semi-autonomous rule; however, Maliki, who saw their moves as a circumvention of the Iraqi Constitution, blocked their attempts. His actions led to mass uprisings and revolts across the country. It is also rumored that Maliki ordered several thousand Shia militia members into Syria to aid the al-Assad Regime.
So how are Iraq and Syria related beyond the context of ISIS? The aforementioned Kehdery is an advisor to U.S. Central Command, the U.S. military’s area of operation and influence in the Middle East, and a special assistant to five American ambassadors in Iraq. He explains that the rise of extremism in Iraq is directly attributed to al-Assad, who financed and trained large numbers of Al Qaeda fighters operating within Iraq. It would take the bombing of the Iraqi Finance Ministry by Al Qaeda fighters to truly demonstrate the magnitude of al-Assad’s actions.
And so, the rest is history. Iraq and Syria’s bloodshed spilled across borders as both countries quickly descended into chaos. Both states demonstrated that Sunni/Shia tension is alive and well, even if it is cloaked in the premise of political reform. As Syria collapsed into civil war, Sunnis across the country sought an ally, which they found in extremism.
In part three of a four part series in the Islamic State, I will examine ISIS as it currently exists, what it has accomplished and what its ultimate goals entail.