Untangling the
Middle EastA guide to the region’s web of relationships amid the battle against Islamic State

Last updated August 25, 2016

By Patrick Martin
Design by Jeremy Agius

As civil war rages in Syria and the Islamic State movement clings to control of territory in western Iraq and eastern Syria, long-time rivalries and alliances are shifting in the Middle East. Every player in the region has interests that intersect and sometimes collide with enemies and allies alike. Canada stepped into this diplomatic minefield in 2014 by joining the U.S.-led coalition against Islamic State; it sought to extricate itself from the inefficient bombing aspect of the campaign in early 2016 and to focus on training Iraqi fighters. Here is a guide that cuts through the tangled web of alliances and enmities in the region.

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United States

Torn as to how to respond to the 2011 popular uprising in Syria against the Bashar al-Assad regime, Washington paid lip service to the goal of ousting President al-Assad and offered only limited materiel to elements of the rebel Free Syrian Army (FSA). By 2013, U.S. personnel were training supposed FSA forces in Jordan, only to see some of the forces meld with the al-Qaeda-linked Nusra Front when they returned to Syria.

Washington appeared unaware of the scale of Islamic State (IS) occupation of large sectors of Syria, and of the connection between IS’s operation in Syria and the group’s 2013 advances in the Sunni triangle of Iraq. U.S. officials acknowledge they didn’t foresee the 2014 IS invasion of Mosul and other territory in Iraq.

The Obama administration has assembled a broad coalition of countries willing to participate in “degrading and defeating” Islamic State in both Syria and Iraq, and preventing any further IS advances, but has committed only “a few dozen” U.S. ground troops to work with local Sunni Arab and Kurdish forces in northeast Syria in their fight against Islamic State. U.S. ground personnel also have been deployed to secure the U.S. embassy in Baghdad and to train Iraqi and Kurdish-Iraqi fighters.

U.S. aircraft have led a number of coalition partners on near-daily air raids against IS forces in Syria and Iraq. As well, U.S. aircraft on their own have attacked al-Qaeda-linked forces in Syria.

President Barack Obama has cautioned that the struggle against Islamic State will be a long one, especially as it requires the use of military forces on the ground, but only Iran, Iraqi Shia militias and Kurdish peshmerga have deployed ground troops against IS fighters.

Canada

A new government in Ottawa has announced it is ending Canada’s role in aerial assaults against IS targets in Iraq and Syria after less than one year. Instead, Canada will increase its assistance to the training of Kurdish fighters in their semi-autonomous region in northern Iraq, as well as to Arab Iraqi forces. It also could be involved in possible NATO joint special forces ground operations against IS positions.

Canada also is providing humanitarian relief for refugees fleeing from IS fighters and the Syrian civil war.

Europe

Following IS-sponsored attacks on Paris in November, 2015, France expanded its aerial raids against Islamic State targets to hit bases in Syria as well as in Iraq. Britain, too, said it will no longer be confined to attacks on IS targets in Iraq. Neither country has been willing to commit troops to a ground campaign, though Britain has authorized the use of aerial drones over Syria to help gather intelligence.

Also following the Paris attacks, Denmark said it will begin assaults on IS targets in Syria, in addition to those it is carrying out in Iraq, while Germany announced it will deploy jet fighters for the purpose of gathering intelligence on IS positions in Syria, as well as a warship to help protect a French aircraft carrier now operating in the eastern Mediterranean. The Netherlands already approved taking the aerial campaign to IS targets in Syria if necessary.

Germany, along with Norway, continues to train Iraqi fighters in northern Iraq, while Albania, Croatia, Italy and Poland have provided military equipment and ammunition to opponents of IS fighters.

Belgium ended its coalition role against Islamic State in mid-2015 after nine months of carrying out aerial attacks on IS targets in Iraq.

Russia

Moscow’s complicated approach to Islamic State and its attitude toward the U.S.-led operations against IS targets has evolved.

The Kremlin has stood by the regime of Bashar al-Assad in Syria from the start of the popular uprising in that country in 2011, and it increased its military support when Damascus was confronted by the growing strength of Islamic State forces. It provided Syria with ground-attack jets and helicopters, as well as drones, ammunition and intelligence.

Similarly, when Iraq came under attack by IS fighters in 2014, Russia quickly provided Baghdad with fighter jets and other weapons.

More recently, in the fall of 2015, Russia deployed to Syria numerous fighter aircraft of its own, along with extensive troop support. The primary objective of its aerial operations is the defence of the beleaguered Assad regime. As such, Russian jets have attacked numerous rebel targets in western Syria.

However, following the October, 2015, downing of a Russian airliner in Egypt apparently by an IS affiliate group, Moscow increased its attacks on IS positions in Syria.

Moscow has not approved of the U.S.-led operations against IS positions in Syria – partly because they are being conducted without approval either by Syria or the UN Security Council, and also because it fears the operations will eventually turn their sights on Syrian targets. However, in the wake of the loss of the Russian airliner, as well as the attacks in Paris, Russia has moved to co-operate with France and, to some degree, with the United States, to bring Islamic State to heel.

As well, Russia is an active member of new 2015 efforts to find a political solution to the Syrian civil war. However its position has been hardened with the downing by Turkey of a Russian fighter jet flying over the Turkish-Syrian border. Russia has imposed economic sanctions against Turkey and has heavily bombed areas near the Turkish border where local Turkmen populations, believed to be armed by Turkey, are among the rebels fighting the Assad regime.

Russia’s overall goal is to prevent Syria (and Iraq) from becoming failed states that might serve as bases for Chechen extremists who could target Russia.

Turkey

Turkey’s role in the war against Islamic State is convoluted: Officially a member of the U.S.-led coalition against Islamic State, it wants no part in sending its troops or planes across the border to engage IS fighters in Syria. And, only reluctantly, did it allow the United States to use Turkish airbases from which to attack IS assets in Syria.

Ankara argues that degrading Islamic State will only strengthen Syria’s Assad regime, a government that Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has vowed to bring down.

Consequently, it opposed Russia’s intervention in the Syrian civil war intended to rescue the embattled Assad regime. When a Russian jet fighter, targeting Turkmen rebels in northwestern Syria, ventured into Turkish airspace, it was promptly shot down, putting the NATO alliance, of which Turkey is a member, in an awkward position with Russia.

Ankara also is torn about the ongoing battle between IS fighters and Syrian Kurds along the northern border with Turkey. While Washington, Turkey’s ally, has deployed special forces to assist the Syrian Kurds, Turkey has been shelling some of its own Kurds, members of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) who have joined the fight against IS forces and are positioned alongside the Syrian Kurds.

Iraq

The first hint of Islamic State conquest in Iraq came in July, 2013, when IS fighters broke into Abu Ghraib prison west of Baghdad, freeing 500 Sunni inmates. No one paid it much attention. By the start of 2014, however, the group had captured Fallujah and parts of Ramadi on the road to Syria; still the Iraqi government of Nouri al-Maliki did little to prevent the group’s advance.

Mr. al-Maliki continued to freeze Sunnis from power in Baghdad and to run roughshod over the people in the Sunni provinces of Anbar and Nineveh. This ensured that an invading army of Sunni fighters would find a receptive population.

When it came in June, 2014, Islamic State was welcomed and joined by many of the people in the Sunni cities such as Mosel and Tikrit. The Shia-dominated Iraqi army turned and ran. The crisis forced Mr. al-Maliki to resign and a government led by Shia moderate Haider al-Abadi took his place.

Faced with a disgraced army and a rapidly advancing IS force, Iraq asked for help from Washington and its allies. Shia militias were reconstituted and the Kurdish peshmerga force took and mostly held areas around the oil fields of Kirkuk.

Fighting has raged since that time mostly in the Sunni provinces, in Kurdish areas of the north and, frequently, in the form of suicide bombings in Shia areas of Baghdad and the south.

With coalition air support, Shia militias, backed by Iran and often commanded by officers from the al-Quds Force of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard, have succeeded in driving back IS fighters from parts of central Iraq including Baqubah, Samarra and Tikrit.

In November, 2015, Kurdish forces from Iraq and Syria combined to oust IS fighters from the Yazidi town of Sinjar on the road from Mosul to Syria.

Syria

The 2011 popular uprising against the Bashar al-Assad regime provided an opportunity for al-Qaeda fighters in Iraq to filter across the border and stage attacks against the Syrian authorities. They began with car-bombings of military and intelligence facilities in Damascus and then formed the al-Qaeda-linked Nusra Front that captured large amounts of territory in the east, north and southwest. In 2013, fighters from what was then known as Islamic State of Iraq crossed into Syria and wrested much of the territory from the Nusra Front.

The Assad regime had warned of the threat of such jihadists if the civil uprising continued. By this time, however, the leadership could do little about it, as it was trying just to hold onto the main centres of central and western Syria in the face of relentless attacks by various rebel groups, many of them Sunni jihadists. Despite the support of Iran, the Lebanese Hezbollah movement and Russia, the regime became resigned to the presence of Islamic State in the east and northeast, but continues to fight it in the Aleppo area.

Syria sees no hope for compromise with Islamic State and quietly accepted the efforts of the U.S.-led coalition to try to degrade the group within Syria. With the Paris attacks as well as the downing of the Russian airliner in Egypt in the fall of 2015, the coalition was strengthened by more European powers willing to bomb IS targets in Syria and was joined by the forces of an angry Russian President.

The Assad regime knows this may be the best opportunity for maintaining control of much of the country and perhaps even getting the Syrian parties to the table to negotiate a settlement to the civil war.

Iran

Iran, the pre-eminent Shia state, views Islamic State as the advance guard of a militant Sunni initiative, originating in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf, dedicated to eradicating Shiism. The IS conquests in Syria and Iraq threaten Iran’s two closest clients. Consequently, it is sparing no effort to reinforce the Assad regime in Syria and to assist the Iraqi government in combatting IS forces.

Whereas the United States cloaks its anti-IS campaign in a coalition with other states, Iran trumpets the fact that it alone has sent hundreds of troops into Iraq to fight alongside Iraqi forces, something the United States has refused to do. Tehran even dispatched the charismatic former leader of the powerful al-Quds Force, a branch of the Revolutionary Guard, to northern Iraq where he has been photographed meeting with refugees from minority groups and standing with the Kurdish peshmerga, all apparently to show that Iran supports each and every one of them.

Thanks to Iran’s support (and air cover from the U.S.-led coalition), Iraqi Shia militias have succeeded in driving back IS fighters from parts of central Iraq.

In Syria, Iran has welcomed the arrival of Russian fighter jets to prop up the Assad regime and hopes their combined strength along with the U.S.-led coalition will eliminate the threat of IS forces.

Israel

Israel is not a member of the coalition against Islamic State though it greatly fears that IS forces would control the area alongside the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights if Syria becomes a failed state. Nor is Israel an overt supporter of the Assad regime in Syria, though the Jewish state has benefitted from the quiet on its frontier enforced by Damascus since 1974. Hence it has been silent about whether it wishes to see the downfall of Bashar al-Assad.

Israel’s paramount concern is that Iran, Syria’s chief patron, will develop nuclear weapons and pose an existential threat to the Jewish state. Consequently, it fears that the United States, in its determination to defeat IS forces, has made a deal with Iran – permitting Tehran to maintain a nuclear program in exchange for working together with the United States to rid Iraq and Syria of IS forces.

Lebanon

If Islamic State were to expand operations beyond Syria and Iraq, Lebanon might well be its next target. Already Lebanon has been affected by the Syrian civil war: About 1.8 million Syrians have taken refuge in makeshift facilities all over the country, and Lebanon’s most powerful militia, Hezbollah, has played an active part in the war, fighting on behalf of the Assad regime.

Sunni movements, including Islamic State, have recruited among Lebanon’s angry young Sunni men who hate both Hezbollah and the Assad regime. In the north, especially, the black IS banner is being flown and it’s likely there will be confrontations with Hezbollah fighters. Christians in the north and in the Bekaa Valley to the east have armed themselves in anticipation of IS forces descending from the hilltop Syrian border.

While Lebanon in 2014 placed constraints on its borders to limit further refugees entering the country, displaced Syrians continue to cross into the country.

Saudi Arabia

Saudi Arabia, a member of the U.S.-led coalition, has dutifully participated in aerial attacks against IS targets in Syria. However, as early as 2011, it was supplying Islamic State with much of its funding. Prince Bandar bin Sultan, who shares a common Saudi hatred of Shia Muslims, was then head of Saudi intelligence and responsible for official assistance to the Syrian opposition.

When the Western-supported Free Syrian Army and the Qatari-supported Muslim Brotherhood proved inadequate to the task of ousting Bashar al-Assad, Prince Bandar is believed to have directed private Saudi funding as well as government support to the two most successful rebel groups in Syria: the al-Qaeda-linked Nusra Front and the emerging Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (now known as Islamic State). At the same time, large numbers of young Saudi men were travelling to Syria to serve in the IS forces.

When the wider threat of Islamic State became clear in 2014, then Saudi King Abdullah relieved Bandar from responsibility for Syria’s rebels, and dismissed him as intelligence chief. It became a serious crime for young men to serve in foreign organizations such as the IS forces.

Now, Saudi Arabia is bombing some of the very IS assets it helped create.

It also has established a base for training moderate Syrian rebel fighters.

Qatar

Qatar, known for its support for the Muslim Brotherhood movement around the region, is a member of the U.S.-led coalition against Islamic State but has yet to fire a shot at IS assets. It has limited its role to conducting surveillance flights over IS positions in Syria.

It also is the site of U.S. Central Command, which co-ordinates all coalition surveillance and attack missions against IS positions.

Like Saudi Arabia, Qatar would prefer to see the Assad regime in Damascus overthrown, rather than have IS destroyed.

UAE

The United Arab Emirates, led by Abu Dhabi, are nominal members of the U.S.-led coalition. For several months they took part in aerial strikes against IS positions in Syria, however, they ceased flying such missions following the downing of a Jordanian fighter jet and the torture and execution of the captured pilot.

Though it is widely believed that individuals from the UAE, like Saudi Arabia and Qatar, have helped fund and arm jihadist rebels in Syria, Abu Dhabi officials say they oppose all Islamist groups in the region.

Jordan

If Islamic State were to expand its operations beyond Syria and Iraq, Jordan would likely be one of its first targets. Already, Jordan is involved in the war against IS forces and in the war against the Assad regime. A member of the U.S.-led coalition, its air force has taken part in bombing runs against IS assets in Syria, and one of its fighter jets was shot down by IS fighters and its captured pilot was tortured and executed.

Jordanian bases, used as training grounds for Free Syrian Army members battling Damascus, now are used to train Syrian fighters taking on Islamic State.

Salafi and other Islamic movements in Jordan have warned King Abdullah II against joining with U.S. and other forces in the fight against Islamic State. If IS forces were to move into Jordan, they would find a substantial number of Jordanians, though not a majority, ready to embrace them.

Egypt

Egypt is not a member of the U.S.-led coalition against Islamic State, though it has expressed support for the coalition’s activities and goals. The new administration of President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi argues that the coalition’s anti-terrorist mission should be extended to other groups, even in Africa.

Since the ouster of former president Mohammed Morsi and his Muslim Brotherhood administration, Egypt has been plagued by attacks from a militant jihadist group known as Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis, which recently established contact with Islamic State. Mr. el-Sissi would even like international efforts to focus on the more moderate Muslim Brotherhood movement, a group that Egypt now has outlawed.

Kuwait

Kuwait lacks much of a military and its contribution to the war against Islamic State is limited to logistical support: It is providing airfields at which Canadian and Danish fighter jets have been based in their operations against IS forces in neighbouring Iraq and Syria.

Kuwait also is the site of a new U.S. task force co-ordinating Iraqi counterattack against IS forces, and it hosts a small U.S. Army base and a facility for the forward deployment of a new U.S. Marines rescue operation.

At the same time, private donors in Kuwait are believed to have helped fund the Islamic State movement when it took up the struggle against the Syrian regime in 2013.

Kurds

The vast majority of the more than 20 million Kurds in West Asia are Sunni Muslims, yet this ethnic group finds itself at odds with the Sunni extremists of Islamic State mostly over conflicting national ambitions. Whereas Islamic State wants to establish a worldwide caliphate, the Kurds seek an independent Kurdish homeland.

In Syria, Kurdish fighters are battling IS forces over control of the Kurdish regions in the northeast. In Iraq, the Kurdish peshmerga have defended the autonomous Kurdish region in the north from an IS incursion and are a key component in the U.S.-led coalition attempting to repel IS forces from Iraq.

Kurds from Turkey, especially members of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), have joined their Syrian brethren in fighting IS forces, over the objection of Turkey’s authorities who frequently bomb PKK positions.

Turkey’s concern is that the PKK has long fought a violent battle for a homeland in Turkey and Ankara wants nothing to do with helping strengthen them.

Hezbollah

The militant Lebanese Shia Hezbollah movement has been fighting Islamic State forces in Syria as long as anyone. It has two reasons for doing so: As an ally of the Bashar al-Assad regime in Damascus, Hezbollah has fought to keep IS fighters from bringing down the regime; as a Shia movement, Hezbollah is fighting for its religious survival. It views the extremist Sunni Islamic State as its archenemy dedicated to destroying Shiism.

Hezbollah is not a member of the U.S.-led coalition – indeed the United States (and Canada) view Hezbollah as a terrorist group – however, the militant Lebanese movement and the coalition are in a practical alliance, with both seeing Islamic State as their greater enemy.

Islamic State

Islamic State began as a spinoff of al-Qaeda in Iraq becoming known as Islamic State in Iraq (ISI) as early as 2006. It maintained a low profile until 2013 when it broke into Abu Ghraib prison west of Baghdad and freed 500 Sunni prisoners. It then moved to take charge in the Sunni city of Fallujah and parts of Ramadi and gained influence throughout Iraq’s Sunni provinces where resentment of the Shia government of Nouri al-Maliki was great.

ISI’s ambitious leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, had seen the potential of wider conquest. Still loyal to al-Qaeda, he moved several of his fighters into Syria where they established the Nusra Front that soon became the most effective of the groups fighting to topple Bashar al-Assad. In 2013, Emir al-Baghdadi (as he styled himself) announced that his ISI group was merging with Nusra under the name Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). The Nusra Front leadership rejected the merger, as did al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri who said the “Emir” had overstepped his bounds.

Mr. al-Baghdadi broke with al-Qaeda and brought more of his fighters into Syria, where they were joined by many who abandoned the Nusra Front. Soon, ISIL was taking over large amounts of territory that had been captured by Nusra, becoming the largest, most powerful opposition group in Syria.

In June, 2014, ISIL launched a major offensive into Iraq overrunning several cities, including Mosul and Tikrit, where he was welcomed by many Sunni civilians and sent the Iraqi forces fleeing. Mr. Baghdadi declared the creation of an Islamic State with himself as caliph. The group’s brutal treatment of non-Sunnis shocked the world.

In August, 2014, his forces overran a number of Kurdish positions in northern Iraq, terrorizing civilian populations including thousands of Yazidis, and threatening even the Kurdish capital of Erbil. IS forces were eventually pushed back by a combination of U.S. aerial attacks and a Kurdish counterattack.

IS fighters have been driven from several communities in central Iraq by Iranian-backed Shia militias that have captured the cities of Baqubah, Samarra and Tikrit. The Iraqi Shia drive toward Mosul, however, has ground to a halt.

Islamic State shrunk by about 15 per cent over the course of 2015, losing ground in northern Syria to a concerted Kurdish campaign and in central Iraq where Iranian-backed Shia militias took back the city of Tikrit, the oil centre of Baiji and parts of Ramadi. But its forces captured ground in central Syria, including the ancient site of Palmyra and remain in control of about 30 per cent of Syria and close to 25 per cent of Iraq.

What’s in a name?

While the Baghdadi group adopted the name Islamic State, many observers and commentators continued to refer to the movement as ISIL (Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant). Others continued to use the less accurate, but more catchy, name ISIS (Islamic State of Iraq and Syria). Still others chose to use a transliteration of the Arabic acronym for ISIL: Daesh – which sounds a bit like another Arabic term dahes meaning to sow discord, and is interpreted as a put down of the movement.

Al-Qaeda

Formed in the late 1980s by Osama bin Laden, al-Qaeda (meaning “the base”) grew from a jihadist movement in Afghanistan fighting against Soviet occupation. The radical Sunni movement calls for strict interpretation of sharia law and wages jihad against so-called infidels in various countries (most famously the attacks on New York and Washington on Sept. 11, 2001).

The organization spread through franchises in several parts of West Asia and North Africa. Al-Qaeda of Iraq (AQI), its operation in Iraq, during the period of U.S. occupation was especially strong, carrying out massive suicide bombings against government, U.S. and Shia targets.

In 2006, facing suppression by a U.S.-funded campaign by Sunni tribal leaders, AQI formed the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI), which kept a relatively low profile.

In Syria, soon after the start of the 2011 popular uprising against Bashar al-Assad, al-Qaeda launched a new franchise: the Nusra Front, which included many former AQI fighters. Initially, the movement was highly successful and captured large tracts of territory in eastern and northern Syria.

However, in 2013, the Nusra Front began to lose ground to the rival Islamic State of Iraq, which had advanced into Syria and attempted to take over Nusra. The move was denounced by al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri, who insisted Nusra alone represents al-Qaeda, but Nusra came out on the short end.

Until now, the Nusra Front continues to fight the Assad regime, and there is some evidence that it and Islamic State co-ordinate their campaigns.

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Credits - Reporting, Patrick Martin; Interactive Design: Jeremy Agius; Editor, Michael Snider; THE GLOBE AND MAIL