Sectarian division: root of wars in Iraq and the Middle-East

By Geoffroy d’AspremontMEDEA Institute

Last week, the second biggest city of Iraq, Mossul, fell into control of the radical armed group « Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant » (ISIS) which is gaining control in more and more Iraqi cities. The troops are getting closer to Bagdad, where Prime Minister Nouri Al-Maliki and his government are based. The control of Iraqi and Syrian territories by ISIS and the weakness of both regional governments and other rebel groups, could permanently change the composition of the region. Sectarian division is therefore still an important element for the conflicts in the Middle-East.

ISIS became infamous through its conquests and its brutality in Syria. The Sharia has been implemented very strictly in the regions, such as the city Raqqa where ISIS-troops came to power. The policy of terror and the conquering of state property and oil, has led to the frustration of local populations and other Syrian rebel groups. Since January, these groups are trying to drive the ISIS out of Syria.

Fighters from Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant hold their weapons as they stand on confiscated cigarettes before setting them on fire in the city of Raqqa

© Reuters. The « Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant » (ISIS) in Raqqa, Syria.

The conquest by ISIS of Iraqi and Syrian territories, have been made possible with the support of Sunni groups, former Baathists, or other jihadists troops such as Jaysh Al-Mujahidin, Ansar al-Islam or the alnakshabandia army. Both these groups and ISIS have been able to turn into their advantage the resentment of exclusion, due to the pro-shia and pro-Iranian policy of PM Nouri Al-Maliki , of the Sunni population. They see the ISIS troops as their liberators.

As if robbing the Iraqi Central Bank in Mosul was not enough, ISIS also controls a part of the hydrocarbons and the modern weaponry left behind by Iraqi troops. Their ability of recruiting men (including in the West) to train them and to equip them, strengthens their influence in the region.

This « Suni » alliance could change the composition of the region, for they consider the Shia’s as their main enemy and wish to establish a Suni Islamic State, a new caliphate, in Syria and Iraq (even in Palestine and Jordan). This could change the borders set in 1916 with the Sykes-Picot Agreement. They are also against the regime of Bachar El-Assad, his Iranian ally and the Gulf monarchies.

However, the current situation could rapidly turn in the disadvantage of the ISIS, due to its brutal methods of governance by alienating the Iraqi Suni population and the armed groups which support them. Nevertheless, the Iraqi government should realize that, in stead of polarizing the suni and shia population in Iraq (with the support of Iran), the only way to create a sustainable government is by integrating the different groups such as the kurds, suni, shia, and other minorities. If the Al-Maliki government does not want to lose grip much longer over the suni areas, it should react by rethinking its policy based on religious preference.


© AFP. The Iraqi Prime Minister, Nouri al-Maliki.

The United States and the international community should avoid to choose sides or to bomb the positions of ISIS in order to avoid further alienation by the suni Iraqis and radicalization of the Syrian opposition. The latter could interpret these actions as a support to Iran, due to the refuse to intervene against the Bachar El-Assad regime (supported by Iran) in the summer of 2013. The US policies in the region, based on economic and other interests, have an equally important responsibility for the perpetuation of these struggles.