Who’s Who in the ISIL War?

Who and what is ISIL?

Here is Scribbler’s armchair analysis, researched exclusively on the Internet (so it must be true). Opinions are omitted as much as possible. I have them, but there are more than enough opinions on the subject. The aim here is to untangle the religious conflicts.

Yazidis fleeing from ISIL. Photo credit: SAFIN HAMED/AFP/GETTY IMAGES, “Yazidi under attack again”

There are followers of every religion in the Middle East, plus factions, splinters, sects and denominations, but this war is primarily between two branches of Islam, the Sunnis and the Shiites.

ISIL, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, is a group of hard-line Sunnis who want to create an Islamic caliphate, that is, a Muslim state, to rival the ancient Muslim empires.

Previous name: ISIS, or Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham

Previous name: AQI, or Al Qa’ida in Iraq

85% of the world’s Muslims are Sunnis, and ISIL is Sunni. About 15% of Muslims are Shi’a.  Here is a breakdown showing which branches hold the majority in the Greater Middle Eastern countries:

SUNNI majority             SHIITE majority  (Lebanon – mix of Sunni, Shi’a & others)

Saudi Arabia                        Iraq

Jordan                                  Iran


Saudi Arabia and Iran are the largest powers in the region. Saudi Arabia provides support for Sunnis, and Iran for Shiites. Photo Credit: Vice News

IRAQ: Saddam Hussein, a Sunni President in a country with a Shiite majority, was deposed and his government dismantled when the US invaded Iraq. Nuri Kamal al-Maliki, a Shiite, was installed. Sunnis aligned with Al Qa’ida of Iraq (AQI), which took control of Sunni areas of Iraq. AQI, however, was cruel and extremist, so moderate Sunnis allied with the Iraqi government and the US, and ran the AQI out of Iraq. AQI joined other fundamentalist groups and became ISIS.

SYRIA. In 2011, Sunni groups rebelled against the Syrian government and Shiite President Bashar al-Assad. The US and Saudi Arabia, among others, sided with rebels. Lebanon, Russia, China and Iran, among others, supported the Assad government. The rebels weren’t very well organized or trained. As the conflict dragged on, Sunni hard liners got more involved, and the fighting devolved into conflicts between competing Islamist groups, as well as between rebels and the government. ISIL emerged as the dominant rebel group, acquired a lot of the supplies and weapons that poured into the region, and took over part of Syria.

IRAQ. From it’s new base in Syria, ISIL attacked and took over part of Iraq, killing minorities, journalists and other heretics along the way.

ISIL’s tactics were too brutal even for Al Qa’ida, who broke off from the group in Feb. 2014.

ISIL and allies gain control of Fallujah. Photo credit: BBC news

What a stew.

Saudi Arabia’s support of Sunni rebels in Syria helped fund ISIL. Now ISIL presents a threat to Saudi Arabia.

Iran, loyal supporter of Syria, the Shiites and Assad, and not so long ago deemed part of the “Axis of Evil,” is now working with the Iraqis, Kurds, the US and allied forces to fight ISIL.

Photo Credit: Vox, “Twenty Seven Maps that Explain the Crisis in Iraq” This is roughly how things stand. The Iraqi government controls the red part, Kurds beige, ISIL light brown and Syria dark brown

The Assad government has probably become the lesser of two evils as far as the US is concerned, which is fine with Assad who reportedly hopes the US will attack ISIL in Syria, in effect supporting Assad.  Hezbollah Shiites from Lebanon who sided with Assad in the Syrian rebellion, now find themselves aligned against ISIL, too.

On it goes.

In sum, a war between Sunni & Shi’a, and between religious moderates and extremists, with fighters and countries changing sides, depending on how the wind blows.

Now to tackle the influence of oil money, climate change, politics, economics?

Maybe not.

What do you think? What are the chances that the US, by joining this fight, will help bring about a happy outcome?




  • Wow, you’ve taken on a subject many of us don’t even pretend to understand any longer (to include those we are depending on to know). The writing is on the wall, we must send you to DC. The explanation you’ve laid out is far clearer than any they’ll ever present. The violence and continuing loss of life is meaningless. I’m not sure this way of life will ever change but I don’t want to be a defeatist.


  • Understanding this conflict is beyond me, too. Only possible to parse bits of it. I hate to be defeatist, too, but I suspect the real underlying driver is drought. The whole region is parched, and it has hit poor people hard. Many (most?) of the pro-democracy Shi’a rebels in Syria were farmers, unable to grow crops because of drought, and who received no aide or assistance from Assad.

    D.C.? No thanks! It’s almost as bad as the Middle East. Cheers —


  • This is human conflict to its worst, death, destruction, suffering, living in fear for those involved and the ripple effect impacting millions the world round. When, if ever, will this madness end. You’ve done a great time, taken the time, to simplify a confused mess that the press doesn’t portray with any clarity. A very sad state of affairs. One can only hope for a miracle, a tiny small act of kindness would certainly meet that definition.

    Liked by 1 person

  • Great breakdown. Nice to see it summarized so clearly. This fighting has been going on for years and years. Wouldn’t it be lovely to one day see peace over there? One can dream, anyway…


    • One can dream, true. What a wild time, to watch this unfold, dissect it, albeit in a superfluous way, from a long ways away. Is this what happens when civilizations get old, crowded and the farmland dries up? How much are we, western countries, to blame for what’s happening? I don’t know. I like your dream option.


  • Thanks for clarifying for me a simply confounding subject. My brain has been hurting just trying to decipher this “mess” – so much so that I’ve more or less tuned out completely. Your piece makes it a lot less jumbled… 🙂


    • Thanks, although the religious fault lines are just the surface. It’s frustrating to know so much of our resources and so many lives are spent on a fight nobody understands.


      • Yes JBW that’s very true. It makes us very cynical and just when you think you’ve heard the worst, something even more shocking occurs. I think it creates a sort of detachment and desensitisation from the world.


        • Desensitized – yes. See enough atrocities, and one begins to think of people as units. Is that why we write?


        • I hadn’t thought of it like that but perhaps writing is a kind of affirmation of what’s good about humans and their spirit – collective and individual. 🙂


  • Even I almost understand this stew. Not to sound tongue-in-cheek, but nothing will change unless the governments involved want it to change. Who understands the culture better than the people involved? Neither the Russians nor Americans were successful in Afghanistan. I think of it as my house, my rules. U.S. can’t walk in and clean up anyone’s mess. They must clean up their own mess first.


  • Reblogged this on Hadel and commented:
    Most are foreign fighters …. invading Arab lands in the name of a fake and brain washed “Religion”


  • Julia, bravo to you for taking this subject on. And what a fine job, I might add. A subject my husband and I were discussing earlier. May I say confusing? And you just simplified it so that we can digest the whole situation. What. A. Mess. You couldn’t pay me enough to get involved in this stew. 🙂


  • Mind boggling! This is why following the news is not on top on my priority list – it’s impossible to understand what’s going on from that, and no-one ever bothers to explain the history. Nice work unravelling the threads. The main message I get from this is we outsiders probably should exercise way more caution than we do before getting involved in the already complex politics of other countries.


  • Thanks for great breakdown and analysis. I guess the root is their fundamentalism? Not sure how to tackle fundamentalism. By promoting pluralism? But that may take forever and it should start from their own people.
    I am afraid the fundamentalist believers were being used by certain people who have power (plus money and fame) to get more powerful by promoting violence. Totally disgusting.
    I guess US government should not work alone, it is an international problem and many governments around the world should participate to fight such violence.


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