After traveling to portions of the Middle East on my cross cultural last semester, I returned home with a new framework for understanding and interpreting conflict. I came to the conclusion that it is a universal human response to fight for a cause, whether it be justified or condemned by others.
There is no true evil or absolute goodness. War cannot be simplified to the Rebellion against the Empire in “Star Wars” or the battle for Middle Earth in “the Lord of the Rings.” We want it to be that simple, to know we defeated darkness. It is poetic, inspiring, and it makes a good story, but it is not reality.
The Middle East, particularly Syria, Iraq, and Kurdistan, is engulfed in many layers of intricate conflict and has been for years. As I read articles and attempt to find truth in the words, I am realizing that the long awaited goal of toppling the “bad guys” in this area is not going to result in a period of peace. The enemy at the forefront, unifying groups that would otherwise oppose each other, is the so-called Islamic State (IS), formally of Syria and the Levant, now just of some undesirable sand and rocks.
In 2015, the world was trembling at their might. The IS controlled a territory encompassing as many as 8 million people with an annual budget of more than United States’ $1 billion and an army of 30,000 fighters.
After two years of fighting with coalitions of Iraqi forces, Kurdish fighters, United States and Russian backed forces and various militias, the IS is now on the brink and will soon lose all of its territory.
There are many layers to the conflict in Iraq and Syria, so bear with me and we will take it step by step. Without a common enemy such as IS, there is not anything uniting United States-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) with the Syrian Army under President Bashar al-Assad — the guy who uses chemical weapons on civilians. The SDF has had clashes with President Assad’s troops already, and the United States bombarded a Syrian Army airbase. SDF has support in Northern Syrian regions that want a democratic government. SDF also has a high percentage of Kurds, but their territory borders Turkey. Turkey distrusts Kurds and labels them as terrorists, therefore being an enemy to all Kurdish groups. The United States backs the Kurds, while also having a military alliance with Turkey. With high amounts of Kurds in the SDF, there are also ties to Kurdistan, which encompasses much of Northern Iraq. Iraq does not support a free Kurdistan, which has become functionally independent since the rise of the IS and recently voted a referendum in favor of independence.
As to the question of who is evil in all of this, it depends on perspective. Millions that lived under the IS are struggling to transition back to Kurdish, Syrian, or Iraqi rule. These citizens are not violent fighters or terrorists, but many agreed with the doctrine of the IS and distrust rule by secular government forces. President Assad has high approval ratings despite the atrocities he is committed in the civil war.
President Assad took over from his father who ruled 1970 till 2000 and brought the nation out of darkness. Syria went from strife and instability prior to 1970, to safe and stable for 30 plus years. Until the uprising and civil war, Syria was faring well, and many hold on to that hope. In Iraq and Kurdistan, you have a situation that can be interpreted as rebellion or justified independence.
Does Iraq seek to uphold their constitution and unity, or is it more about the oil profits from Kurdistan provinces? How can so much of the world see the Kurds as warmongering for wanting long awaited independence?
So in conclusion, with the defeat of IS you have SDF and the United States opposing the Assad regime and his Russian and Iranian allies, with Turkey potentially playing both sides and going after the Kurds. A nation divided, again, with some hoping for democracy and others wanting the Assad dynasty to continue. Iraq will fight to take back Kurdish provinces with support from Iran. The United States wants a stable Iraq, but does not want to support Iran.
The United States is playing both sides as well by financially and militarily supporting the Kurds and officially stating they do not support the referendum. Additionally, the IS will continue to exist in the shadows and a vacancy will be available for another extremist group to fill.
More war and division will undoubtedly arise following the long-awaited destruction of the Islamic State. The cycle of violence in Iraq and Syria will continue because no side was the perfect enemy, and each group has had personal ambitions from the start. The long awaited defeat that has been so dramatized by western media will mean nothing to the people living in the hellish flames the US government so liberally fans with their own interests and disillusionment.