An overview of the factional divides present within the Middle east, Africa and Western.
The conflicts in Africa, the Middle East and Western Asia have dominated world news over the past years – if not decades – but does the general population in Canada and the West really have a handle on what is going on?
From Tripoli, to Abuja, Mogadishu, Islamabad, Tehran and Ankara – and just about every country in between – factions battle it out for control and for stability of their countries and regions. Throw in Western powers, Russia, and a whole slew of unclear interests and alliances, and what we have is a quagmire where one must judge if the enemy of my enemy is actually my friend or not.
There’s a saying that “politics makes for strange bedfellows” – that is to say, geo and domestic politics lead to unusual alliances. It’s a saying altered from Shakespeare’s The Tempest, where, “misery acquaints a man with strange bedfellows”. This article is meant to be an abstract summary of what so many consider a miserable state of conflict – the players, who they are aligned with, what their objectives are and who they are fighting against.
States and factions are aligned with one another in a complex web along religious, economic, political and ethnic lines, and at the best of times it’s very tough to parse out who is fighting who for what reasons. Note – for the sake of (much needed) simplicity, ISIS (Islamic State in Iraq and Syria) will be referred to as such, though the terrorist group also goes by Daesh, Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), IS (Islamic State) and the Islamic Caliphate. I’ll try to organize these summaries country by country as best I can, and this will neither be an exhaustive list of every country’s conflicts nor every insurgency bloc. An atlas or Google Maps is going to be a big help with this one.
Nigeria (Capital – Abuja):
Current President – Muhammadu Buhari, who succeeded President Goodluck Jonathan.
Located in Western Africa on the Gulf of Guinea, Nigeria is Africa’s most populated country. Nigeria plays a significant role in security coalitions throughout the continent but also faces internal insurgencies. Deadly conflicts exist between Christian and Muslim populations, and between government forces as well as various independence movements.
Boko Haram: This is the biggest faction fighting for control of territory within Nigeria (mainly based in North Eastern Nigeria), and also operating in Niger, Chad and Cameroon. Boko Haram declared its allegiance to ISIS, and is also referred to as ISWAP (Islamic State’s West African Province). Boko Haram translates to “Western Education is Forbidden”, but has other derivations with similar meanings, thematic of its opposition to secularism. Boko Haram is composed of Sunni Islamic extremists, and opposes western powers, the established governments in the territories in which they operate, Christians, Shiite Muslims, and Sufi Muslims (including a major sect of Sufi Islam in the region called Izala). Much like other sects of ISIS, Boko Haram also kills Sunni Muslims (generally considered moderate Sunnis) who do not want to live under ISIS rule. Boko Haram/ISWAP’s ideology is influenced by Wahhabism, an ultra-conservative ideology based on the strict following of Sharia Law. This is very similar to what is referred to as Salafi jihadism. Wahhabism/Salafi jihadism would be considered the ideological basis of ISIS. Tactics include suicide bombings, targeted killings of civilians and government forces, coordinated military attacks, drug running, and abductions. Boko Haram’s highest profile attack was the kidnapping of 276 female students in Chibok, Nigeria.
Ansaru (Vanguard for the Protection of Muslims in Black Lands): Ansaru is a smaller Islamist jihadist faction in North Central Nigeria. Though they generally have the same perspective concerning Sharia law and an interest in defending purported Muslim interests in Africa, Ansaru splintered away from Boko Haram/ISWAP. The reason for the split concerned a reluctance to attack “innocent” non-Muslims, non-aligned Muslims, and government security forces unless in the case of self defense. The group has ties to Al-Qaeda sects in Mali, and still has forces that sympathize or align with Boko Haram/ISWAP at times.
Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND): MEND is a non-jihadist insurgency group based in southern Nigeria. Their opposition to the government surrounds Nigeria’s oil production operations in the region. MEND’s tactics concentrate on disrupting the oil industry through guerrilla warfare, sabotage, destruction of infrastructure and kidnappings. The group’s primary objective is to obtain reparations from the oil industry (e.g. revenue-sharing) in order to rectify what they consider to be the exploitation and oppression of the local population and destruction of the environment. In the 50-plus years following British Colonial rule, the Nigerian government has used military-power to suppress opposition to the oil industry. MEND has aligned with the Niger Delta Liberation Front to fight against the Nigerian military.
African Horn Region – Somalia/Kenya (Capitals: Mogadishu, Nairobi):
Current Presidents: Hassan Sheikh Mohamoud and Uhuru Kenyatta
Located on the Eastern Coast of Africa bordering the Indian Ocean, Somalia and Kenya’s only common neighbour is Ethiopia.
Al-Shabaab (Harakat al-Shabaab al-Mujahideen/HSM): Al-Shabaab was formed in 2006 as a movement that resulted from the defeat of the Islamist Courts Union. The ICU was a coalition of Sharia-directed administrations which rivalled Somalia’s Transitional Federal Government, particularly in the south of the country, including the capital of Mogadishu. As of 2012, Al-Shabaab pledged allegiance to Al-Qaeda and its Wahhabist/Salafi Jihadist ideology. The relationship between the groups could be considered more of a coalition or alliance rather than a relationship of absolute fidelity. Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (Algeria/North Africa) and Boko Haram have been collaborators with Al-Shabaab. Al-Shabaab was originally a nationalist movement for control of Somalia, but has since transformed to be multi-ethnic and multi-national in its composition. It has been successful in recruiting foreign fighters including Westerners. Kenyan youth has made up a large contingent of the group’s recruits. Al-Shabaab has carried out attacks in Somalia, Kenya, Ethiopia, Djibouti and Uganda. Tactics include suicide bombings, extortion, forced conscription, attacks on government military, police, African Union peacekeepers, and non-government agencies in the region. Al-Shabaab also fought against Somali pirate operations along the coast, in part to extort resources or seize resources for their operations. It appears as though Western or American targets are not the primary focus of Al-Shabaab’s operations. Its highest profile attack was the siege on Westgate Mall in Nairobi in 2013. In recent years Al-Shabaab has diminished in size due to Somali, Kenyan and African Union military operations, as well as defections. Defectors have often been fighters joining or surrendering to the Somali federal government’s military over their treatment, forced conscription and policies that resulted in restricting food aid. The country of Eritrea and the autonomous secessionist region known as Somaliland (located in North-Western Somalia) have been accused of providing organized support to Al-Shabaab as a way of destabilizing the Somalian government.
Pirates: Modern piracy began to proliferate in the 2000s following the Somali Civil War, targeting international shipping in the Indian Ocean, Red Sea, Gulf of Aden, Arabian Sea and Gulf of Oman. Piracy rose out of localized fishing industries who were displaced by toxic pollution of their waters, as well as by international commercial fishing operations. Created in turn, as a defense of their waters, the fishermen turned maritime militias began seizing assets as a way to replace lost income, eventually becoming their sole vocation. It is estimated that piracy in the region cost global trade between 6-7 billion dollars in 2011.
Turkey (Capital – Ankara)/Kurdistan region: Note that Kurdistan is a region defined by an ethnic Kurdish population, not a recognized country.
Current President: Recep Tayyip Erdogan
Turkey shares its southern and Eastern borders with Syria, Iran and Iraq. It has become a point of transit both for foreign militant recruits going to fight, as well as a primary route of exit as refugees flow out of combat zones and ISIS-controlled areas. Though the Turks oppose and fight ISIS, it is complicated as to how that will translate in terms of action because of Turkish-Kurdish relations. Kurds are an ethnic minority in Turkey, but the primary population in several borderland pockets in Syria and Iraq. Kurdish forces are a bona fide ally of the Americans in fighting ISIS to keep control of their homes. The most well-known Kurdish areas are northwest of Aleppo (Syria’s largest city), and the Dahuk, Erbil, and Suleymaniah regions of Iraq (north and east of cities such as Mosul and Kirkuk). Northwestern Iran also has Kurdish-majority areas.
Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK): Made of ethnic Kurds, the PKK seeks increased Kurdish autonomy and self-rule. It has engaged in military resistance to the government, and has had goals of creating an independent Kurdish state located in territories where Kurds form the majority. The PKK’s military arm is known as the People’s Defence Force (HPG), and though it has had a ceasefire in place since 2013, it views the Turkish government as an oppressive force. Many believe that Turkey isn’t doing all it can to fight ISIS because it would indirectly benefit the Kurds. NATO and the EU lists the PKK as a terrorist organization, but the UN and many major countries do not. The PKK has been an active force fighting against ISIS in Syria and Iraq, notably in the rescue of Yazidi peoples from the Mount Sinjar region. The renewed tensions between the PKK and Turkey revolve around pressuring the government to step up its actions against ISIS. Turkey’s tensions with the PKK are an election issue as they head to the polls in November. Clashes between police and Kurdish protesters have been common. Most recently, there were twin suicide bombings in Ankara at a rally calling for unity between the PKK and Turkish government. The bombers were identified as having links to ISIS and a Turkish-based ISIS affiliate called the Dokumacılar, a group which specifically targets Kurdish People’s Protection units (YPG). Kurdish forces in Syria and Iraq are also referred to as the Peshmerga. Syrian Kurds support the opposition in the Syrian civil war, whereas Iraqi Kurds support the Iraqi government in their civil war.
Syria (Capital – Damascus):
Current President: Bashir Al-Assad
Syria and Iraq share a large border with each other, and by land link the Persian Gulf to the Mediterranean Sea. Syria and Iraq’s common neighbours are Turkey and Jordan. ISIS has seized territory in both countries in the power vacuum left following the American withdrawal of offensive forces from Iraq, and Syria’s long-standing civil war.
Syria has become a Mexican standoff between three main groups, ISIS, the Syrian military, and “rebel” group alliances such as the Syrian National Coalition – each backed by supporters – with Western, Russian and Iranian aid all in the mix. Each side has two enemies, so each time you impair one enemy, another enemy is helped. There have also been territories where ISIS has worked with rebel groups including Al-Nusra against Assad, and others where they fight against rebel groups. Over time there has also been tensions and fighting between rebel groups, either within existing coalitions or with more independent anti-Assad and/or anti-ISIS groups.
The Russians and Iranians want to defeat ISIS and the various rebel groups in order to prop up Assad’s Ba’athist (secular) government, with the potential long game plan of phasing him out of power once stability is restored. Part of Iran’s motivation, as a Shi’a based state, is stemming the spread of Sunni Islamists’ territorial control. Americans and the West seek to bomb ISIS targets, and support rebel groups to fight both ISIS and Assad with the goal of a new Syrian regime and ISIS’s defeat. ISIS benefits when either Assad or rebel forces are attacked by the other.
American and Western powers view the rebel groups as ideologically opposed to both ISIS and Assad, whereas Russian command sees the rebel groups more as mercenary factions who will support whichever side they see as advantageous to align with at that time.
State-based supporters of Assad include Russia, Iran, Iraq, Algeria and Lebanon, with peripheral support from Venezuela and North Korea. State-based support to topple Assad include the United States, Canada, France, Britain, Qatar, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Turkey.
Israel supports at least some rebel groups fighting against Assad and ISIS, though other rebel groups would be considered anti-Israeli. Israel’s objectives appear to be keeping the war away from Israel’s border with Syria (particularly the Golan Heights area), and the protection of the Druze population – Arabs whose Unitarian religion is characterized as Abrahamic but meshes influences from many non-Islamic religions and philosophies.
Syrian National `Brotherhood (a previous political party that had been outlawed), the Coalition of Secular and Democratic Syrians, Syrian Democratic People’s Party, Assyrian Democratic Organization, as well as Ethnic Turkish and Assyrian Syrian groups.
(Jabhat) Al-Nusra: Al-Nusra is an Al-Qaeda affiliate branch in Syria . Al-Qaeda and ISIS had been affiliated prior to February 2014, but when the two disassociated, Al-Nusra went with Al-Qaeda and has been declared a terrorist organization by the West. ISIS tried to claim a merger in 2013, but Al-Nusra reaffirmed their alliance with Al-Qeada. It opposes the Assad regime but has a mixed relationship with ISIS as it also supports Islamist and jihadist groups. At times they have worked together against Assad, and fighters have switched between both groups. Al-Nusra occasionally works with the Free Syrian Army. They have recruited foreign fighters including Chechnyan and Tajikistanians. The Chechnya connection provides another twist to Russia’s support of Assad.
Hezbollah: Is a Shi’a Islamist organization originally based out of Lebanon, but operates in various countries throughout the Middle East. In Syria, they are pro-Assad and also support the Iraqi government in their fight against ISIS. The group is considered to be staunchly Anti-Israel, and opposed to what they deem to be Western Imperialism (they conceived by some as having anti-western sentiment in general). They are listed as a terrorist organization by the West and others. It is believed that their role in Syria has diminished “would-be” support from Sunni Muslims who were aligned with Hezbollah because of their shared opposition to the State of Israel.
Iraq (Capital – Baghdad):
Current President: Fuad Masum
Since the withdrawal of American troops, the Iraqis face their own civil war, though relatively less complicated than the situation in Syria. Iraq, like Iran, has a majority Shi’a population, and the bulk of opposition to the government comes from various Sunni extremist groups. Many disenfranchised Sunnis joined armed insurgencies, swelling the ranks of extremist groups such as ISIS, who have capitalized on the Iraqi government’s instability following the American pull-out. The Iraqi government is supported by the Combined Joint Task Force of Western nations and allies from the Middle East and Asia such as Iran, Syria, Hezbollah and various Iraqi militias. Kurds and Yazidis also support the Iraqi government in this conflict. The forces fighting the Iraqi government include ISIS, Iraqi Ba’athist Party members, Iraqi Sunni-based militias, Islamic Front for the Iraqi Resistance, and Iraqi Hamas (not to be confused with Palestinian and Qatari Hamas groups) amongst others. That’s right – you have Syrian Ba’athists who support the Iraqi government fighting Iraqi Ba’athists who oppose the Iraqi government, Hezbollah, who fought against the American-led coalition while they were in Iraq, are now fighting with the coalition and Iraqi government against ISIS, Turkey supporting the coalition against ISIS while simultaneously opposing the Kurdish militia groups facing ISIS on the ground and countless other seemingly inconsistent alliances and conflicts.
By: Will Crothers