The demographics of the Middle East have long clashed with the region’s geography. Nowhere is this clearer than in Iraq, where the arbitrarily drawn borders enclose three distinct ethnic groups. Now, with violence from Syria spilling into Iraq, the region, and the world, are learning a tough geography lesson.
The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, known as ISIS, is demonstrating the power of a good mission statement. As even the group’s name suggests, ISIS plans to establish a state of extremist Sunni Islam from Syria—where the group gained infamy fighting Bashar al-Assad—into Iraq. Their efforts so far have been alarmingly successful.
ISIS plowed through northern Iraq, staying close to the famed Tigris River. The group successfully took Iraq’s second largest city, Mosul, with barely a whimper from the American-trained and armed Iraqi army. To the contrary, there are reports that the army either “melted away” or even embraced their Sunni brethren by joining ISIS. Tikrit, Saddam Hussein’s hometown, went next, though ISIS was finally stopped by government forces at Samarra. They are just fifteen miles from a near-panicked Baghdad at time of publication and moving fast, according to the BBC. At Baghdad, ISIS may finally face true opposition, as Shiite militias rally for their home city.
That’s left Iraq once again turning to America for help. “We are asking for almost everything short of boots on the ground,” Iraqi Ambassador Lukman Faily told the Daily Beast Wednesday.
Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki is no position to argue. He called the Iraqi parliament together to grant him emergency powers, but only 128 out of 325 came for the vote. The failure to come together even in crisis is another example of the troubles facing this war-torn country.
Maliki and his fellow Shiites have viewed their ascent to power as an opportunity to take revenge on the Sunni Iraqis for the persecution they experienced during Saddam Hussein’s regime, hardly a policy to induce national unity. In a region where religious identity runs deeper than scarce water, Iraqi Sunnis feel so disenfranchised that many welcomed ISIS to the country.
All of this could be prelude to a showdown with Iran. ISIS has announced its next targets: Karbala and Najaf, the holiest cities of Shia Islam. Shiite Iran is pulling forces from Syria into Iraq to aid Maliki and has lined its borders with soldiers to protect both Iran proper and the Shiite shrines in Iraq. Iran’s special forces, the Revolutionary Guards, have already deployed to retake Takrit, and they have threatened all-out warfare if the shrines themselves are threatened.
Shiites are typically less concerned with “statehood” per se than their Sunni neighbors in the Middle East, but Iran’s leadership has made its intentions for the region clear. From its steadfast support for Bashar al-Assad’s Shiite minority in Syria to its vitriolic view of Israel as a geopolitical intrusion and its support for de facto Hezbollah control over Lebanon, Iran has shown its desire for Shiite power and ultimately a so-called “Shiite Crescent.” Moreover, ISIS threats against Shiite shrines have been obviously sectarian, meaning the red line that truly splits the Middle East between Sunni and Shiite might be drawn right across Iraq.
Meanwhile, the Sunni Kurds may take this opportunity to carve out their own corner of the map. Long bitter at being ignored by the somewhat random calculus that gave the Middle East its current design, the Kurds of Syria, Turkey, and especially Iraq have tried to establish self-government within each nation. The Iraqi Kurds have had the greatest success with self-government and even have their own army, the peshmerga. They deployed this army Thursday to retake the oil-rich city of Kirkuk.
Regardless of who wins the power to rewrite the map, one geographic shift is certain. A massive number of refugees—more than half a million from Mosul alone—will be running from a deadly collision between maps and men.