Trying to explain the Middle Eastern Conflict is a lot like trying to explain the meaning of life – there are a thousand theories, and a hundred tangents, and in the end, no one is ever completely sure that they’ve got it right.
In general, the Sunni-Shia conflict can be described like this: Back in the 7th century, the Prophet Muhammad died, leaving his seat as the leader of the Muslim world vacant. The divide between Shias and Sunnis is over the question of who was Muhammad’s rightful heir.
Broadly speaking it is this: Persians, with Iran as its hegemon, are largely Shia. Arabs, with Saudi Arabia as it’s most prominent member, are largely Sunni. Incidentally, those who refer to Iran as an Arab country are fundamentally wrong. It is an ethno-sectarian conflict at its core. However, much like the intricacies of this region, the Arab-Persian dynamic is a rule with myriad of exceptions.
While the history is a long, and complicated one, this particular chapter can be tracked back to Fallujah 2012, when the Sunnis of Iraq began to protest Prime Minister Al-Maliki’s dictatorial regime. After the Second Iraq War, Saddam Hussein and his Sunni Baathist Party were removed from power and a new equilibrium was established; A government whose appointments and designated representations were based on demographics. This change was approved by Shias, who were now in the majority, and the Kurds, who had previously had little to no representation and were the subject of genocides under the Hussein government.
Sunnis were less supportive. Prime Minister Al-Maliki and his Shia-led government did little to diffuse tensions and, in fact, exacerbated them.
As largely peaceful Sunni protests grew, the Iraqi government sent soldiers to quell or prevent their spread through Sunni areas. Dissidents are not welcome. Much of the focus was in Anbar province, specifically in Fallujah which had once been an Al-Queda foothold against Coalition Forces.
During the Iraq War, Fallujah had been a place under Al-Queda brutality. Kidnappings, and executions were not a new thing to the region. Power brokers, some of them criminals, rose up in community-based defense militias. These militias were often supported by American forces, as they helped to quell the common enemy. It is with that in recent memory that they reacted to the perceived clash between themselves and the government.
While the existence of the Sunni-Shia conflict might go back to the 7th century, coexistence had been the norm. The violent divide we witness now is a newer phenomenon, as Sunni ethnic solidarity increased from a feeling of victimhood.
By Spring of 2013, several clashes between Iraqi Security Forces and protestors occurred, leading to deaths of both Iraqi soldiers and protestors. The first was during the Clash of Hawija, where 57 protestors and three soldiers were killed in the violence. The Ministry of Defense claimed that these clashes were acts of self-defense by soldiers, as several armed militants hid among the protestors in order to stage attacks.
The Sunnis now felt fully oppressed by the government, and community imams called for a revolt, and what was once a bid to protect themselves and their home snowballed into ISIS, ISIL or Daesh.