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A Field Guide to Iraq’s Fighting Factions, Part 1: Team Sunni

While none of the four teams fighting in Iraq are monolithic or especially cohesive, Team Sunni takes infighting to another level.
Photo via ISIS

For decades, it has seemed as though there's always been an article or pundit talking about how things in the Middle East are terrible and getting worse.

Well, things have really gotten a lot worse, fusing decades of fighting and conflict into one horrific, monstrous, disastrously confusing mess.

Here's who is fighting in Iraq and why. Read more here.

While there isn't a quick and easy explanation for what's happening in Iraq, recent history at least gives us a really good starting point for figuring this all out.


With a major troops surge in 2007, the US and its partners set out on a new counterinsurgency strategy that actually seemed to work. After just a few short years, an astute combination of political and military pressure pulled Iraq out of the depths of sectarian warfare.

Now all of those hard-won gains are being undone. It's not just that people are fighting in Iraq. Instead, all the trends that helped settle things down in Iraq are now being reversed. And that process is picking up speed.

Granted, the surge and other assorted counterinsurgency measures didn't bring universal peace, love, and understanding to all corners of Iraq, but they did put Iraq on the path to being a more-or-less normal country. Just a few years after the surge, there was a general hope that Iraq had gone far enough down that path that its people were at least getting close to the "…and they lived happily ever after" stage of things.

Basically, nationalist Iraqis, the US, and all the other coalition partners had painstakingly gotten enough of the country's people on board with elevating patriotism and support for Team Iraq over ethnic and sectarian affiliations. With this newfound unity and support for a common future, things were starting to look up.

But Iraqi Prime Minister Maliki solved this problem by immediately starting to act like a complete butthead after the parliamentary election of 2010. With a combination of authoritarian heavy-handedness, corruption, and sectarian shenanigans, Maliki was able to erode faith in the government, alienate Sunnis and Kurds, and generally reduce support for Team Iraq.


Iraq PM 'welcomes' Syrian airstrikes against ISIS. Read more here.

Adding injury to insult, the ongoing savagery and bloody civil war in Syria has exacerbated these developments. Spillover from that fight has effectively completed the job that Maliki started. Where Maliki elevated sectarian loyalties and suppressed common support for Iraq, the non-sectarian state, the arrival of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and their unsavory brethren have totally inverted the emerging Iraqi consensus about the country's future, submerging it beneath sectarian and ethnic allegiances.

These sectarian divides, as well as the influx of foreign fighters who are much more into fostering sharia law than Iraqi federalism, have basically catapulted Iraq back into pre-surge chaos. The big difference this time is that there's no competent military around that is largely detached from local sectarian and ethnic entanglements.

Iran and Saudi Arabia are the two main powers in the Persian Gulf region, providing a home base for Shia and Sunni Muslims, respectively. Their rivalry fuels many regional conflicts.

Last week, VICE News introduced the main sides fighting in Iraq: Team Sunni, Team Shia, Team Iraq, and Team Kurd. However, in the interests of trying to provide a clear, comprehensible guide to a complex situation, I glossed over a really important fact about Team Sunni.

While none of the four teams fighting in Iraq are monolithic or especially cohesive (they are all comprised of different factions and subgroups), Team Sunni takes infighting to another level. In order to really explain the rolling mess that is the Middle East, it's important to dig into this a little bit.


Team Sunni breaks down into a more extremist wing and a rather less-insane wing. The extremist wing, which we can call Team Sunni Extreme, is made of groups like al Qaeda and the sort of folks who generally are chock full of take-over-the-world aspirations. The other group we can call Team Sunni Establishment.

A big difference between the two teams relates to who is allowed to say that someone isn't sufficiently into being Muslim. Quitting Islam makes a person an apostate or a heretic. According to a strict interpretation of sharia, the punishment for bailing on Allah is death. The difference is that the official Islam of the Saudi government thinks that only a special class of legal scholars called ulema can legitimately declare someone an apostate.

Meanwhile, Team Sunni Extreme is home to folks who are a lot more DIY about the whole apostasy thing, and who feel that pretty much anyone who's really hardcore Muslim can freely judge whomever they think has bailed on the faith. These people are called takfiri, which means a person who declares others unbelievers and apostates and such.

There's a wrinkle to this: a lot of these Sunni takfiri guys don't consider certain kinds of Islam to be sufficiently good with God. As far as they're concerned, Shiites are apostates and should therefore be killed outright. In the spirit of purity, they extend the same reasoning to Sunnis that they deem insufficiently devout.


So while a hardliner on Team Sunni Establishment might think that Shiites are bad, misguided, and are going to hell, a hardcore member of Team Sunni Extreme thinks they have the responsibility and duty to send Shiites straight to hell.

US and Iranian involvement in Iraq is escalating again. Read more here.

Basically, some of players for Team Sunni Establishment are comparatively moderate (at least for non-democratic monarchies) while others aren't moderate in any way that a Western, secular, liberal perspective would recognize. It's like the difference between biting into a habanero pepper and a ghost pepper. Sure, the habanero is "milder" than the ghost pepper, but don't confuse "milder" with "not spicy."

Or, putting it another way, there are folks who still regularly practice beheading and flogging as a forms of punishment and won't allow women to drive cars. And those folks are counted among the nicer, laidback folks.

But the important thing here isn't which one of these factions is more likely to go and jihad the heck out of you or me — it's that they totally hate each other. Also important is the fact that the Sunni Establishment team hasn't announced it's intention to bring about the collapse of Western civilization and bring it under the rule of a global Islamic caliphate. Which makes them, in this instance, the good guys.

Player: Saudi Arabia and the Gulf Cooperation Council
(Team Sunni Establishment)
The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (aka the Magic Kingdom) and all their buddies along the Persian Gulf (aka the Gulf Cooperation Council) are the home and power base of Team Sunni as a whole. But as mentioned above, that group is comprised of two, bitterly opposed factions. Team Sunni Establishment basically represents and is backed by the Sunni governments currently in power across the Arabian Peninsula. Meanwhile, their opponents in Team Sunni Extreme rely on the population of those same countries for recruits and for funding via private donors and charities — which is something that makes the governments in the region none too happy and has caused them to issue formal statements distancing themselves from the goings-on in Iraq.


So this area is the home and power base for the two mutually hostile factions that make up Team Sunni. As a result, the Saudi government and its Gulf allies are essentially involved into two simultaneous conflicts: a foreign proxy war and a local insurrection. The first fight is with Team Shia and Iran for control of Iraq and Syria. The second is the battle within Team Sunni for who gets to run the Sunni Arab world and be in charge of the two holy cities, Mecca and Medina. If the Middle East were a Monopoly game, Mecca and Medina would be Boardwalk and Park Place, so Team Sunni Establishment is not keen on losing control there.

The proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran has been picking up steam ever since the Iranian Revolution in 1979. Previous installments in this fight played out in Afghanistan prior to 9/11, when Saudis supported the Taliban while Iran and Russia supported the Northern Alliance. Of course, once the al Qaeda folks (representing Team Sunni Extreme) carried out 9/11, that proxy-fight arrangement fell to pieces and is unlikely to return any time soon.

US tips and tricks 4 Syrian rebels (only good kind need apply). Read more here.

The pertinent fight right now is the proxy battle unfolding in Syria and Iraq. In both cases, the Saudi government is determined to fight the expansion of Iranian influence in both countries. The Saudi government is most interested in supporting the "good" Sunnis (i.e. Team Sunni Establishment) in the proxy fights — among other things, it's not impossible to convince the US and other Western countries to support the more "moderate" folks. In Syria there's a slew of "good" Sunnis that the Saudis support and have been trying to market to US lawmakers. In Iraq? No such luck. So the Saudis are more or less sticking to the sidelines and issuing press statements. That is, when they're not putting their entire military on high alert.


However, there are more than 1,000 different groups fighting in Syria, so even money and weapons sent to militants representing the Sunni Establishment team inevitably end up in the clutches of Sunni Extremist groups, even as those extremists want to overthrow the Saudi monarchy and other regional governments.

That said, even without formal government backing for Team Sunni Extreme, extremists get a lot of unofficial support from Saudi Arabia. It is impossible to say how much of this is purely voluntary, how much of it is slipping through the cracks, and how much is being allowed to happen with a wink and a nod. All anyone knows for sure is that Saudis chasing brief and illustrious suicide-bombing careers keep showing up in Syria and Iraq.

Between direct individual support to Sunni Extremists and Sunni Establishment support that inadvertently winds up in the hands of extremists, some of Saudi Arabia's money, people, and material is bound to show up in the fighting in Iraq. This has driven accusations that the Saudi government is actively supporting unrest in Iraq. Strictly speaking, such accusations are probably false. There's no way on Earth that the Saudis or any of their buddies want to see ISIS or any Sunni Extremist group prevail in Iraq because it would create immense problems at home. The Saudis might not like Maliki, but Maliki hasn't put "Overthrow Saudi Government" near the top of his to-do list.


Player: ISIS
(Team Sunni Extreme)
The last introduction talked a bit about ISIS (or ISIL or whatever you want to call them), but here's a quick refresher. ISIS has maybe 10,000 members, about a third of whom are not from Syria or Iraq. Among the foreign fighters, there are about 1,000 Chechens (who have a reputation as good fighters) and a few hundred Westerners.

ISIS originally derived from al Qaeda in Iraq, but once things got too peaceful in Iraq (after local Sunni militias helped the US drive them out), ISIS went off to Syria to stir up grief there. While in Syria, ISIS had a big falling out with al Qaeda's leadership. This might have been over some sort of etiquette, like the proper execution of infidels — not to mention the infighting among fellow extremists that you might expect in a war with almost 1,000 different groups slugging it out. Since then, both ISIS and al Qaeda have been vying to be the top dog on Team Sunni Extreme. Al Qaeda certainly has an incumbent advantage and an enormous global franchise, but ISIS might be able to establish itself as head honcho on the Extreme team if their ambitious plans in Iraq pan out.

Mosul residents enjoy calmer lives under ISIS control, for now. Read more here.

In Syria, ISIS underwent a much more important transformation than simply splitting from al Qaeda. ISIS evidently got the idea in its head that it wanted to make and control an entire new country. And not in a late-night bull session kind of way either. Any group of armed idiots can cause grief and break stuff, but really trying to start up and run a country is very serious work and involves a major commitment. A force that takes over an existing government can rely on the ranks of already-entrenched bureaucrats and civil servants to keep the lights on and the trains running. But setting up a whole new gig from scratch is a much bigger deal, but it looks like that's what ISIS is aiming to do.


On the military side, ISIS isn't quite up to the task of coordinating large units in combined armed actions. For that matter, on the military side it doesn't look like they can operate aircraft — heck, even managing artillery really pushes their limits. Still, during their Iraq-wide smash-and-grab acquisition campaign, ISIS has been able to relieve the Iraqi army of a whole lot of worthwhile equipment and supplies. For the immediate future, ISIS will probably continue to operate as an effective, highly mobile light infantry.

Getting past their military stuff to what defense analysts like to call "other stuff," ISIS is looking more and more serious. Based on captured intelligence and estimates of the value of the loot that ISIS was able to collect from Mosul's banks, observers think ISIS is now sitting on more than $2 billion in assets — which, no matter how you slice it, is an awfully big chunk of jihad. Beyond just looting, ISIS is now in the oil business (interestingly, they even sell to the Syrian regime) and has a host of other revenue-generating activities.

But having money is one thing, having good accounting records is another. As a rule, the more grown-up and sophisticated an organization, the more grown-up and sophisticated the bookkeeping. If they're a serious outfit, they might be able to make a go of setting up a country. The accounting system someone uses is actually a reasonably good indicator of whether an outfit really has its act together. And ISIS apparently has their act together on accounting: the Financial Times quotes Charles Lister, an analyst from the Brookings Doha Center, as saying: "Most jihadist groups are tightly controlled, secretive and well coordinated, but Isis has essentially taken that to another level, with a quite impressive level of bureaucracy, extensive account keeping, and multiple channels of accountability."


ISIS has benefited from its experience ruling cities in Syria, and has apparently gotten comfortable with taking on the job of providing for rule of law and civic society, doing things like establishing a consumer protection bureau and filling potholes. It might not sound sexy, but being able to provide basic services is another major indicator that these folks are really working to actually govern and not just terrorize. And providing basic civic services apparently ranks somewhere pretty high on ISIS's priorities. Not only are they cleaning up and repairing damage, they're making a point of announcing it to the public. Granted, it's in Syria, but still — it's a pretty good sign that they want to show that they can not only run a society, but that they're already doing it.

Images from an ISIS clean-up campaign on the streets of Manbij, a small town in northwest Syria. (Photo via ISIS, Aleppo Regional Government)

All things considered, ISIS might have a real shot at actually setting up a real-life Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, or at least carving such a state out of existing Iraq and Syria. Still though, the line-up of opposing parties is pretty heroically long and includes governments (all of them) and Shiite Muslims (all of them). They might still have some friends in al Qaeda or the Taliban, but those groups are facing their own struggles and might not be able or willing to do much to help.

If ISIS is able to set up its own country, then it probably will be able to wrest the mantel of leadership from al Qaeda, giving ISIS both a safe haven to get in even bigger fights and an immensely valuable recruiting and fundraising tool. If they are able to really start raising hell, we might expect to see them attempt to win the battle for control of Team Sunni by overthrowing the Saudi monarchy or unleashing global havoc to establish the ISIS brand globally with its own 9/11 remix.

Because of this, there's about zero chance that the US or pretty much anybody else will be enthusiastic about officially recognizing an ISIS state. However, if ISIS is able to take Baghdad (and that's an enormous "if") they might be able to force the Iraqi government to recognize it or face liquidation. If Baghdad is compelled to recognize a Sunni state in the west of the country, then it might not matter all that much whether anyone else likes it or not.

In terms of the broader fight, ISIS's effort to carve a country out of Iraq basically puts them directly in favor of partitioning Iraq, and therefore in direct opposition to Team Iraq which gives them something in common with Kurdish separatists. Being in direct opposition to Team Iraq not only puts them directly at odds with Team Iraq's biggest supporter, the US, it also means that ISIS can't succeed without undoing the effects of the 2007 surge and the US counterinsurgency strategy — which also gives them something in common with the Maliki government they're fighting against.

Follow Ryan Faith on Twitter: @Operation_Ryan

Photo via ISIS