Opinion: A guide to understanding the Middle East, ISIS and current conflicts

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When you ask “What’s going on in the Middle East?” there’s no confusion as to whether you’re referring to cultural festivals, or economic issues, or the best vacation destination. Asking about what’s going on in the Middle East means asking about conflict.

Today, the issues at hand are battles between the Syrian government, Syrian rebel forces and the Islamic State in Iraq al-Sham (ISIS); between ISIS and various Iraqi groups; and between Israel and Gaza.

The question we face is whether tensions will run high enough for U.S. forces to become entrenched once again in the bloodshed. But to make a clear decision, we have to have a basic understanding of where Middle-Eastern conflict comes from, and what it means for us in the West.

Why are Middle-Eastern countries fighting?

Recently, Israel launched air strikes against Gaza after accusing Gaza of the abduction and killing of three Israeli teenagers. The two nations fought in 2008-09 and 2012 as well, but the overall conflict goes much further back – even as far as B.C.E.

Many ethnic and religious groups – Jews, Muslims, Babylonians, Ancient Romans, etc. – have fought over the land known as Israel (and the holy land within it, Jerusalem) for thousands of years. In the early 1900s, Palestine was occupied by Arabs (Arabic-speaking people, mostly Muslims), and Jews didn’t have a home in the region. Under the plan of Zionism, which advocated the creation of an internationally recognized Jewish nation, Jewish people from Europe and other parts of the Middle East came to the Palestinian area during the mid-1900s in hopes of escaping religious persecution.

A 1947 United Nations resolution officially established Israel as a sovereign nation, splitting Palestine into Jewish and Arab (or mostly Muslim) land. The U.N. deal gave the Jews 55.5 percent of Palestine, even though Arabs occupied more Palestinian land than Jews at the time.

Almost immediately, surrounding Arab countries attacked Israel. Throughout ensuing conflict, Israel ended up acquiring even more land than the original U.N. resolution had provided: Israel took control of parts of Gaza, the West Bank and East Jerusalem in 1967 after the U.S. supplied Israel’s military to offset the Soviet-supplied Arab forces. The U.S. urged Israel to give up territory not granted to it by the pre-1967 borders, but Israel didn’t back off, and claims even more land today than it did in the 60s. Adding insult to injury, the Israeli government keeps Gaza under a military justice system and a border patrol that hurts Gaza’s economy.

It’s all about religion (mostly).

Contesting claims for sovereignty of Palestine rest partly on the fact that both Jews and Muslims consider Jerusalem a holy land, but religion feeds into many issues in the Middle East outside the Israeli/Palestinian conflict.

ISIS and other militant Islamic groups want to establish a new caliphate, or an empire that would rid the Middle East of national borders and unite them under one Islamic leader. ISIS has said it wants to kill all the Jews in the area, and Syrian rebel forces have recently taken control of the land at the border of Golan Heights, an Israeli-held area. ISIS has presence and influence in Syria’s rebel forces, and aims to take control of Palestine (Gaza, West Bank, and Israel) as well.

ISIS, which fights alongside groups associated with al-Qaeda, also has control of land in Syria and in Iraq, where the Sunni-Muslim group is running land that should be controlled by the Shiite-Muslim Iraqi government.

So should we do anything about this?

As in previous decades, people are questioning whether the U.S. should get involved. President Obama recently said that “we don’t have a strategy yet” regarding ISIS, and caught political flak for it. But this Wednesday, after news broke that the group had beheaded a second American journalist, Steven Sotloff — roughly two weeks after killing James Foley — the President said that the U.S. will “degrade and destroy” ISIS.

A more pressing question is whether we can do anything about ISIS. It’s possible to dent their operation, but as we learned in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, you can’t just “beat” a terrorist organization. Al-Qaeda, though weakened, is operating alongside ISIS as we speak. Terrorism is an idea, not a military force, and you can’t kill an idea.

Do we owe the innocent people in the region help? Perhaps. The danger of becoming the police of the world is the risk of reliving Vietnam or Iraq because it’s hard to stabilize a region that has fundamental religious and cultural differences from our own.

Despite America’s unwavering support of Israel, there are no true “good guys” or “bad guys” in the Middle East. Every side thinks it has a right to the land it wants and will kill to get it.

The only reasonable action is to protect innocent civilians, which may require putting more U.S. troops in Iraq and Syria to stifle ISIS’s progress. Obama authorized 350 more troops to deploy to Iraq, bringing the total to more than 1,000 troops stationed there for diplomatic security and advising Iraqi military forces.

If we’ve learned anything from Iraq, it’s that we can’t stabilize a region with combat troops and new regimes. We should instead support non-ground operations, humanitarian aid and diplomatic measures against violent groups like ISIS. But sending more troops to die to win another short-lived victory against terrorism should not be on the table — we’re going to have to engage in safer, and smarter, ways.

Contact CU Independent Assistant Opinion Editor Ellis Arnold at ellis.arnold@colorado.edu.

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