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Understanding the Middle East

In 2013, 44 percent of Americans disagreed with U.S. military involvement in Middle Eastern conflict, yet 63 percent can’t identify a Middle Eastern country on a map.

Researchers from National Geographic believe that Millennials have a limited understanding of the world outside of their own. For example, in 2006, a geographical literacy study concluded that 63 percent of young Americans can’t find Iraq or Saudi Arabia on a map, despite the frequent news coverage since the U.S. invasion in 2003. Despite not knowing where it is, another poll by Pew Research found that 44 percent of Americans thought the U.S. should not have invaded Iraq to begin with.

For more than a decade now, America has been at war with several countries in the Middle East. But the Middle East has also been at war within itself. ISIS terrorist groups terrorize parts of the region, Syria fights a complicated civil war that seems to have no end in sight, and tensions continue between Israel and Palestinians over who owns the region known as the Holy Land.

America has known about these conflicts for years, but many have only skimmed the surface in understanding the reasons behind the violence in the Middle East.


According to a Council on Foreign Relations article by Zachary Laub, ISIS (or the Islamic State) is a combative group of Islamic terrorists who have taken control of territories in parts of the Middle East, including Iraq, Syria, and Libya.

Nick Danforth wrote in a Foreign Affairs article that ISIS has tried to establish a caliphate ruled by a caliph over much of the area in these countries. According to Merriam-Webster dictionary, a caliph is a religious and political leader, a prophet destined to rule over the entire Muslim world. After the U.S. invaded Iraq in 2003, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi joined his radical militant group with al-Qaeda in 2004 to form al-Qaeda Iraq, which he led until he was killed in a 2006 airstrike, according to the Council on Foreign Relations.

According to Middle East historian and Ball State professor Yaron Ayalon, after Saddam Hussein’s rule fell in Baghdad, his army was disbanded. Angry with the U.S., the ex-soldiers sought to join terrorist groups. ISIS is a product of internal leadership conflict within al-Qaeda, many involving a man called Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. ISIS would later split from al-Qaeda, and Baghdadi would become the leader and self-proclaimed caliph of Syria and Iraq in 2014.


The nation of Syria has been split up among various terrorist groups for nearly five years as more and more foreign backers enter the conflict between the Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad and the Free Syrian Army, among other opposition groups that resists Assad’s regime.

According to Ayalon, the opposition against the Assad government was not a unified movement of one group, but was rather made up of fractured resistance. According to the Security Council Report on Syria, the war began in 2011, when the Syrian people led a series of demonstrations against the Assad regime.

In response, Assad ordered his men to open fire on citizens during a demonstration on March 15, 2011. Soon after, many Syrians banded together as a resistance group to fight against the Syrian government.

As civil war approached, several groups from the region began to take sides. Ayalon says there have been so many foreign allies that there is no international agreement. Iran, Lebanese Hezbollah, and Russia declared support for Assad, according to the Congressional Research Service. Turkey, America, and European and various Arab Gulf states have tried to support the Free Syrian army and other opposition groups through funding, training, and provisions of non-lethal equipment.

Among the various groups entering the conflict, ISIS has taken advantage of the destruction. They have not claimed to support any side in the conflict, but have rather taken to attacking and claiming northeastern and central parts of Syria as the fighting continues.

The Obama administration started funding the Syrian Train and Equip program, in which the CIA started to train members of the Free Syrian Army shortly after its formation to not only fight the Syrian government, but also ISIS.  Over the past five years, the violence has become more and more deadly as chemical warfare, airstrikes, and bombings have increased and killed not only troops but countless civilians. Syrian refugees have had to flee the country to other parts of the world.  

Israel and Palestine

The conflict between the Israelites and the Palestinians has been ongoing for more than half a century. According to a video by Jewish Voice for Peace, part of a British colony known as Palestine, or originally the Holy Land of the Jews, was given to the Jewish people who fled persecution from Europe, especially Nazi Germany, under the United Nations Partition Plan of 1947 after World War II. According to the Middle East Research and Information Project (MERIP), the area was split into three parts: Israel, the West Bank, and the Gaza Strip.

After multiple attacks from other Arab countries, the Jewish population now controls over 78 percent, or 10,000 square miles, of the land. Since the arrival of the Jews in 1947, many Palestinians have been driven out of their homes and forced to live elsewhere as refugees.

In addition to this, there is much discrimination of Palestinians within Israel. Jewish people receive special privileges such as housing and land that aren’t given to the Palestinian citizens, which make up  20 percent of Israel’s population.

The Jews claim the Holy Land because they believe it was promised to Abraham and his descendants by God in biblical times. But the Palestinians argue that this claim is too ancient to apply to modern times. According to Ayalon, Israel has acted disproportionately regarding the Palestinian people living in the area, and has been unwilling to compromise with them over the situation. A two-state solution has been discussed, but no real agreement has been made.

In 2014, Israeli people attacked Palestinians living in the Gaza Strip, killing thousands. Life for Palestinians is very hard, as they are not able to move freely through the country without encountering with Israeli interrogations around every turn.

Palestinians have tried to fight back through the years, but the Israeli military has become stronger due to the funding provided by the United States. Palestinians now use protests and demonstrations to try and find peace or negotiate a solution that will end the feud.      

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