America battles the Islamic State

By Alejandro Freixes, CCNN Head Writer

Syria and Iraq
This map shows Syrian and Iraqi areas currently controlled by ISIS (in dark red).

Military extremists calling themselves the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) are spreading chaos in the Middle East. A USA-led alliance is coordinating a massive military campaign to free the region from the grip of ISIS, by using strategic airstrikes and political muscle. Special Operations forces struck a decisive blow recently, taking out a key ISIS commander named Abu Sayyaf, who was in charge of oil supplies.

How did this whole conflict begin in the first place?

Well, Islam is the second biggest religion in the world, incorporating major Christian and Jewish figures as prophets, like Adam, Noah, Abraham, Moses, and Jesus. However, Islam was founded by a man named Muhammad, who claimed to be the last and greatest prophet. Muslims believe God inspired him to write their holy book, called the Koran.

Immediately following Muhammad’s death in 632 A.D., two different Muslim groups called the Shia and the Sunni disagreed on who should lead Islam, leading to centuries of conflict that is now splitting apart Iraq. While Christianity makes up 31.5% of the world’s religious followers, Islam comes in second at 23.2%. Within the Muslim faith, Sunni make up about 85% of the world’s believers and Shia make up about 15%. Despite that much smaller percentage, Shia followers make up the majority of the population in Iran and Iraq. Their centuries old “schism” (strong difference of opinion between two opposing groups) has been the source of major drama.

When military forces led by the USA and UK toppled Iraqi President Saddam Hussein in 2003, after accusing him of hiding weapons of mass destruction, his Sunni-led government fell apart. Long-time Shia and anti-Hussein political rebel Nouri al-Maliki replaced the dictator, and his anti-Sunni government created political stress in the country. After the USA pulled out its troops following a decade of combat, Iraq was torn apart by Shia and Sunni military conflict. It doesn’t help that the brutal civil war in neighboring Syria created extremists who banded together with their Iraqi comrades in ISIS.

A mosque is a place of worship for followers of Islam.

The USA’s Secretary of State, John Kerry, who is the nation’s highest diplomat, has tried to negotiate a peaceful settlement between the Sunnis and the Shias. He even worked with longtime rival nation Iran, who is supporting Shia fighters, to control the chaos.

Despite the differences between the USA and Iran over nuclear weapons development, they both oppose the terrorist group Al-Qaeda, who brought down New York’s twin World Trade Center towers on September 11, 2001. They are also against the terrorists that belong to the Islamic State. However, Iran blames the USA for indirectly creating a political situation in Iraq where the Sunnis felt left out.

A third independent group known as the Kurds are fighting the Sunnis in northern Iraq, receiving the support of the USA and Iran for their efforts. Even Syria is on board with helping to control the ISIS fighters. Just last year, the USA was threatening to attack Syria after evidence of chemical attacks by the government on civilians came to light, but now their forces are battling on the same side against ISIS.

As for the USA’s military campaign, it will come in three phases. The first phase of the plan is already in motion, focusing on airstrikes against key ISIS targets on the ground. In the second phase, which will follow the formation of a new Iraqi government, the USA will train and equip the Iraqi Army, the Kurdish Peshmerga, and local tribesmen. In the third phase, American airstrikes will focus on ISIS in Syria, which is making the Syrian government nervous. Obama has made his objectives clear, stating, “This is a core principle of my presidency: If you threaten America, you will find no safe haven.” So far, helicopters, fighter jets, and bombers have successfully taken down key ISIS targets in Syria and Iraq. The USA is also working closely with 30 nations, including 10 Arab states, who all wish to keep the Middle East safe.

Obama even asked lawmakers in Congress to formally grant him war powers. See, the three branches of the USA government are led by the lawmaking Congress, the law enforcing President, and the law judging Supreme Court, and while the President can direct war efforts in the short-term, only Congress can declare a long-term war. The USA hasn’t officially declared war in over 70 years, since World War II’s battle against Nazi Germany, but presidents have still taken action in conflicts like the Korean War in the early 50s and the Vietnam War in the 60s and 70s. The last time Congress gave a president permission to use force was 2002, when former President George W. Bush invaded Iraq. Obama promises to avoid a large-scale invasion and instead focus on airstrikes and limited ground combat with Special Forces. This tactic led to a major combat victory recently, when Special Forces took down a key ISIS leader who helped fund the terrorist group with illegal oil dealings. They also captured lots of secret information that will help them cripple more of the Islamic State’s economy.

Featured image courtesy of The U.S. Army on Flickr.