Background on War & Peace

Background on Islam

Understanding the religion of Middle Eastern countries helps in understanding many of the current "trouble spots" in the Middle East. Muslims distinguish between two major branches of Islam, Shia Islam and Sunni Islam, The map to the left (click on the map to enlarge it) indicates countries with:

  • A Shi'ite majority (darker greens; Iran and Iraq)

  • A large Shi'ite minority (medium greens; Lebanon and Yemen)

  • A small Shi'ite minority (light greens; Turkey, Syria, Af-Pak)

Several current Mideast trouble spots can be identified by whether the religion of the ruling group matches the religion of the majority of the population. When the majority is Sunni and the Shias are in power, or vice versa, the country is often a "trouble spot." That same analysis holds for determining which terrorist groups are on which side. Some details by country and group:

Readers should not think that these sorts of religion-based wars are unique to the Islamic world. In the Christian world, we have the same sort of split between Protestants and Catholics: For example, when Northern Ireland (majority Catholic) was ruled by Great Britain (majority Protestant) a war ensued for decades. And even in America, when John F. Kennedy (the first Catholic president) was elected in 1960, anti-Catholic sentiments resounded among the Protestant American majority. Religious sectarianism among Christians doesn't justify religious sectarianism among Muslims -- but it does make it easier to understand!

Syrian Civil War

The civil war in Syria has been raging since March 2011, and has killed many tens of thousands of people (approximately 93,000 as of June 2013). It is the latest result of the Arab Spring.

In 2011, the Arab Spring was running strong in several countries but has mostly played out now -- except in Syria. At issue is whether President Assad (a dictator, not an elected president) should stay in power. Two years ago, at issue was whether Assad would implement reforms, but he declined, so the rebels demanded his ouster instead.

The rebels were making progress until Hezbollah joined in, early in 2013 (Hezbollah is the terrorist group that rules Lebanon with Assad's help) -- that turned the tide in favor of Assad.

President Obama had previously established a "red line" that if Assad used chemical weapons, the U.S. would join the fight. Obama declared that the "red line" had been crossed in June 2013. The US, British and French had been aiding the rebels already, but only been sending "humanitarian aid" (food and medicine); as of June 2013 the US is sending "military aid" (small weapons). The Russians back Assad (who has plenty of Russian weapons already, including jets and tanks). So in effect, the U.S. is now fighting a "proxy war" against Russia and Hezbollah in Syria.

Some proponents suggest that the US, UK, and France impose a "no-fly zone" in Syria -- using allied Air Forces to enforce agaisnt the Syrian Air Force. That was done in Libya successfully -- the rebels won with allied air support.

Some opponents point out that the rebels' loose coalition -- called the Free Syrian Army -- has some groups which are affiliated with Al Qaeda. U.S. aid has always "vetted" each group receiving aid, with the purpose of avoiding giving anything to Al Qaeda. But of course materiel gets shared and some U.S. arms may end up in Al Qaeda hands.

The War on Terrorism

  • On Sept. 11, 2001, terrorists hijacked four commercial jets from Boston and Washington, and flew them into the World Trade Center in NYC and the Pentagon outside DC, destroying the Twin Towers and killing over 6,000 people. It was the worst terrorist incident in history.
  • Pres. Bush appointed Tom Ridge as the "terrorism czar," formally creating a cabinet-level post for a new Office of Homeland Security, initially funding it with $40 billion.
  • NATO invoked Article 5 of its charter, which commits 18 European allies to military action in response to an attack on the homeland of the US.
  • The primary suspect was Osama bin Laden, an exiled Saudi millionaire based in Afghanistan.
  • The CIA formerly funded bin Laden as a leader of the mujaheddin, or freedom fighters, when the Soviet Union occupied Afghanistan through the 1980s.
  • Bin Laden turned against the US when troops were stationed in Saudi Arabia during the Gulf War in 1990. He issued a fatwa, or religious edict, calling for the removal of US troops from the Holy Lands of Mecca and Medina (details below under Al Qaeda).
  • Bin Laden's organization, al Qaeda, which means "The Base," funds terrorist training and operations, and has been implicated in past terrorist actions in the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, the 2000 USS Cole bombing, and the 1998 simultaneous attack on two US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania.
  • The US responded to the embassy bombings by a cruise-missile attack aimed at bin Laden, terrorist training camps in Afghanistan, and chemical factories in Sudan. The US also by indicting bin Laden in US criminal court.
  • The Taliban was the Muslim fundamentalist political party which rules most of Afghanistan. They were the largest army of the mujaheddin, and were also funded by the CIA in the 1980s. Their leader was Mullah Mohammad Omar.
  • The Taliban ruled under Shari'ah, or Islamic law as described in the Koran, which implies strict interpretation of moral codes and numerous personal restrictions.
  • A portion of Afghanistan was ruled by the Northern Alliance, another mujaheddin group. Their leader was assassinated in the week preceding the World Trade Center attack; it is unknown whether there was a connection.
  • The exiled king of Afghanistan, Muhammad Zahir Shah, agreed to participate in a coalition government if the Taliban is overthrown. King Zahir is 86 years old, and has resided in Rome since 1973.
  • The Taliban is recognized only by Pakistan; Saudi Arabia and Yemen, the only other countries to have recognized the Taliban, severed diplomatic ties in late September.
  • Pakistan supplied the mujaheddin before and after the Soviet occupation. Complicating relations with the US, Pakistan exploded a nuclear device in 1998, in response to India's doing so. India and Pakistan have been fighting a sporadic war for decades over the Kashmir region.

    Persian Gulf

    History of Yugoslavia

    Yugoslavia was created after WWI, from a federation of Balkan countries. The intention was avoiding further Balkan wars like those which ignited WWI. After WWII, its borders were redrawn with six republics plus two provinces within Serbia. (click on the map below left for an enlarged view).


    The six Yugoslav republics (see below) have all had history as independent nations. The two provinces within Serbia (Kosovo and Vojvodina) were never independent, with legal status like California within the US. Hence much of the debate on Kosovo centers on 'sovereignty' -- attacking Kosovo can be viewed as an attack on the sovereignty of Serbia while it was involved in a Civil War. Bosnia, on the other hand, had autonomous legal status like Puerto Rico within the US. Bosnia had declared independence from Serbia before the US sent troops there, and hence sovereignty was not an issue.

    Marshal Tito

    Marshal Tito was the Communist leader of Yugoslavia since WWII. He is credited with holding the Yugoslav republics together (by dictatorial force), and after he died in 1980 the republics began to clamor for more autonomy. Further pressure for independence came from the fall of the Soviet empire in 1989.

    Breakup of Yugoslavia

    In 1990, a new Yugoslav Constitution was enacted. Four republics soon declared independence, leaving 'Rump Yugoslavia' as only Serbia plus Montenegro.
      Status of the former Yugoslav republics and provinces:
    1. Slovenia: Declared independence in June 1991; one-week war with Serbia (a 'bloodless' war because Serbia focused on Croatia); Slovenia is now a prospering nation with hopes of joining NATO.
    2. Croatia: Declared independence in June 1991; longer war with Serbia; heavily involved with Bosnia war.
    3. Macedonia: Declared independence in Nov. 1991; avoided war because of arrival of international forces (including US forces, which are still based there). Greece has blocked full international recognition because the name 'Macedonia' is also the name of a Greek province.
    4. Bosnia-Herzegovina: Declared independence in 1992; lengthy war with Serbia and Croatia, with all three countries involved in 'ethnic cleansing.' The war ended with the Dayton Peace Accords in 1995. US forces are still stationed in Bosnia, which is partitioned into three ethnic regions (Serb, Bosnian, & Croat).
    5. Montenegro: Still part of Yugoslavia as an autonomous Republic. Montenegrins are ethnically identical to Serbs; they differ only by geography. But in the wake of the Kosovo war, Montenegro may declare independence.
    6. Serbia: Legally, Serbia is just one republic of Yugoslavia. But the Serbs have always been the dominant group in all of Yugoslavia since is formation.
    7. Kosovo: Remains a province within the republic of Serbia. Its population is 3/4 Albanian (referred to as 'ethnic Albanians' to differentiate from residents of the neighboring country of Albania).
    8. Vojvodina: Also remains a province within the republic of Serbia. Its population is 1/2 Hungarian (they border Hungary, and prior to WWII were part of that country).

    Slobodan Milosevic

  • Milosevic came to power as Chairman of the Communist Party in 1986.
  • His popularity increased greatly in 1987 after a speech in Kosovo strongly advocating Serbian nationalism (the speech was made on the site of a 14th century battlefield. This is the political basis for Milosevic not granting Kosovo independence).
  • Milosevic was democratically elected President of Serbia in 1989, and elected as President of Yugoslavia in 1997.
  • He was indicted as a war criminal in June 1999, the first time a sitting President has been indicted. His alleged crimes include genocide and ethnic cleansing.
  • In October 2000, Milosevic lost the presidential election to Vlajislav Kostunica. Milosevic gave up power after widespread protests and Russian urging.
  • In April 2001, Milosevic surrendered to Serbian government forces. He faces extradition to an international tribunal as well as domestic charges.

    Religion and Ethnicity


    In 1999, the US and NATO negotiated with Milosevic in Rambouillet, France, attempting to resolve the Kosovo crisis without ethnic cleansing or war. The goal was to be a 'Rambouillet Agreement' fashioned after the Dayton Agreement that ended the war in Bosnia. The peace talks failed, and NATO bombed Serbia and Kosovo from March to June 1999. Milosevic capitulated; the Serbian Army left Kosovo; and NATO, Russian, and UN troops are now stationed there under the 'KFOR' banner.

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