The territory ruled by the so-called Islamic State (ISIS) consists of large chunks of both Syria and Iraq. In recent months, some of that land has been wrested from their control by Kurdish and Iraqi forces that include Shia militias who have been reportedly funded and trained by Iran.
Much of these areas lost by ISIS are inhabited by Sunni Iraqis. As seen in this report above from Human Rights Watch, some of the Sunnis have been targeted by Shia militias. In the Iraqi town of Amerli and surrounding areas during early September 2014, HRW found that Iraqi security forces, Shia militias and volunteers carried out a campaign of destruction against Sunni property.
There have been numerous similar media reports also, some including accounts of atrocities.
But given the scale of the atrocities committed by ISIS fanatics against the Shias and Kurdish, Irish journalist Patrick Cockburn wrote for the Independent that it’s not surprising that Shia and Kurdish forces are not in a forgiving mood.
“There is an almost universal belief among last year’s victims—be they Shia, Yazidis, Christians, or Kurds—that their Sunni Arab neighbors collaborated with ISIS,” Cockburn wrote.
The current violence has though stoked a hatred that has long been there.
“Sunni and Shia have both used mass violence against one another’s communities in the past 50 years, but the Sunni have most often been the perpetrators,” wrote Cockburn in one article that was part of a series.
With the extreme ISIS jihadis coming into the scene, it has made a bad situation much worse.
“[ISIS] carried out massacres of Shias and Yazidis as a matter of policy, and then broadcast videos of the murders,” Cockburn wrote.
“ISIS bombers targeted bus queues, funerals, religious processions, and anywhere else where Shia gathered and could be killed. The obvious motive was anti-Shia and a desire to destabilise the [Iraqi] government, but there was also a carefully calculated policy at work of provoking Shia into retaliation against Sunni.”
Cockburn went on to write that: “ISIS knew that this would leave the Sunni with no alternative but to fight and die alongside them.”
This has left many Sunnis who have despised ISIS fearing that they are now stuck between the devil and the deep blue sea.
As part of the Independent’s investigations, they interviewed Sunni Arabs who had fled ISIS controlled areas and many of them said that as bad as ISIS might be, the alternative may be worse.
“We hate ISIS, but imagine if the Shia militia were the substitute for it,” said Faisal, a former government employee. “The situation would be more horrible. Every substitute is worse than the previous one.”
Sunnis make up a fifth of Iraq’s population. Globally, most Muslims are Sunni. If ISIS is expelled from the country, the question now remains, will that mean the same for Iraq’s Sunni population?
“The so-called Islamic State will not go down without fierce resistance and, if it does fall, the Sunni community will be caught up in its destruction,” Cockburn writes.
For a short overview of the age-old conflict between the Sunnis and Shia, see this video below: