The Root Causes of the Religious and Ethnic Conflicts in Syria and Iraq

The American invasion of Iraq in 2003 and American foreign policy mistakes were major reasons for rise of violence in Iraq as well as emergence of her own enemy, the Islamic State. Ideology and motivations of the Islamic State were shaped by Anti-Americanism and Anti-Americanism was rekindled by the USA. This study takes a critical look at issue of how wrong decisions of the USA caused increasing violence in Iraq and Syria and how Anti-Americanism braced the Islamic State. Also, it focuses upon  discriminatory policies of the USA in Iraq and how these policies turned into one of reasons rising religious and ethnic conflicts. In addition, it focuses upon melioration efforts of the USA and their results.

Keywords: Islamic State, Anti-Americanism, American Foreign Policy, Middle East.

An Urban Legend, The Curse of Saddam

Just at the beginning of the Iraq War, Baghdad-based Ba’ath regime was defeated in 3 weeks and Saddam Hussein was caught in Tikrit by American army. After getting caught of Saddam Hussein, the USA deliver him to the new Government of Iraq, then judgement of Saddam started because of Halabja massacre and Duceyl massacre. First Judge was dismissed cause authorities found him docile then new judge was appointed, Raouf Abdul Rahman, who was a Shi’a Muslim and a dissident of the Ba’ath regime. There were too many interesting debates in the court between Raouf Abdal Rahman and Saddam Hussein. Both sides accused each other of treason and both sides used harsh language. The court was like a discussion place more than a impartial tribunal. Although Saddam did not accept charges, Abdal Rahman decided to death sentence in 2006. While judge was reading decision of the court, an audience said that “our sunni brothers would take our revenge” and he continued his words “This story will not end here, Sunni brothers will destroy the world on your own”. Meanwhile, Saddam Hussein started to threaten Judge with death, he said that “All Kafurs wil die, their heads will be cut”.[1] In the same year, death sentence was confirmed and implemented. Executed photos were posted on the internet and there were too many different reactions. Some of the reactions were good and some countries were not pleasant like Libya.

Eight years later, after the war and execution of Saddam, the Islamic State, a terrorist organisation, announced that they killed Raouf Abdal Rahman in Mossul and posted photos of him on the internet. The Islamic State was a sunni based terrorist organisation and when they got the power, they caught firstly the Judge to get revenge of Saddam Hussein. They continue to kill non-Sunnis in Iraq and Syria. Saddam’s execution was a favorable motivation to the the Islamic State. This article will try to explain how the USA policies in Iraq created the Islamic State and ethnic and religious conflict in both Syria and Iraq. Even this story helps to understand what’s happening in the region.

Impact of USA on Ethnic and Religious Violence in Iraq

After the 11 September 2001, with the Bush administration, the USA announced that she would begin to fight against terrorism. The USA invasion of Afghanistan occurred in 2001 and it was the first step of hot war against terrorism. Intellectual preparation continued during the Afghanistan war in the the USA. Bush Doctrine, the National Security Strategy of United States, published on September 17 in 2002 and set principles of war against terrorism. Because of 9/11 atmosphere, Bush administration and neoconservatives could be supported by the American citizens easier. For the first time in American history, the USA was attacked in her mainland On September 11, 2001. As results of this attack 3000 people died and the USA lost 10 billion dollars.[2] There was a huge fear and people just wanted to be safe against terrorism so they could not be oppositions nondemocratic measures of Bush and neoconservatives. Patriot Act was the main measures which was one of this kind of measures. Also, Big part of people wanted to revenge and they found a motto which was “We will never forget”. With the help of this atmosphere, in 2003 USA invasion of Iraq occurred. Because of this invasion, thousands of people died and Iraq sank into civil war quagmire. And, this invasion caused irreversible consequences.

After the Iraq Invasion, Sunni Arabs had been ruled out by the USA in Iraq. Former masters of the country did not include in the bureaucratic and political system. Because of the potential Iran effect, the USA did not trust Shiite groups too. Yet, first times of invasion, they had better conditions than Sunni groups related joining state administration. Kurds were the most favourable group in the country. Such that Northern Iraq became a safe zone. There were less internal conflicts in Northern Iraq. After the first election of Iraq, Jalal Talabani became the new president of country and Mesud Barzani became president of Northern Iraq. So Kurds and Shitte people had major roles in both Iraqi Government and Kurdistan government. Because of this unjust environment, domestic conflicts began easily in Iraq. Especially, Sunni and Shiite groups were major elements of these conflicts. Sunni Muslims were the angriest side and it was not a big suprise. The USA invasion failed to bring democracy to Iraq. US forces had not been able to provide Iraqi people with even basic security.

Except separatist ethnic-based politics of the USA in Iraq, there were other causes of growing conflict. Firstly, as an one of the main reson of conflict, the USA claimed that Saddam was helping Al-Qaeda. But after invasion, United Nations and the Officials from the USA did not find anything about connection between Al-Qaeda and Iraq. The other main reason of invasion which was told by the USA was nuclear researching of  Iraq. Yet, officials of the United Nations did not find anything about this claim too. After C. Powell, who was United States Secretary of State, during war told that These claims were lie on TV.[3] Baseless reasons of occupation created an anti-American public opinion in Iraq and rest of the world. This issue affected increase of conflict in Iraq.

Another reason of increasing conflict in Iraq was human rights violations during occupation.  Abu Gharib torture and prison abuses were published in the press with photos. Also, Guantánamo prison became an international topic and some United Nations officers visited this prison to prevent international law violations. These issues were great shocks to Iraq and even rest of the world. The USA  was renowned as a county which do not recognize international law. During war 110,000 Iraqi civilians died and total dead number reached to 1,200,000 according to some public opinion research companies.[4] As a result of these events, Anti-Americanism spread to all Muslim worlds. This was another reason of increasing conflict in Iraq.

As we mentioned before, wrong policies of the USA Increased disputes and conflicts in Iraq. Hatred and conflict environment prepared ground for emergence of Islamic State. Islamic State used American hostility as its main motivation. Also, treason charges was used between ethnic groups easier. Especially, Sunni side claims this against other ethnic and religious groups in Iraq.

Emergence of the Islamic State

Before 2003 invasion of Iraq, militant group Jama’at al-Tawhid Wal-Jihad already founded in 1999 by Jihadist Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. They made suicide attacks on Shia Islamic mosques, civilians, Iraqi government institutions and US-led Multinational Force. Al-Zarqawi’s group become an ally with Osama bin Laden’s Al-Qaeda network in October 2004 officially, changing its name as Al-Qaeda in Iraq. They increased their attacks civilians, Iraqi Government and security forces, foreign diplomats and soldiers, and American convoys. In July 2005, Al-Qaeda’s deputy leader Ayman al-Zawahiri stated a four-stage plan to expand the Iraq War. The plan included firing US forces from Iraq, establishing an Islamic authority as a caliphate, spreading the conflict to Iraq’s secular neighbours, and clashing with Israel.

In January 2006, Al-Qaeda joined hands with several smaller Iraqi insurgent groups under an umbrella organisation called the Mujahideen Shura Council (MSC). In same year, MSC declared the establishment of the Islamic State of Iraq. On 16 May 2010, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi was appointed as the new leader of the Islamic State of Iraq. Violence in Iraq had begun to increase in June 2012, primarily by Islamic State of Iraq’s car bomb attacks, and by July 2013, fatalities had exceeded 1,000 for the first time since April 2008.[5]

On 29 June 2014, the organisation announced its own Worldwide Caliphate. Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi became its Caliph, and the group took a new name which is Islamic State. Organisation started to claim religious, political and military authority over all Muslims worldwide.

Syrian Civil War and Role of Islamic State

Syrian Civil War began in the early of 2011 and Arab Spring protest was its starting point.  People initially rebelled against Bashar al-Assad and began to clash with the Syrian Army. Conflicts in the Syria increase rapidly. Then, insurgents began to gather in the organizations such as Free Syrian Army, Islamic Front. Then Hezbollah entered the war to support  the Syrian Army.  Suddenly, Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant saw this war as a opportunity and made military gains in Syria. It was mentioned before that Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant was an Iraq-based organization. Then, Islamic State changed its tactic and started to fight against other rebel groups. Conditions began to change in favor of Islamic State. In 2014, the ISIS was able to control big part of  Syria. In 2015 death number reached at least 250.000 and both of the ISIS and Syrian Army violated human rights. At least 7 million people have been displaced. The ISIS which was born in Iraq effect Syrian Civil War badly. It mentioned before, emergence of the ISIS was a reaction to American policy in the Iraq. By indirectly, the USA created the ISIS and she affected Syria Civil war with her policies in Iraq. And by directly, the USA created the ISIS cause to eliminate Esad, the USA and her allies like Turkey helped all rebels in Syria disproportionately and irregularly. With this help, radical Islamists organisations like the ISIS got power and became unstoppable. And, other reasons were mentioned before how the USA effected increasing violence in Iraq and Syria.[6]

Transformation of the American Policy

The Increase of conflicts and inability to maintain order in Iraq forced the USA to change her policy. Sectarian conflict and attacks against American Army became a big problem. The USA took new steps. After 2006, the USA increased her number of troops. The USA also started to a plan which aimed to include Sunnis through system of Iraq. The Sahwa organizations were established and some Sunni groups started to fight against Al Qaeda and they became allies of the USA. Then the USA agreed with Shiite groups. Mehdi Army decided to ceasefire. This new policy was different from former policy which was both of Sunni and Shiite groups would be considered. Because of this policy, importance of the Kurds reduced. Also, this policy gave the USA an opportunity to leave from Iraq. In 2009 Obama announced that the USA would withdraw from Iraq in following years. In 2011 withdrawal was completed, but just few military troops remained in Iraq, because of security reasons. Unfortunately, these measures had worked just in the short term. Sunni terrorist organizations could protect their power. As a neighbor, Syria became a good playground for them. Although the Islamic State was established in Iraq its development region was in Syria. The Islamic State governs some part of Iraq an Syria now and this feature distinguishes the organization from others. Especially oil-rich regions which the Islamic State controls gave Islamic State a great occasion. The current situation proves that new policy of USA did not work.

Invasion of Iraq from Neo-conservative Perspective

Neoconservatism emerged as an idea during the 1960s. It puts forward “the values and identity of the American people”. Liberalism was the key element of Neoconservatism. Wilsonianism was another key element of it. Also, for the neoconservatives, religion is important, and for them religious values make to the healthy of society and the human character. For neoconservatives, militarism and pre-emptive strike against an uncertain threat should be an important case for the foreign policy of the USA. The post-Cold War world is dominated by the USA. For neoconservatives, this situation must continue. And they largely believe that the USA has features which any state did not have before. These features are democracy and freedom. The USA is the first hegemon power which has democracy and freedom. They called this as American exceptionalism. In addition, American exceptionalism is kind of their world view.

For neoconservatives, Middle East is the most important region for American interests. A democratic Middle East is the first step to spread vision of neoconservatives to the world. America had to carry her blessings features and eliminate the brutal dictators in the region. Especially Iraq and Iran were the evil countries and they needed democracy. Iraq was a rouge state and the USA had to prevent support of Saddam through terrorism according to neo-conservatives.

This neoconservative ideas identified the causes of Iraq invation. Yet, the main thing which is more important for our research is religious side of these ideas. The USA came to the region with her Christian identity. Bush was talking about always God and Evil. American tanks which fought against Muslims in Iraq had names of the crusader commanders. After 9/11, Bush  called many times war against terrorism as a crusade war. During the conflicts of Felluce, American Army played Metallica with big speakers in the city. These experiences were understood by the Muslims as “we are at an inter-religion war”  This perception served terrorist organizations to find new members and radical Islam became more popular. Obviously, this is an important reason of deep conflicts in the region between Muslims and non Muslims, like yezidisis, Christians and other religious groups.

Can Obama Fix America’s Middle East Policy?

Barack Hussein Obama started his work on January 20, 2009. Campaign Slogans of Barack Obama were “Yes We Can” and “Change”.[7] Because of these slogans, Americans and rest of the World wanted to see change during Obama’s presidency. Firstly, Obama visited Ankara and Cahire, he aimed at fixing America’s image in Middle East and Muslim World. Obama stated in both of Cahire and Ankara that USA was not in a war against Muslims. According to his promise before he was elected, in 2009, Obama announced that combat operations in Iraq would end within 18 months. As mentioned before, giving place on government to Sunnis groups also collaboration with armed groups in Iraq helped the USA to withdraw her troops but they could not bring long-term peace. Soft power was tool of Obama’s Middle East Policy. But emergence of Islamic State and rise of violence in Iraq confused people’s mind. Even people started to ask, does the Obama administration have a Middle East policy? This should be stated that Obama used hard power and soft power together. Especially in war against Al-Qaeda in Pakistan and Afghanistan the USA did not leave using hard power. Osama bin Laden was killed during Obama’s administration. But Obama chose to act cautiously against Islamic State. It was clear that he avoided a new hot conflict. Pacifism did not solve problems in Iraq and Syria. Correction efforts of Obama still do not work. Time will show us results, we are in 2015, Obama is still president.


Emergence of Islamic State and increased of violence in Iraq and Syria depends on multi-dimensional factors.  This article tried to explain one of these factors , wrong policies of the USA during and after 2003 Iraq invasion. Before invasion, the USA produced baseless reasons to legitimize occupation. After, these reasons were proven that they are baseless. During invasion, the USA applied unfair policies and made human right violences. Unconcerned attitude of the USA received great criticism. Efforts to change policy did not work permanently and violence increased gradually. Countries in the world need see this aspect of conflict in Iraq and Syria also emergence of Islamic State. Thinking that conflicts and chaos are usual in a region is not fair.  The strengthening of Islamic State is not about one culture. The emergence of chaos is the result of wrong policies. Countries should not repeat wrong policies again and new policies should be produced by considering the old mistakes. Decisiveness and care about these issues can help to end chaos.

[1] Tarihi Degistirenler, “Saddam İdam Kararını Böyle Karşıladı”, 7 May 2012, (Accessed 19 May 2015).

[2] “How many people were killed on 9/11?”, BBC,  9 September 2011.

[3] Daniel Bates, “Colin Powell was lied to and used by George Bush to add credibility to invasion of Iraq”, Daily Mail, February 30 2011.

[4] Danny Katch,  “One Million Dead”,  Socialist Worker, January 30 2012.

[5] “Syria Iraq: The Islamic State militant group”, BBC, 2 August 2014.

[6]  “Syria: The story of the conflict”, BBC,  12 March 2015.

[7] “Barack Obama’s New Hampshire Primary Speech”,  The New York Times, January 8 2008.


Lucie Parker, “Explaining the Case for Invading Iraq from a Neo-Conservative Perspective”, International Relations Students, 2014, pp. 1-3.

Baskın Oran,  Türk Dış Politikası, İstanbul, İletişim Yayınları, Vol. 3, 2013, pp. 20-31.

Tuğçe Ersoy Öztürk, “ABD’nin Yumuşak Güç Kullanımı: Barrack Obama İmaji Üzerinden Amerikan Dış Politikasının Yeniden İnşası”, TASAM , 2013, pp. 1-13.

Julide Karakoç, “The Failure of Indirect Orientalism: Islamic State”, Critique, Vol. 42, No.4, 2014, pp. 597-606.

“What is Islamic State?”, BBC, 12 September 2014.

Iraq: The Situation of Ethnic and Religious Minorities, Brussels, European Parliament, June 2013, pp. 3.

Ussama Makdisi, “Anti-Americanism in the Arap World: An Interpretation of  a Brief History”, Oxford Journals, Vol. 89, pp. 538-557

“Barack Obama’s New Hampshire Primary Speech”,  The New York Times, January 8 2008.

Danny Katch,  “One Million Dead”,  Socialist Worker, January 30 2012, pp. 1.



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