The seemingly illogical blood fest that has engulfed a central area of the Middle East known to the ancients as the “Fertile Crescent” has also mystified one too many of the outside observers. An examination of its history and culture may help the Obama administration to make informed decisions about the role of the United States in the region.

The arable crescent of land, fed mainly by great rivers like the Tigris and Euphrates, is hemmed in by the high Zagros-Taurus mountains on the north (the “Kurdish crescent”) and the Arabian Desert to the south (the “Wahhabi-Sunni” crescent). The Fertile Crescent is the geographical epicenter of the Middle East, but since 2003 and liberation of Iraq, also its geo-political epicenter.


Today, the Fertile Crescent is a diverse ethno-religious region. It is home to the Shias who by themselves form a majority at the two ends of the Crescent. Jews in Israel and Christians in Lebanon, Syria and Iraq are also the largest of such communities in the entire Islamic world.

At the center of the Crescent are found the Sunni minority, among whom the ISIS has found prominence and rule since last summer. Even the local people are at pain explaining how a civilized and relatively worldly place as the central regions of the Fertile Crescent could so easily and lastingly fall into the hands of a few thousand terrorists and violent amateur wannabes in such a short time. The answer is not that difficult if one would stop looking at the proverbial tree, but stand away and look at the forest instead.

Since the liberation of Iraq in 2003, and decisive success of the Hezbollah in the 2006 war with Israel, the Shias have come to dominate the politics in the Fertile Crescent to the total detriment of the Sunni who form a numeric majority most everywhere else in the Islamic world but not in the Fertile Crescent.  Add to this demographic and political dominance the crucial power of Shia Iran (the old Persian Empire), and one can easily see the unease by which the Sunni world views the loss of dominance in this epicenter of the Middle East.

Saudi Arabia and other Wahhabi powers such as Qatar have rushed into the Crescent to reverse this development, detrimental to their own long-term survival as minority regimes at home. Far more important is the survival of the old Ba’athist corps of officers and the military of the old regime in Iraq, cut off from power by the Shia since 2003.

Like the period 2003-2007, the Sunni Iraqi military personnel have invited in the international terrorist organizations and their young, violent recruits to come and try to reverse this “American-caused” hobbling of their traditional dominance of the Fertile Crescent. The great ease of occupation and the followed sophistication of the insurgence using complex military machines, surveillance and brilliantly systematic occupation of all Sunni areas of the Fertile Crescent in less than two months, are all tale tell of the true power behind the ISIS façade.

Following the 2003 liberation of Iraq, the Shia majority there has decisively dominated power and excluded the former masters of the land, the violent Sunni minority, formerly led by Saddam Hussein and his Baathist military and secret police. This well-established Sunni corps of officers and military recruits now freely operates in all Sunni or partly Sunni areas of Iraq and eastern Syria, using ISIS as a façade to champion the cause of the Sunni Arabs in fighting the Shia government in Baghdad and the crypto-Shia regime of Bashar Assad in Damascus.  Their successes have been strictly limited to occupying Sunni Arabs areas of the Fertile Crescent. The Shias have been spectacularly successful in keeping safe their own towns and village, although less so the Kurds.  Judging by what happened between 2002 and 2007, however, this Sunni enterprise is bound to fail largely due to the same mistake being remade: inviting in the ultra violent Wahhabi/Salafist terrorists and Jihadist to help the cause of the Sunni, but managing to turn everybody including the average Sunni Arabs against their enterprise.

To the north, Turkey is strongly concerned over the fate of the “Kurdish crescent” on its territory, and their often-violent nationalistic aspirations. Added to that is the centuries-old Turkish role as the sole or most powerful protector of the Sunnis in the Middle East, balancing the Shia Iran and its influence. Turkey is torn between its alliance with the West, its fear of Kurdish nationalism on its soil, and its traditional imperial role of protecting the Sunnis in the entire area.

Adding all these overt and covert priorities, aims and fears by Wahhabi-Sunni crescent to the south, Kurdish crescent to the north, sandwiching the multi-ethnic Fertile Crescent in the center. The outcome: Fertile Crescent is today one of the most war-torn areas of the world. The Sunni military (Ba’athist and otherwise) along with their façade, the ISIS, occupy the middle or the fulcrum of the Crescent, while the Shias in Iraq, Lebanon and Iran—but also the crypto-Shias (Alawites) in Syria, control the east and the west of that center. The Christians are protected by none and have fallen victims to all sides, while the Jews have been lucky enough to have Israel’s protection.

The melee may seem confusing, but once its players and their aspirations are identified, the melee becomes a simple struggle for dominance by the local Shia and Sunni, attracting outside local powers worried about their own geostrategic future.

Izady is a professor of Middle Eastern and Western history at Pace University in New York. He helps train and brief Special Forces troops and others in the U.S. military here and overseas on ethnic and social issues.