Things just got even more complex in the Middle East today. A few people have asked me about this situation, so here goes my best summary…
Turkey (a NATO member) shot down a Russian plane today. They are both engaged in the fight against ISIS. Due to Turkey’s NATO membership, if Russia were to retaliate, the rest of NATO would be obliged to go to war against Russia. NATO includes countries like the US, UK, and France. It also includes Canada. So if we’re all there fighting against ISIS together, why did this happen? Things are never simple in the Middle East, but here is a basic and very much generalized rundown on who is fighting and why:
Russia’s military involvement “against ISIS” in Syria is mostly so they can bomb the Syrian rebels who are trying to take down Syrian President Assad, who Russia supports. Turkey on the other hand, supports the rebels (many of whom are ethnic Turks) as they are Sunni and anti-Assad. Syria is majority Sunni, but the ruling class is almost entirely from the Shia minority. Turkey is majority Sunni and these rebels are hardline Sunni Islamists supporting factions like ISIS and Al-Qaeda. In fact, the Al Nusra rebels are, for all intents and purposes, the Al-Qaeda branch in Syria. This is why things are gridlocked in Syria, the West’s typical “arm the rebels” strategy can’t be implemented You’re either supporting Assad’s opponents on the ground (the most powerful of whom are terrorist groups in either composition or funding/support) or you are supporting a dictator.
It is also suspected that Turkey has been buying ISIS’ oil from the oilfields they have captured. Russia may have been targeting some of these oil transports.
Turkey’s main reason for “fighting ISIS” is, just like Russia, an excuse to focus on their own goals: taking down Assad, supporting Sunni rebels, and killing Kurdish people. Turks really do not care for Kurds and considers them terrorists. Therefore killing Kurds in bombing operations is a part of their War on Terror. The thing about the Kurds is, they are supported by the US (Turkey’s NATO ally) in both Syria and Iraq. The US has actually been arming and supporting the Kurds for awhile. Meanwhile, Iran is helping in the fight against ISIS because Iranians are Shia Muslims. Same with Hezbollah. ISIS creates strange bedfellows indeed. The Saudis on the other hand are keeping pretty quiet about all this, but we’ve known since even before 9/11 that they fund radical Sunni groups such as Al-Qaeda.
Basically, ISIS gets to be the big bad guy that allows everyone to get involved for their own reasons. For those states and factions in the Middle East, it mostly boils down to the ancient conflict between Sunni and Shia Islam. For those outside the Middle East, it boils down to their own strategic interests in the region.