Isis axis: Shifting power in the Middle East

The players: The leaders, population and religions of Isis, Syria, Lebanon, Israel, Palestinian territories, Saudi Arabia, Iran and Iraq


Aims The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (Isis) is a well-funded militia that seeks to establish an Islamic state across Sunni-majority areas of the Middle East.
Origins The faction has its roots in al-Qaeda, but it has now split from the international terrorist network. Isis grew in strength during Syria’s civil war, and the force has now crossed into Iraq, taking the country’s second city and many towns.
Threat This week a video, apparently made by the faction, purported to show it massacring 1,700 Iraqi soldiers. Further expansion may be limited by the group’s numbers, thought to be about 15,000, but it currently controls a considerable amount of territory that may become a training ground for new recruits. Isis encountered little or no resistance in the Sunni provinces of Anbar and Ninevah, but it has been repelled from Shia areas. Its offensive may herald the break-up of Iraq into Sunni, Shia and Kurdish statelets.

Population 18 million.
Religions and minorities 74 per cent Sunni, followed by Shias at 13 per cent (including the Alawite minority) and Christians at 10 per cent. About 2.5 million Syrian refugees have fled the country; within Syria, 6.5 million are displaced.
Leaders President: Bashar al-Assad. Prime minister: Wael Nader Al-Halqi.
Rebels Isis is the largest of several rebel groups operating in Syria. It has crossed into Iraq and seized much Sunni- majority territory in the past two weeks. It controls large parts of northern Syria.The Free Syrian Army, allegedly the most moderate rebel group, has US backing.
External relationships Few allies left. The government has good relations with Iran, Egypt , Lebanon, Russia and China. Diplomatic relations with the US, Britain, Germany and others have been severed.

Population 32.6 million.
Religions and minorities 97 per cent Muslim, of which 65 per cent are Shia and 35 per cent are Sunni. Kurds make up 15 per cent of the population.
Leadership Prime minister: Nouri al-Maliki .
Rebels Isis has established itself in northern Iraq and Syria, most recently taking Iraq’s second city, Mosul, with support from Sunni tribal groups. Its aim is to create an Islamic caliphate in western Iraq and across Syria to the Mediterranean. It already controls many Sunni areas of Iraq and Syria. It is well resourced, with an estimated $2 billion war chest.
External relationships Shia prime minister Nouri al-Maliki has a strong relationship with Rouhani’s Iran, also a Shia-majority state. The US provides military training and material in Iraq.

80.8 million.
Religions and minorities The Iranian government says 99 per cent of Iranians are Muslims: 90 per cent Shia and 9 per cent Sufi or Sunni; 1 per cent of the population identifies as Jewish, Christian, Zoroastrian or Hindu.
Leadership Supreme leader: Ali Khamenei. President: Hassan Rouhani.
External relationships Under the previous president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the military potential of Iran’s nuclear programme and violent hyperbole about Israel made the country an international pariah. Foreign relations have improved since Rouhani’s election, and there is even potential for co-operation between Iran and the US to combat Isis’s advance. International sanctions will be lifted if negotiations on the nuclear programme result in an accord. Iran is the Middle East state most opposed to Israel and has supported President Assad of Syria through three years of civil war. Sunni regimes such as Saudi Arabia are bitter regional rivals to Iran.

Population 27.3 million.
Religions and minorities All citizens are considered Muslim in the eyes of the kingdom. The official state religion is Sunni; 85-90 per cent of citizens are Sunnis, and 10-15 per cent are Shias. Noncitizens – mostly Asian labourers and servants – account for up to 12 million of Saudi Arabia’s population. There is no religious freedom, and Sharia law applies to all. Conversion from Islam is punishable by death.
Leadership King and prime minister: Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz.
External relationships Saudi Arabia has been accused of funding Isis. The world’s largest oil exporter, the state is uniquely positioned in global relations despite allegations of connections with al-Qaeda. Saudi Arabia is a large-scale purchaser of arms from the US .

Population West Bank: 2.6 million.
Gaza: 1.7 million. East Jerusalem: 193,000.
Religions and minorities Muslim (mostly Sunni): 75 per cent. Jewish 17 per cent. Christian and other: 8 per cent.     
Leadership Mahmoud Abbas’s government controls Gaza and West Bank, including East Jerusalem. It demands Israel recognise it as a state.

Population 7.8 million.
Religions and minorities 75.4 per cent Jewish, 16.9 per cent Muslim and 2.1 per cent Christian.
Leadership Prime minister: Binyamin Netanyahu.
External relationships The leading recipient of US foreign aid, Israel has the most influence over US policy in the Middle East. Although Israel has peace treaties with Egypt and Jordan, 18 of the 22 Arab League members do not maintain diplomatic relations. Iran, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Lebanon, Kuwait, Syria, UAE, Yemen, Afghanistan and Pakistan do not recognise Israel.

Population 5.9 million.
Religions and minorities 54 per cent Muslim, split evenly between Sunni and Shia; 40.4 per cent Christian, the most of any Middle East country; 10 per cent of the population are Palestinian refugees or their descendents.
Leadership Prime minister and acting president: Tammam Salam.
Militias Hezbollah has been fighting alongside Syrian government troops in Syria; it claims that this participation prevented Isis invading Lebanon.
External relationships Sunnis in Lebanon have strong relations with Saudi Arabia, Shias are close to Iran, and Christians look to Europe. 

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