Glossary of Terms
Alawite, Druze, Ibadism, Islam, Judaism, Maronite and Christians, Salafism, Shia, Sufism, Sunni, Wahhabism, Zoroastrianism
Arab, Armenian, Bedouin, Berber, Circassian, Hazara, Jews, Kurdish, Pashtun, Persian, Phoenician, Tajik, Turkmen, Uzbek, Yazidi
Al-Nusrah Front, Al-Qaeda, Al-Shabaab, Democratic Union Party (PYD), Fifth Fleet, Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), Hamas, Haqqani Network, Hashemites, Hezbollah, House of Saud, Houthis, International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corp (IRGC), Islamic State, Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), League of Arab State (LAS), Mujahideen, Muslim Brotherhood, Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC), Palestinian Authority (PA), Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO), Taliban, UNRWA
Major Events and Agreements
McMahon-Hussein, Sykes-Picot, Balfour Declaration, San Remos Convention, White Papers, Arab-Israeli War, Palestinian-Israeli Conflict, Free Officers of Egypt, Iranian Coup (1953), Suez Canal Crisis, White Revolution, Ba’athist Iraqi Coup, Syrian Ba’ath Coup, Six-Day War, Black September (Jordanian-Palestinian conflict), the Western Sahara conflict, Yom Kippur War, Syria-Israel Agreement on Disengagement, Lebanese Civil War, Iranian Revolution, Iranian Hostage Crisis, Camp David Accords, Egypt-Israel Peace Treaty, Afghan-Soviet War, Iran-Iraq War, Tripartite Accord, First Intifada, Taif Agreement, First Gulf War, Iraqi Uprisings, Iraqi No-Fly Zones, Oslo Accords, Second Intifada, Authorization for the Use of Military Force, The War on Terror, Afghanistan War, Iraq War, Cedar Revolution, Status of Force Agreement (SOFA), Iranian Green Movement, Arab Spring, Operation Serval and Operation Barkhane, Operation Inherent Resolve
Alawite – The Alawites are an offshoot of Shia Islam with significant populations in Syria, Turkey, and Lebanon. Alawites follow an interpretation of Shia Islam similar to the Twelvers. Alawites believe in a divine triad, comprising three aspects of the one God. While they are in the minority in Syria, they hold an elite standing because the ruling Assad family, since 1970, is Alawite. Bashar Al-Assad is currently the President of Syria, which has been embroiled in conflict since 2011.
Druze – The Druze are a small religious minority living primarily in Lebanon, but with smaller populations also found in Syria, Israel and Jordan. The faith developed under the Isma’ilite (Shia) teachings but include elements of Judaism, Christianity, Gnosticism, Neoplatonicism and pre-Islamic Iranian systems of belief. Despite its pluralistic heritage, the Druze are strictly monotheistic. Conversion is not permitted, either from or to the Druze faith, so the community has remained insular and intact throughout its existence. The communities are very cohesive and the religious system is only known to an elite group of initiates, the ‘uqqal, or knowers. The Druze have different levels of interaction with their host countries; in Israel, they eschewed Arab nationalism movements and are conscripted into the Israeli Defense Forces while Lebanese Druze played a significant role in the state’s formation. Followers of Druze practice taqiyya, which calls for complete loyalty to the government of the country in which they reside. The closed nature of the community is in part due to past experiences of persecution. Central to the faith are seven precepts, also recognized as the seven pillars of Ismailism, which include: veracity in speech and truthfulness, protection and mutual aid to brethren, renunciation of all forms of former worship and false belief, repudiation of the devil, confession of god’s unity, acceptance in god’s acts, and absolute submission and resignation to god’s divine will.
Ibadism – A branch of Islam claiming to predate the formation of Shia and Sunni Islam. Ibadism is largely unique to Oman but there are small populations in Zanzibar and throughout North Africa. Ibadism formed as a result of a political dispute roughly twenty years after the death of the prophet Mohammed. The Ibadis put more emphasis on the Quran than the Hadith (Mohammed’s teachings).
Islam – Islam is one of the three main monotheistic religions in the world as disseminated by the Prophet Muhammad. Although many people associate Islam with the Middle East and North Africa, 62% of Muslims live in the Asia-Pacific, according to Pew Research.[i] In fact, only 20% of the world’s Muslim population lives in the North Africa and the Middle East; but Indonesia has the highest number of Muslims in the world with approximately 225 million adherents. Muslims are also found in Sub-Saharan African, the Caucasus (Balkans), and Central Asia. There are about 1.6 billion Muslims in the world, 23% of the world’s population, making Islam the second-largest religion after Christianity.
Islam is made up off five main pillars, or tenets: the Shahada, which is the declaration of belief in one god, Allah, with the prophet Muhammad as his messenger; the Salat, the act of praying five times a day; the Zakat, which requires that those that can afford to do so donate a portion of their wealth to the poor; the Sawm, or fasting during Ramadan, which means abstaining from all food and drink from sunrise to sunset during an entire month to connect to Allah and consider the less fortunate; and the Hajj, which is the holy pilgrimage to Mecca, Saudia Arabia, the birthplace of the prophet and the location of his first revelation from God through the angel Gabriel. The Hajj is an obligatory act expected of all healthy, able-bodied Muslims at least once in a lifetime.
The Quran is the religious text of Islam, and though it may be interpreted or translated in different ways, the holy book should never be altered. Muslims believe Islam is s the complete and universal version of the belief systems previously promulgated by Adam, Noah, Abraham, Moses, and Jesus, all of whom are prophets recognized in Islam. In addition to the Quran, Muslim scholars also refer to the Hadith, when considering Islamic law which is practiced in many Muslim-majority countries in additional to civil courts. The Hadith is a collection of the prophet Mohammed’s sayings and doings in his lifetime, which can be used for context in complex legal issues.
Judaism – The oldest of the three largest monolithic religions, Judaism rose roughly 3,500 years ago. Judaism’s prophets are Moses and Abraham. Jews form a covenant with god stating that in exchange for what god has done, Jews will keep god’s laws and seek to bring holiness into every aspect of their lives. The three main branches of Judaism are Orthodox, following a strict adherence of the Torah, Reform, believing that the Torah should be treated as a set of guidelines and not a set of restrictions, and Conservatives who promote a more traditional version of Judaism than Reformists. According to the Jewish Virtual Library, roughly 43 percent of Jews (6.1 million) are in Israel, 40 Percent (5.7 million) in the U.S., and the remaining 17 percent are spread throughout Europe, Canada, and South America.
Maronites and Christians – The Maronites are an ethno-religious group located in the Levant region, primarily in Lebanon where they are largest Christian minority group in the country. According to the CIA World Factbook, Maronites constitute 22% of the population of Lebanon where they have gained significant political standing because of the previous French Mandate which favored Christians to Muslims. The Maronite Church is part of the Syriac Christian church based on the Catholic tradition. There are approximately 3 million Maronites worldwide; besides Lebanon, there are significant communities in Israel, Cyprus, and Egypt. Maronites have a large presence in Lebanon and have gained significant political standing because of the previous French Mandate. As part of the 1943, multi-confessional National Pact in Lebanon, the president of the country must always be a Maronite Christian.
There are various denominations of Christianity besides Maronites throughout the Middle East. Significant Catholic populations can be found in Israel, Turkey, Syria, and Jordan. Turkey, Syria, and Jordan also have significant Greek Orthodox populations. Coptic Orthodox Christians have a significant population and political importance in Egypt. Iran has a significant Assyrian population and Iraq has large groups of Assyrians and Chaldeans.
Salafism – An interpretation of Islam similar to Wahhabism (see below) that is also found largely in the Gulf, Salafism grew in response to European influence and ideas spreading into the Middle East. It is a very literal and strict approach to Islam.
Shia – Constituting 10-13% of the Muslim population (Pew Research Center), Shia is the second largest denomination of Islam followed predominantly in Iraq, India, Pakistan, Yemen, and Iran. Followers of the Shia branch believe the religious leaders must be direct descendants of the Prophet Muhammad and consider the Imams (Shia religious leaders) to be the true leaders of Islam. There are three main sub-branches of Shia Islam: Twelver Shiism believes there were 12 true Imams; Sevener Shiism, or Isma’ilism, believes there were seven true Imams; and Fiver Shiism, or Zaidiyyah, believes there were five. Shia Islam has two additional pillars beyond the five outlined for all Muslims; Taharah, purity of mind, body, and soul as well as Jihad, the struggle to spread Islam (both peacefully and if necessary through violence). While Sunni Islam adheres to these principles, they are not considered to be one of the pillars of Islam.
Sufism – Often described as a mystical interpretation of Islam, Sufism stands in stark contrast to Wahhabism and Salafism. Sufism, as described by Sufi teacher Ahmad ibn Ajiba, is “a science through which one can know how to travel into the presence of the Divine, purify one’s inner self from filth, and beautify it with a variety of praiseworthy traits.”
Sunni – Sunni Islam is a denomination of Islam accounting for the majority of the world’s Muslims. Sunnis believe the rightful caliphs (religious leader of Islam) were his closest companions and the first four elected after Muhammad’s death. Anyone who is pious enough and has the support of the ‘Ummah, or Muslim community, can become the caliph. Sunnis claim to follow a more traditional version of Islam than Shias.
Wahhabism – This is an orthodox and ultraconservative interpretation of Sunni Islam which is prominent in the Gulf region. Wahhabism is the dominant tradition in Saudi Arabia and is deeply embedded in the development of the modern kingdom. This austere interpretation was introduced by an eighteenth century preacher and scholar, Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab, who advocated a more pure version of Islam free of popular practices such as idolatry, shrine and tomb visitation, and other modern affectations. He later formed a pact with Saudi founding father, Muhammad bin Saud, to whom he offered political obedience in exchange for protection and propagation of the Wahhabi movement. Some attribute the Wahhabi movement with sowing disunity throughout Islam as it proclaims as takfir, or nonbeliever, any who veers from its teachings. Some officially designated terrorist groups may claim to subscribe to a Wahhabi interpretation of Islam, however, the majority of Wahaabist Muslims are not associated with these groups.
Zoroastrianism – Often cited as the oldest monolithic religion, Zoroastrianism was the predominant religion of Persia (modern day Iran) founded by the religious philosopher Zoroaster. Today, a small population of less than 200,000 still practice Zoroastrianism in Iran. Zoroastrianism emphasizes a duality of good and evil, both cosmically between god and the destructive energy that opposes God’s creative energy, and morally within the free will of man to follow the path of righteousness or evil.
Arab – An Arab is anyone whose native language is Arabic. Significant populations of Arabs reach from Northwest Africa to Iran. Arabic is an official language for 22 countries; Algeria, Bahrain, the Comoros Islands, Djibouti, Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Libya, Morocco, Mauritania, Oman, Palestine, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, Tunisia, the United Arab Emirates, and Yemen make up the Arab World.
Armenian – In the early 1900s, the Ottoman Empire’s genocide against the Armenian minority caused the Armenian diaspora. While the majority of Armenians live in modern day Armenia, large populations are in Iran, Syria, and Lebanon.
Bedouin – A nomadic ethnic group who are found in almost every country in the Middle East and North Africa. The largest populations of Bedouins are in Sudan, Algeria, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Jordan, Libya, and Egypt.
Berber – An ethnic group found largely in North Africa. After the Muslim Empire swept through the region, the Berber language mixed with Arabic. However, during the French occupations in North Africa, many schools and governments were forced to speak French. Today, Berber, Arabic, and French is mixed together in many regions of North Africa, often referred to as Maghrebi Arabic. The group of people self identify as Imazighen, or Free People.
Circassian – An ethnic group indigenous to the Caucasus but were displaced in the 19th century by the Russian-Circassian War. Turkey, Jordan, and Syria have significant populations of Circassians.
Hazara – A Persian speaking ethnic group in Afghanistan. The Hazras were one of the three significant forces of the Northern Alliance who, with the Pashtuns, helped defeat the Taliban in Afghanistan.
Jews – Followers of the monotheistic religion Judaism, Jews are an ethno-religious group. While any follower of Judaism are considered to be Jewish, many Jews trace their ancestry back to the tribe of Judah. See Judaism for more.
Kurdish – The Kurdish ethnicity and language’s origins are found in Iran. However, there are large populations of Kurds in Turkey, Iran, Iraq, and Syria. In many areas, such as in Iraq, the Kurds have their own territory and government. Kurdish forces have fought against governments throughout history for the right of self-determination and remain the largest ethnic group without a state.
Pashtun – The largest ethnic group in Afghanistan and largest minority in Pakistan. Pashtun culture is characterized by its self-governing tribal system and communal conduct. The Pashtuns have defeated several invading empires earning Afghanistan the nickname “the graveyard of empires” and their reputation as a “warrior race.”
Persian – Origins of this ethnicity trace back to ancient Iranian people, today they are the largest ethnic group in Iran. The Persian Empire spread its language and cultural influence throughout the Middle East and Central Asia. Iran, Afghanistan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, turkey, and Iraq all have significant Persian populations.
Phoenician – An ancient civilization centered in modern day Lebanon. The Phoenicians are credited with inventing the first Alphabet and were integral for trade and the spread of culture between the west and the east. While the Phoenician culture dissipated centuries ago, many people in Lebanon identify as Phoenician rather than Arab.
Tajik – An ethnic group with Persian origins in Tajikistan and Afghanistan. The Tajiks were one of the three significant forces of the Northern Alliance who, with the Pashtuns, helped defeat the Taliban in Afghanistan.
Turkmen – An ethnic group in Turkmenistan, Iraq, Iran, and Afghanistan. Modern day Turkmenistan covers a region important to the ancient Silk Road and the ancient trading city of Merv.
Uzbek – The largest ethnic group in Uzbekistan and a large minority group in Afghanistan. The Uzbeks were one of the three significant forces of the Northern Alliance who, with the Pashtuns, helped defeat the Taliban in Afghanistan.
Yazidi – The Yazidis are a minority ethnic religious group among Kurdish populations primarily in Northern Iraq along the Syrian and Turkish boarders. Yazidi’s roots are found in Zoroastrianism, an ancient monotheistic Persian religion. Yazidis believe that god created the world and left its care to seven divine beings, chief of which is Malak ????s who is represented as a peacock. Purity is central to Yazidi culture often resulting in its community’s isolation from the outside world.
Al-Nusrah Front – The group formed in 2012 during the Syrian civil war as an affiliate of al-Qaeda. The primary goals are to overthrow the Assad regime and support al-Qaeda’s global objectives.
Al-Qaeda – Established by Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri in the late 1980s. The founding members participated in the Afghan-Soviet war gaining credibility in the Muslim world. The Islamic extremists seek to spread the ideology of pan-Islam and do not recognize the legitimacy of borders in the Muslim world. Al-Qaeda began to target western, primarily American, institutions after the U.S. stationed troops in Saudi Arabia — the holiest region for Muslims. Previously, Afghanistan became a sanctuary for al-Qaeda under the Taliban government. Today, various branches of al-Qaeda and its affiliates operate across the Middle East and Africa. Affiliates include al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), Harakat al-Shabaab al-Mujahideen (often reference as al-Shabaab), and Jabaht al-Nusrah (al-Nusrah front).
Al-Shabaab – Also known as Harakat al-Shabaab al-Mujahidin, which translates roughly into the Youth Movement of Mujahidin or the Movement of Youth who Struggle, is a U.S. designated terrorist organization based out of Somalia. While the leadership has ties to al-Qaeda, many members of al-Shabaab focus on the nationalistic battle against the Somali government as opposed to Global jihad. Al-Shabaab has launched several attacks on civilian populations, government institutions, and western entities.
Democratic Union Party (PYD) – Founded in 2003, the Democratic Union Party (PYD) is the most prominent Kurdish opposition party in Syria. The PYD considers itself aligned ideologically with the PKK; however, its focus is on Syrian Kurds. The PYD and Syrian Kurds have experienced years of violent government oppression and are seeking autonomy within a new democratic Syria and not an independent Kurdistan. The recent rise of the Islamic State has increased the PYD’s influence as Kurdish forces have become an important role in the global coalition against ISIL. The People’s Protection Units (YPG) is the armed wing of the PYD.
Fifth Fleet – The fifth fleet’s headquarters are in Bahrain. The fleet’s locations represents U.S. extension of power in the Persian Gulf and the Middle East. The presence of the fifth fleet allows the United States to more easily deploy forces and conduct strikes in protection of U.S. interests. The fifth fleet is also important for U.S. relations; its presence demonstrates a commitment to regional security to U.S. allies and as a method to counter Iran’s influence.
Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) – The GCC is an intergovernmental political and economic alliance between Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Bahrain, and Oman. The GCC’s objectives are to establish consistent business regulations, encourage economic cooperation, and create a unified security force. The Gulf Cooperation Council has significant influence in the Middle East due to their financial capabilities and high levels of oil.
Hamas – Hamas, also known as the Islamic resistance movement, rose during the first Palestinian intifada (uprising). The U.S. has designated Hamas as a terrorist organization; however, as of 2014 the European Union dropped the designation. Hamas consists of a political wing, which compromises a large portion of the Palestinian government, and an armed wing, which has openly engaged Israel in conflict. Their goal is to establish an Islamic Palestinian state.
Haqqani Network – Founded by Jalaluddin Haqqani who rose to prominence during the Soviet-Afghan war. The U.S.-designated terrorist organization operates mainly out of Pakistan and Afghanistan targeting Western forces and entities with the goal of removing foreign influences from the region.
Hashemites – The Hashemite family trace their ancestry to the great-grandfather of the prophet Muhammed. The Hashemites were the traditional caretakers of the Great Mosque in Mecca. The combination of being descendants of Muhammed’s family and the leaders of Mecca gave the Hashemite family substantial legitimacy. During WWI, the Hashemites participated in the Arab revolt against the Ottoman Empire. Soon after the war, the Saud family took over the region surrounding the holy cities of Mecca and Medina (modern day Saudi Arabia) but the Hashemites maintained a portion of their land to the north, known today as the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan.
Hezbollah – The 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon resulted in the formation and rise of Hezbollah, meaning party of God. The Lebanese Shia terrorist organization has received support from Iran and Syria for its armed fight against Israel. Initially, Hezbollah was well received because they were one of the few organizations that could stand against the Israeli invasion. However, Hezbollah’s alleged assassination of beloved Prime Minister Hariri, their support of the Assad regime in the Syrian civil war, and fueling sectarian tensions has greatly decreased their popularity. Hezbollah is a U.S. designated terrorist organization.
House of Saud – The house of Saud is the ruling family of Saudi Arabia dating back to 1744. The family has gained a significant amount of influence in the Muslim world by being the Custodians of the two Holy Mosques — the Prophet’s Mosque in Medina and the Grand Mosque in Mecca. These mosques are two of the holiest sites for Muslims. The Saud family lost control of the region as the Ottoman Empire swept across the Middle East but once again reestablished its rule by aligning against the Ottoman Empire in WWI. By the late 1930s, the Saud family had gained control of the regions surrounding the two holy mosques and discovered the vast amounts of oil that contributed to Saudi Arabia’s wealth.
Houthis – Also known as Ansar Allah, meaning supporters of god, are a Shia militia/political group in Yemen. The group has engaged in conflicts with the Yemini government several times since its founding in 1994. The group’s stated goals are to fight against Salafism, defend their community, and spread the Shia interpretation of Islam. The Houthis are widely known to be supported and funded by Iran resulting in many Gulf States to view the group as spreading Iranian interests, not local interests as they claim, in the region
International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) – The NATO led forces in Afghanistan to train and assist the Afghan National Security Forces. The United Nations Security Council established ISAF in 2001 in order to assist Afghanistan forces, however, its mission expanded in 2003 to take lead of combat operations throughout the country.
Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corp (IRGC) – The IRGC was established in the aftermath of the 1979 Iranian revolution by late supreme leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. The IRGC’s mandate is to protect the Islamic Republic against internal and external threats. The Revolutionary Guard serves as a counterweight to the traditional Iranian military by reporting directly to the Ayatollah to prevent a repeat of the 1953 Iranian coup. The IRGC influence a significant portion of Iranian life.
Islamic State – The Islamic State, also known as ISIL (the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, ISIS [Islamic State of Iraq and Syria], and Daesh) is a Sunni, U.S.-designated terrorist organization that originated in the Iraq war as an affiliate of al-Qaeda. The group gained support with its expansion into Syria as it began fighting the Assad government in 2011. In 2014, ISIL broke from al-Qaeda and captured large portions of territory in Syria and Iraq. ISIL has conducted mass executions of Shias, Christians, and Sunnis who appose them. The group has targeted westerners to use in gruesome executions disseminated on social media. ISIL’s goals are to spread a global radical interpretation of Islam with al-Baghdadi as its caliph (religious ruler).
Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) – The KDP is the largest and most influential Kurdish party in Iraq. The Iraqi branch of the KDP was founded in 1946 by Mustafa Barzani. The KDP had previously fought repressive Iraqi regimes for decades and today, the KDP still works for Kurdish rights within the Kurdistan Regional Government of Iraq.
Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) – Led by Abdullah Öcalan, from 1984 to 2013 the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) fought the Turkish government for the right of self-determination for the Kurdish populations of Turkey. The PKK’s ideology has changed drastically since its founding; they initially promoted a Marxist-Leninist ideology but now call for a Democratic Confederalism. The PKK has been designated as a terrorist organization by many countries, including the United States, which Turkey has used as a justification to imprison Kurdish political leaders and ban Kurdish political parties.
Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) – The KRG is an autonomous government in northern Iraq established to represent the Kurdish people. The Kurdish people have a long history of life under repressive rule and have fought for the right of self determination for decades. While the KRG reached settlements with previous Iraq regimes, de facto independence and recognition was not established until 2005. Today, the KRG play an integral role in combating ISIL (See Islamic State) through the effective use of ground forces to hold and retake territory.
League of Arab State (LAS) – The LAS (also known as Arab League) comprises the 21 Arab countries (normally 22 but Syria is currently suspended). The LAS was founded in 1945 to support common interests in economics, communication, culture, nationality, social welfare, and health throughout the Arab world. The Arab League has been criticized for being ineffective and representative of autocrats, not Arab citizens.
Mujahideen – Translates roughly to one who engages in Jihad (meaning struggle). While various groups have operated under a variation of this name, the most significant group gained notoriety during the Soviet invasion in the 1980s. The United States, through the CIA, funded and trained elements of the Mujahideen during the Cold War in an effort to further destabilize the Soviet Union. At the end of the Afghan-Soviet war, the Mujahideen splintered into various groups competing for power. Today, the support provided to the group has been a point of controversy. Former members of the Mujahideen went on to plan and conduct terror operations against western entities, most famously Osama bin Laden.
Muslim Brotherhood – Beginning in 1928, the Muslim Brotherhood was founded as a pan-Islamic, religious, and social movement. The organization has renounced violence and operates based off a model of political activism combined with Islamic charity work. The Muslim Brotherhood’s goals are to intact Islamic Sharia law as “the basis for controlling the affairs of state and society” and to unify “Islamic countries and states, mainly among the Arab states, and [liberate] them from foreign imperialism.” However, organizations associated with the Muslim brotherhood have committed acts of violence.
Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) – An international organization to coordinate and unify petroleum policies and ensure the stabilization of oil market. Algeria, Angola, Ecuador, Iran, Iraq, Kuwait, Libya, Nigeria, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Venezuela are the current twelve members if OPEC. OPEC has been accused of constraining supply to artificially raise oil and gas prices. OPEC has also been used as a political tool, as in the case of the 1973 oil embargo because of Western support for Israel which quadrupled the price of oil.
Palestinian Authority (PA) – As a result of the 1993 Oslo Peace Accords between Israel and the PLO, the Palestinian Authority was formed as the governing body of Gaza and portions of the West Bank. The two largest political groups in the PA are Fatah, a secular left leaning party, and Hamas, an Islamic party whose military wing is designated as a terrorist organization by the United States and Israel.
Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) – The PLO formed in 1964 as an umbrella organization combining several Palestinian political groups. The PLO waged guerilla warfare against Israel but became the representative of Palestine in peace negotiations during the 1990s. It is widely recognized as the legitimate representative of the Palestinian people and has held observer status in the United Nations since 1974. Yasir Arafat had been the PLO’s longest lasting chairman until his death in 2004. The current chairman of the PLO is Mahmoud Abbas.
Taliban – The Taliban’s rise dates back to the Afghan-Soviet war. After the expulsion of Soviet forces and the overthrow of the Afghan communist government, the country was left in disarray. The Taliban, meaning “students,” was initially comprised of roughly thirty clerics and their students of the Pashtu ethnic group. The Taliban rose to prominence as they provided an alternative to the drug-smoking criminal gangs in Afghanistan that extorted, raped, and killed innocents at various checkpoints in regions under their control. The Taliban provided stability, however, also imposed a strict interpretation of medieval Sunni Islamic law, prevented women from accessing education and work, and forced minority religions to convert to Sunni Islam or face imprisonment or death. The Taliban respond to any opposing political groups with force and publicly executed opposition leaders. At its peek, the Taliban controlled 90 percent of Afghanistan.
UNRWA – The United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees was formed following the 1948 Arab-Israeli conflict by the U.N. General Assembly. The UNRWA provides relief and human development for over five million Palestinian refugees in Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, West Bank, and Gaza Strip (www.unrwa.org).
1915, McMahon-Hussein – In 1915, the High Commissioner of Egypt, Sir Henry McMahaon, engaged in secret correspondence with Hussein Bin Ali, the Sharif of Hejaz and Mecca. McMahon expressed Great Britain’s eventual recognition and support of an Arab state whose boundaries would be determined by Hussein. These exchanges, now known as the McMahon-Hussein Correspondence, lasted from July 14, 1915 to January 30, 1916. In exchange for Arab support of the war efforts through revolts against the Ottomans, the British would recognize Arab independence. This commitment was not honored.
1915, Sykes-Picot – In 1915, British parliamentarian, Sir Mark Sykes, and a French diplomat, Francois Georges-Picot, looking toward a collapsed Ottoman Empire, carved up the Middle East into spheres of influence under either British or French control. The Sykes-Picot agreement, drafted in secret, would give the northern part of the Middle East, consisting of Christian enclaves in Syria and Lebanon to France, while Great Britain would have authority over southern territory including Palestine and Iraq. This agreement set the framework for the majority of the borders that exist in the region today.
1917, Balfour Declaration – In 1917, after a lobbying campaign in response to rising anti-Semitism in Europe, a declaration by Arthur James Balfour, the British foreign secretary, stated support for “the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people.” This statement contradicted the Husain-McMahon Correspondence and Sykes-Picot agreement.
1920, San Remos Convention – In April 1920, the Allied leaders of Great Britain, France, Italy, and Japan swiftly convened at the San Remo conference to discuss the allocation of mandates for administration of the former Ottoman-ruled lands of the Middle East. Ultimately, as a result of the conference, the Middle East lands of present day Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq, Palestine, Syria, Turkey, and Saudi Arabia were divided into different regions under control of France and the United Kingdom with some variations from the original Sykes-Picot Agreement. Some of the current borders in the Middle East stem from this arrangement between western powers.
1923, White Papers – A series of declarations from England that ultimately rejected the formation of a Jewish state in Palestine during Britain’s control of the region. The first White Paper released in 1922 reaffirmed the need of a Jewish state in Palestine, however, decreased the initial size proposed. The Second White Paper, issued in 1930, stated an increase of immigration regulation as an attempt to decrease tensions between the Arab and Jewish populations. The final 1939 White Paper rejected the formation of a Jewish state in Palestine sparking outrage among the Jewish community.
1948, Arab-Israeli War – Tensions began to grow as a large amount of Jewish people began immigrating to the British-controlled Palestine in the late 1800s and early 1900s. After mounting political pressure and attacks from Jewish militias, Britain left the region. The Jewish population declared the official formation of Israel within Palestine following the removal of British forces. Egypt, Syria, and Jordan retaliated by invading Israel. Israel successfully repelled the attack and captured more territory expanding its size by 60 percent.
1948-present, Palestinian-Israeli Conflict – The origins of the conflict dates back to the late 1800s, however, hostilities grew with the official formation of Israel in 1948. Hostilities have continued as Israel attempts to expand its settlements to accommodate its growing population and Palestinians fight for the right of self-determination. Learn more under our Palestinian history page [INSERT LINK WHEN POSTED].
1952, Free Officers of Egypt – A revolution led by Muhammad Naguib and Gamal Abdel Nasser in Egypt against King Faruq, who had been propped up by the British occupation. The revolution abolished the constitutional monarchy and sought the removal of foreign influences. The Free Officer movement resulted in the rise of Nasser, the spread of Egyptian nationalism, and the Egyptian nationalization of the Suez Canal.
1953, Iranian Coup – A coup facilitated by the U.K. and the U.S., which overthrew the democratically elected Prime Minister Mohammad Mosaddegh to prevent the nationalization of Iranian oil resources. The Shah of Iran, Mohammad-Reza Shah Pahlavi, was placed as the ruler forming an absolute monarch. The Shah received significant financial support from the U.S. to maintain western interests. The eventual 1979 revolution was in response to the heavy western influence in the country and the extravagant lifestyle of the Shah while Iranians were struggling.
1956, Suez Canal Crisis – Egypt, led by President Gamal abdel Nasser, nationalized the Suez Canal which had previously been owned by French and British interests. The purpose of the nationalization was to raise funds for development projects within Egypt. However, Israel, France, and Britain devised a plan to regain control of the canal. Israel would invade the Sinai Peninsula, inciting a conflict with Egypt. Britain and France would then deploy “peace keeping forces” to stabilize the region and take over the canal. However, both the United States and the Soviet Union condemned the actions of Israel, France, and Britain forcing them to remove their troops and relinquish control of the canal to Egypt.
1963, White Revolution – A series of reforms implemented by the Shah, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, of Iran to further westernize the country. The revolution was bloodless, hence the name White Revolution, and targeted supporting the lower class. Dissent began to grow among the middle class and the Shah attempted to build a base of support among the lower class to counter there influence.
1963, Ba’athist Iraqi Coup – The Ba’ath party is a socialist group promoting pan-Arabism and anti-imperialism. The party launched a coup against Abdel Karim Qasim, who overthrew the British-installed Iraqi monarchy in 1958, and was backed by the army. Five years later, Saddam Hussein launched an internal coup resulting in his de facto rule of Iraq lasting until the U.S. invasion in 2003.
1966, Syrian Ba’ath Coup – After a series of several coups within Syria, the Ba’ath party, a socialist organization promoting pan-Arabism and anti-imperialism, took control of Syria. This coup marked the rise of the Assad ruling family as Hafez al-Assad became Defense Minister. In 1970, the Assad family took control in Syria’s final coup. Bashar al-Assad took over in 2000 after the death of his father, Hafez al-Assad, and remains in power today.
1967, Six-Day War – Israel launched a preemptive strike against Egypt, which was attempting to mobilize its air force along the Sinai border. Syria and Jordan joined the conflict; however, Israel targeted the air force of all three countries resulting in Israel’s complete Air superiority. Israel then launched an offensive taking over the West Bank, Gaza, Egyptian Sinai, and the Golan Heights. Later, Israel would withdraw from the Sinai but has indefinitely maintained control of the rest of the territory they had captured.
1970, Black September (Jordanian-Palestinian Conflict) – The Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) had been using Jordan as a base of operations to conduct guerrilla warfare against Israel. Tensions began to strain as the PLO started to compete with Jordanian forces for authority in certain regions. This culminated in Black September in 1970 when the Jordanian military and PLO forces waged open war resulting in thousands of deaths and the expulsion of the PLO from Jordan. The PLO subsequently established a headquarters in Lebanon above the Israeli border.
1970-Present, The Western Sahara Conflict – The Western Sahara is a disputed territory on the cost of North West Africa. After the end of the Spanish occupation of the Western Sahara territory, Morocco gained two-thirds control and Mauritania took the remaining third of the region. The Sahrawi, the largest ethnic group in the Western Sahar, formed a national liberation movement called the Polisario Front. The Sahrawi people then established the Saharan Arab Democratic Republic (SADR) in 1976 and announced its first government. The Polisario Front has been recognized by the United Nations as the legitimate representative of the people of Western Sahara. Mauritania soon after renounced all territorial claims after a peace treaty was sign with the Polisario Front, however, Morocco maintained its territorial claims. The Polisario Front launched a guerrilla war against Morocco lasting until the 1991 UN-brokered ceasefire. After nearly two decades of floundering negations short clashes erupted between protesters and Moroccan security forces in 2010. The Polisario Front and Morocco have been unable to reach an agreement based off core issues of sovereignty.
1973, Yom Kippur War – On one of the most holiest days in the Jewish faith and during the Holiest month in Islam, Egypt and Syria launch attacks against Israel with the intention of regaining territory lost in the Six-Day War. The United States and the Soviet Union each supplied arms to their respective allies. After continued pressure from the international community, Israel and Egypt recognized the need for a comprehensive peace process and Egypt regained control of the Sinai. Israel and Syria failed to reach an agreement over the Golan Heights, however, and to this day have not formed an official peace treaty.
1974, Syria-Israel Agreement on Disengagement – Marking the official end of the Yom Kippur War, Israel and Syria signed an agreement ending hostilities on May 21, 1974. However, a comprehensive peace treaty between the two nations was never formed. From 2010 to 2012, secret peace treaty negotiations were promising but were cut short by the Arab Spring and the Syrian Civil.
1975-1990, Lebanese Civil War – The fifteen year long civil dates back to the establishment of the Lebanese government. French authorities established a system of government requiring the president, the most powerful position in Lebanese government, to be Christian, the prime minister to be Sunni Muslim, and the speaker to be Shia Muslim. Christians were also given a disproportionally large share of parliament seats. France built this system with the belief that the government would represent their interests in the region. However, the Lebanese National Movement (LNM) formed with the goal of reforming the government into a more democratic and secular system. The Christians, wanting to maintain control, formed the Lebanese Front (LF) and began fighting the LNM. The war grew and stalled throughout the 15 year period as Syria and Israel invaded Lebanon. Negotiations eventually resulted in the Taif Agreement, stripping some authority from the president and increasing the proportion of Muslim representatives.
1979, Iranian Revolution – As the wealth gap between the rich and poor increased in Iran, resentment towards Shah Reza Pahlavi and his elite circle of friends grew. Initially, democratic protests against the regime occurred but were overtaken by religious revolutionaries as Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, previously exiled in 1964 by the Shah for being an outspoken critic of the Shah’s policies and inciting antigovernment protests, rose as an opposition leader promising economic reform and a return to traditional religious values. Anti-Shah protests swept across the country forcing Pahlavi to appoint Prime Minister Shahpur Bakhtair to head Iran as the Shah escaped to the U.S. for a medical procedure. Bakhtair refused to allow Ayatollah Khomeini to return inciting anger among protestors. Despite Bakhtair, Ayatollah Khomeini returned to Iran and after two months of protests and clashes with pro government forces, Khomeini was appointed as Iran’s political and religious leader for life. Subsequently, the Ayatollah declared Iran an Islamic republic. The new regime rejected western influences and enacted strict Islamic values and laws.
1979, Iranian Hostage Crisis – The hostage crisis was sparked by two main events; first, the U.S.’s role in propping up Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi and second, the U.S. allowing the Shah’s six week medical stay in America while Iran demanded his return for trial. By November 4, encouraged by religious leader, Ayatollah Khomeini, 3,000 Iranians began protesting outside of the U.S. Embassy. The mob soon broke the perimeter of the embassy and took 63 Americans inside hostage. The hostage takers demanded the extradition of the Shah to Iran in exchange for the embassy employees. By 1980, as negotiations had made no progress, the U.S. military authorized a rescue mission. However, the mission failed before the rescue team reached the hostages when three helicopters malfunctioned resulting in eight U.S. deaths. The combination of Iran finally forming a government, economic sanctions, and the Iran-Iraq war, resulted in successful negotiations and the release of the U.S. hostages after 444 days.
1979, Camp David Accords – After twelve days of secret negotiations heled at Camp David, Egyptian President Anwar al-Sadat and Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin reached an agreement facilitated by President Jimmy Carter. These agreements led to the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty of 1979.
1979, Egypt-Israel Peace Treaty – After decades of sporadic conflict, on 26 March, 1979, Egyptian President Anwar Sadat and Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin signed a peace treaty witnessed by President Jimmy Carter. The treaty was reached after a series of secret negotiations facilitated by President Carter.
1979-1989, Afghan-Soviet War – After Afghanistan’s government was overthrown by local communist forces, the Soviet Union invaded in support of their efforts. Muslim guerrillas, known as the Mujahedeen, began rebelling against the communist government and the Soviet Union. The Mujahedeen gained popularity as the Soviet-backed government began violently repressing opposing political entities. Through the CIA, the United States armed and supported the Mujahedeen. After a decade of conflict, the Soviet Union left Afghanistan. As a result, the U.S. lost interest in the country and the Mujahedeen splintered into various competing groups driving the country into lawlessness. The Taliban (see Taliban under Important actors) monopolized this instability and took control of the country.
1980-88, Iran-Iraq War – Iran and Iraq have a history or border disputes, especially in oil rich regions with populations of ethnic Arabs. The leader of Iraq, Saddam Hussein, seeing Iran weakened and in disarray because of the 1979 revolution, moved forces into Iranian territory in an attempt to capture these regions. Iran quickly launched a counter attack repelling the Iraqi forces. Iran continued its assault pushing into Iraq. However, Iraqi forces rallied around the idea of defending their homeland and prevented Iran from advancing. An almost decade-long stalemate along the border resulted in over a million deaths.
1995, Tripartite Accord – In 1985, a short-lived agreement between the major Lebanese feuding factions formed to end the Lebanese Civil War. The agreement allowed a Syrian peace-keeping military presence in Lebanon to separate the factions and gave Syria strong influence over Lebanese matters. However, a coup occurred within one of the factions and the new leadership abandoned the agreement.
1987, First Intifada – The intifada, an Arabic word meaning “uprising,” was a prolonged conflict between Palestinians and Israeli armed forces. It seemed to come out of nowhere but was, in fact, the result of a culmination of discriminatory events and decades of repression among Palestinians under Israeli rule. The uprising was largely nonviolent and was mainly comprised of acts of civil disappearance such as demonstrations, boycotts, tax resistance, strikes and largely unarmed protests. Israeli forces responded violently, resulting in over 1,000 Palestinian civilian deaths over a five year period, which drew international criticism of the Israeli Government.
1989, Taif Agreement – Marking the end of the 15 year long Lebanese Civil War, the Taif agreement called for the disarmament of all militias within Lebanon, the transfer of some presidential authorities to the parliament, and a larger proportion of Muslim representation. The agreement was made by the remaining members of the 1972 Lebanese parliament and Rafik Hariri.
1990, First Gulf War – Also known as the Persian Gulf War, was trigged by Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait in early August, 1990. At the time, Saddam Hussein, the leader of Iraq, was interested in Kuwait, because it was a large oil producing country that also had a substantial debt to Iraq. Hussein also declared that Iraq had historical claims to the land. The West feared Iraq would continue its expansion into the gulf threatening the heavily depended upon oil resources. NATO troops, led by U.S. forces, were stationed in Saudi Arabia until they received authorization from the United Nations for the use of force against Iraq. A successful air campaign crippled Iraq’s infrastructure and military. As a result, ground forces easily drove Iraq out of Kuwait in three days.
1991, Iraqi Uprisings – Following the First Gulf War, the United States briefly considered continuing its military campaign into Iraq to overthrow Saddam Hussein. President George H. Bush encouraged Iraqis to rise up against Saddam Hussein, implying support would be given to groups who fought against the oppressive regime. However, when the Kurds and the Shias began rebelling, Saddam Hussein used chemical weapons to massacre large populations of these ethnic groups who received no support or protection from the United States.
Iraqi No-Fly Zones (Operation Provide Comfort 1991-96, Operation Southern Watch 1992-2003, Operation Northern Watch 1997-2003, Operation Desert Fox 1998) – Following the Gulf War and Iraqi Uprisings, U.S. and British forces establish no-fly zones in Iraq over regions where the massacres had occurred. These zones prevented Iraqi military forces and aircrafts from targeting ethnic civilian populations. Direct conflict almost never broke out until Operation Desert Fox in 1998. U.S. and British forces bombed military facilities believed to be connected to the production and storage of weapons of mass destruction.
1993, Oslo Accords – The Oslo Accords are a set of agreements between Israel and the PLO aimed at achieving peace and the right of self-determination for the Palestinian people. The process occurred in two agreements in 1993 and 1995 resulting in Israel recognizing the PLO as the legitimate representative of the Palestinian people. The Accords also led to the formation of a Palestinian government in Gaza and portions of the West Bank known as the Palestinian Authority.
2000, Second Intifada – After years of continued oppressive rule and failing peace negotiations, along with a controversial visit of a group of right-wing Israeli politicians to one of the holiest sights in Islam (the al-Aqsa mosque which Palestinians were not allowed access to), the second Palestinian Intifada, or uprising, erupted. The second intifada was much more violent and deadly than the first. The increase in violence correlated with the growing number of Palestinian children killed by Israeli forces. Radical Palestinian organizations began launching terrorist attacks against Israeli civilians; in response, Israel launched an aggressive military campaign in Gaza and the West Bank., After over 3,000 Palestinians and 1,000 Israelis were killed; peace negotiations led to a decrease in hostilities in 2005.
2001, Authorization for the Use of Military Force (AUMF) – Passed three days after 9/11, the AUMF authorized the use of all “necessary and appropriate force against those nations, organizations or persons [who] planned, authorized, committed, or aided the terrorist attacks that occurred on September 11, 2001.” The vague language used in the AUMF has been the legal basis of all action taken during the War on Terror.
2001, The War on Terror – In response to the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on the World Trader in New York and the Pentagon in DC , the United States declared an American-led global counterterrorism campaign to weaken the extremist networks in the Middle East. This global campaign utilizes political, economic, and military forces to target individuals, organizations, and states that conduct or support terrorism. Military action has mainly taken place in Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, Somalia, Yemen, and Syria.
2001, Afghanistan War – The war in Afghanistan was launched to dismantle the Taliban, the government of Afghanistan at the time, and capture or kill members of al-Qaeda, presumed to be responsible for the 9/11 attacks, in the country. After negotiations with the Taliban to turn over al-Qaeda and its top commanders failed, the U.S. supported various Afghani tribes and militias, a coalition of the Tajik, Hazara, and Uzbek ethnic groups known as the Northern Alliance along with ethnic Pashtun former Mujahedeen leaders, with air support, Special Forces, and covert action to defeat the Taliban government and military. Initially the U.S. played a primarily supportive role for anti-Taliban fighters, but over time, the U.S. military eventually took charge of the war and dramatically increased U.S. troop presence in the region. In 2014, combat forces were drastically reduced but the U.S. still has a military presence in the country.
2003, Iraq War – President George W. Bush’s administration, believing Saddam Hussein had hidden stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction and was supporting terrorist organizations, declared war on Iraq, on March 20, 2003. The Iraqi government was overthrown in 21 days; however, the U.S. occupation lasted until 2011. After the U.S. took Baghdad, Paul Bremer was placed in charge of the country as the Administrator of the Coalition Provisional Authority of Iraq. Decisions during his tenure, from May 2003 through June 2004, primarily the dissolution of the military and Ba’ath party (the contemporaneous ruling political party which was connected to all aspects of Iraq’s government reaching as far as school teachers), led to the destabilization of Iraq. Massive unemployment resulted from these decisions while Sunni Iraqis, long a part of the ruling majority, were undermined and isolated. The U.S. did not have adequate forces to control the resulting chaos as militia groups formed and an insurgency began. The U.S. ended combat operations in 2011.
2005, Cedar Revolution – After the assassination of beloved Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, which has alternately been blamed on both Syrian and Hezbollah forces (see Hezbollah under Important Actors), protests throughout Lebanon erupted to remove Syrian troops and influence from the country. Ultimately, all 14,000 Syrian troops withdrew from Lebanon and the Syrian-supported government dissolved. The revolution was considered a success in accomplishing its main goals.
2008, Status of Force Agreement (SOFA) – An agreement between two countries allowing a foreign military force to be stationed in a host country. SOFAs are generally combined with larger security agreements. The U.S.-Iraq SOFA expired at the end of 2011 and required the U.S. to completely withdraw combat forces.
2009, Iranian Green Movement – In the 2009 Iranian presidential elections, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad won by a landslide. This outcome sparked outrage throughout Iran as protestors claimed the elections were rigged. Mir Hossein Mousavi’s campaign, the main opposition to Ahmadinejad, used green as their symbol, which was adopted by protestors against the alleged fraudulent election. Ultimately, Ahmadinejad retained power until the completion of his final term in 2013.
2010, Arab Spring – Also referred to as the Arab Awakening and the Arab Uprisings, this period consisted of a wave of pro-democracy protests and uprisings spread throughout the Middle East and North Africa. The protests began when, tired of constant government corruption that impeded economic growth and social mobility, street vendor Mohammed Bouazizi set himself on fire outside government offices in Tunisia. Uprisings of varying levels of success have occurred in Tunisia, Bahrain, Algeria, Morocco, Jordan, Egypt, Yemen, Libya, and Syria. While dictators in some of the countries were overthrown, substantial change has yet to be seen in most countries. The uprising in Syria turned into an ongoing civil war.
2013, Operation Serval and Operation Barkhane – In 2011, the Tuareg, an ethnic nomadic group in North Africa which faced decades of repression at the hands of the Malian government, became deeply involved in the Libyan revolution. At the end of the conflict, the Tuareg funneled weapons into Mali to revolt against the Malian Government. The military, frustrated by the endless conflict in the Saharan Desert and the government’s handling of the conflict with the Tuareg people, lunch a coup d’état a month before Mali’s elections. With much of the military having left Northern Mali as a result of the coup, a power vacuum was left in the north. Ansar Dine, a U.S. designated terrorist organization with ties to al-Qaeda, joined forces with the Tuareg rebels and sized control of Northern Mali. The interim government requested assistance from the French military thus launching Operation Serval. The aim of the operation was to oust Islamic militants in the north of Mali which eventually transitioned into Operation Barkhane.
2014, Operation Inherent Resolve – In response to the spread of the Islamic State throughout Iraq and Syria, the U.S.-led coalition began launching strikes against ISIS forces in both these countries. Currently, the operation has halted the progress of the extremist organization; however, substantial gains to retake territory have not been successful.
Information Supplemented by the BBC, Encyclopaedia Britannica, NCTC, Rubin Center, Council on Foreign Relations, and the CIA World Factbook.
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