Ken Roth of +Human Rights Watch
shared this extraordinarily detailed map of who currently controls what chunks of land in Syria and Iraq, as of this week.
When reading this map, pay close attention to the white cross-hatching that covers most ISIS and Iraqi territory: that indicates "sparsely populated area," i.e. open desert which is exceptionally difficult to cross individually, much less in force, and so claims of "control" over these areas are more theoretical than practical.
Also note the maps of ethnic and linguistic groups on the left; while tribal affiliation (the basic axis of alliance in this region) is more complicated than that, these lines indicate the coarsest first-order boundaries. The relative homogeneity of Iraq (having separate Sunni and Shi'ite areas) is an aftereffect of the Iraq War, and of the ethnic cleansing and mass violence which followed: prior to the war, Iraq was highly intermixed. When you hear commentators ascribe the end of this violence to the 2007 "Surge," be aware that there's a certain amount of hubris involved in that: the violence happened to stop right around the time that there were almost no remaining areas where Sunnis and Shi'ites lived together anymore, everyone having fled or been killed.
You can contrast this with Lebanon and some of the immediately adjacent parts of Syria, which remain ethnically highly mixed. This is part of what made the Syrian civil war so explosive: the existence of a stable government was what assured the safety of minority groups (since stable governments tend to frown on mass slaughter), and so everyone in those groups was highly aware that if the government fell, they would become targets of genocide, thus giving all of those groups an extremely strong incentive to fight for al-Assad.
And in fact, the Syrian map is now significantly less mixed than the Lebanese map, even in the far southwest of the country which borders on it. A few years ago, you would have seen an extremely significant Druze population, especially near the Israeli border. (There is a significant Druze population in Syria, Lebanon, and Israel, and they frequently move across the borders; that's in fact one of the biggest sources of on-the-ground communication between the three countries. The Druze in Israel are a particularly interesting case, as they're significantly more integrated into Israeli society than the Arabs, and feelings remain generally warm on all sides there.) The replacement of that population with Sunni dominance, and likewise the end of cross-border ties between Syrian Druze and everyone else, is a consequence of the rebels taking over that area.
Of course, you shouldn't take the broad swathes of Sunnis and Shi'ites to indicate profound unity among them; that's where tribal structures start to come into play. While "hey, we're both Sunnis, let's go beat up those Shi'ites" may be a perfectly reasonable overture in a negotiation between tribes, it's no more than an overture; it's not uncommon for the response to be "screw you, Tikriti" (or any other geographical, tribal, or familial distinction which happens to be more salient to the people in that particular area) Only the Kurds have something resembling a broad alliance among themselves, born of a very different history.
If you've noticed a pattern here, it's probably that alliances are fairly complicated, and people tend to make alliances with other tribes primarily for protection against third tribes, or to beat up some third tribe. This tends to clash harshly with the profound cultural need of Americans for there to be a clear "good guy" to root for and a "bad guy" to root against. Bashar al-Assad is a bloodthirsty, violent dictator, who is also the guarantor of the safety of all the ethnoreligious minorities of Syria against genocide. The Shi'ites of Iraq were profoundly oppressed for years by the Sunnis; until they got into power, at which point they started killing people left and right.
Some outsiders respond to this by picking one group or another to paint as their "good guys" of choice, whether it be the Israelis, the Palestinians, the Kurds, or the Syrian rebels who aren't allied with ISIS. Unfortunately, this tends to run hard against the rocks of reality fairly quickly, so it only works well in the long term for those willing to stay far away from practicalities and simply produce speeches or Internet memes about the goodness of their preferred side and how horribly they're being treated. Things get far worse when outsiders try to go in and get involved more directly, whether it be by joining protest organizations or by invading with large armies: the lesson in "wait, these guys aren't particularly good at all!"
tends to take a while to learn, and a lot of bodies pile up in the meantime.
But nor is this an indication that outsiders should simply stay out; isolationism doesn't work for either the Middle East or for the rest of the world. Even the suggestion that the West's only interests in the Middle East are tied to oil is flawed; if you look at a map, you'll spot that the Middle East also contains critical seaports and routes, and borders all along the soft underbelly of Asia, up until it links to China. Try as you might, if you're going to be involved in the politics of the world, the Middle East will be as important today as it was 1,000 years ago, when it was a major trade axis for the planet.
What's the solution, then? You have to learn to deal with complexity: to understand that nobody is going to wear a convenient white or black hat, that loyalties are complex and shifting, and that the simple transplant of Western ideas like "democracy" doesn't work when the thousands of years of cultural underpinnings for those are completely different; you need to translate the purpose
of ideas, not their particular implementations, if you want them to have local resonance.
Welcome to the Middle East: amateur hour is now over.