The balance of power in the Middle East is in disarray: A three-year civil war has torn apart Syria and opened up a vacuum for the rise of ISIS; Sunni powers led by Saudi Arabia continue to face off against Shi’ite powers led by Iran; other countries are reeling from uprisings in the Arab Spring; and foreign powers are all taking sides.
Faced with this tense paradigm, every country in the region is building up its own military.
Indeed, four of the five fastest growing defence markets in 2013 were in the Middle East, led by Oman — up 115% in a year — and Saudi Arabia — up 300% in a decade — according to IHS Jane’s.
We’ve analysed each country to rank the most powerful militaries in the Middle East. This ranking does not count foreign powers like the US or their support, though we’ve made note of important alliances. After looking over state militaries, we also profiled (but did not rank) some of the increasingly powerful non-state military groups.
The ranking is based on a holistic assessment of the militaries’ operational capabilities and hardware, based on our own research and on interviews with Patrick Megahan, an expert from the Foundation of Defence of Democracies’ Military Edge project, and Chris Harmer, senior naval analyst at the Institute for the Study of War.
Some countries with large yet incapable militaries rank low on the list; some smaller and technologically advanced militaries from stable states rank fairly high.
Others present analytical challenges that are difficult to get around in a ranking format. For instance, Egypt has an enormous military with little in the way of a recent battlefield record. Syria’s military is diminished by three years of war, but it’s been able to fulfil the Assad regime’s narrow battlefield objectives and field an operational air force.
No ranking will be absolutely exact. But here’s our idea of where things stand in one of the world’s least-predictable regions.
$US1.4 billion defence budget
66,700 active frontline personnel
Yemen's military has struggled in the face of an onslaught from the Houthi rebel movement, which captured the Ministry of Defence's headquarters in the capital city of Sa'ana during a September 2014 offensive. Yemen has all sorts of other problems on its hands as well, like the presence of a major Al Qaeda franchise and one of the highest rates of gun ownership on earth.
Like a few other countries in this ranking, Yemen is ruled by a government that doesn't really control its own territory, a fact that negates much of advantage the country might derive from its fairly large conventional military. It's a collapsed state with an outdated arsenal.
The remains of Yemen's hobbled government have also joined up with the Houthi rebels to fight Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. This is actually another sign of the state's weakness. It took a motivated and organised non-state sectarian militant group to confront Yemen's Al Qaeda franchise, something the uniform military hasn't been able or willing to do.
Key allies: Yemen has had a longstanding, if sometimes uneasy, security partnership with the US and allows the US to use armed drones to go after Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula on its territory.
$US1.7 billion defence budget
131,100 active frontline personnel
The Lebanese Armed Forces is an all-volunteer force, having ended compulsory military service as of Feb. 2007. Historically, the Lebanese military was kept small due to internal disagreements amongst the various religious groups within the country. During Lebanon's fifteen-year civil war a national military effectively ceased functioning as the country was divided between Israeli, Syrian, UN, and militia zones of control.
Since the Lebanese civil war, the Lebanese military has focused mainly on anti-terrorist and peacekeeping activities within the country. The military has been unable and unwilling to disarm the militant group Hezbollah, which is an even more capable fighting force than the Lebanese army itself.
In March the International Support Group for Lebanon pledged $US17.8 million to help the country modernize its military, while Saudi Arabia gave a $US3 billion grant.
Currently, Lebanon's Special Forces is unevenly equipped, and the country lacks any fixed-wing aircraft.
It is an incoherent force in a divided country, without much heavy equipment and with only notional control. 'They're really far behind,' Megahan, a research associate for military affairs at the Foundation for Defence of Democracies and an analyst for its Military Edge project told Business Insider.
Key allies: Saudi Arabia and the US, which also provides military aid.
$US6 billion defence budget
271,500 active frontline personnel
The current iteration of the Iraqi military, created after the US invasion of the country in 2003, faces serious problems. Currently locked in battle with the militant group ISIS and its partner organisations, the military has suffered a string of embarrassing retreats and loses since last June, leading the government effectively to cede large chunks of the country to jihadists. When the Iraqi military has actually fought ISIS, it has had moments of alarming incompetence.
The Iraqi military's arsenal is comprised of mostly US-produced and supplied weaponry, including Humvees, artillery, M1A1 tanks, and Russia- and US-supplied helicopters and jets. The US has also announced it will sell an additional 5,000 Hellfire missiles to the Iraqi government.
But that almost doesn't matter. The Iraqi military has little operational capacity in much of the country. Equipment and training aside, the army disintegrated when it was faced with a real battlefield challenge.
And on top of that, the Iraqi military has taken on a Shi'ite sectarian dimension following the rise of ISIS, a Sunni group, and increased attempts at centralization by Shi'ite politicians in Baghdad. The Iraqi military just isn't representative of the whole of a country that it's already incompetent to defend.
Key allies: Oddly enough, the Iraqi military receives arms, training, and other forms of support from both Iran and the United States.
$US730 million defence budget
13,000 active frontline personnel
The Bahrain Defence Force is mostly supplied with American military equipment, including Blackhawk helicopters and F-16 fighter jets. Bahrain offers a strategic naval base in Juffair providing the US with a headquarters for the Naval Forces Central Command, the Fifth Fleet, and support for approximately 6,000 military personnel.
In 2002, the US designated Bahrain as a major non-NATO ally. Bahrain has also carried out airstrikes against ISIS.
Even so, the monarchy needed a military force consisting of soldiers from Saudi Arabia and the UAE to crush an almost entirely peaceful 2011 uprising that threatened the ruling family's grip on power. Hardware aside, it says a lot that the country's autocrats had to rely on outside help to maintain order over a country that's only a little over 1/3rd the size of Delaware.
'Bahrain was tested and they could not handle it,' says Harmer.
Key allies: The US, along with other Persian Gulf monarchies, particularly Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.
$US1.9 billion defence budget
11,800 active frontline personnel
Qatar made the single-biggest purchase of US arms in 2014 by acquiring $US11 billion worth of Patriot missile batteries and Apache helicopters. But that shows that its pint-sized military realises how far it has to go in order to hang with other armies in the region, many of which are also rapidly modernizing. 'Qatar is trying to do catch-up now,' Megahan explained to Business Insider.
The Qatar Armed Forces is the smallest recognised military included in this ranking. In 1991, Qatar participated in coalition efforts against Saddam Hussein by providing support during the Battle of Khafji along with strategic basing areas for American forces.
The US military has relied heavily on the al-Udeid Air Base in Qatar for its various operations in the the Middle East and beyond. The base hosts the the American air combat command center in the region.
Key allies: The US, though the countries' support of Islamist movements around the Middle East has made it a de facto ally of Turkey's as well.
$US5.2 billion defence budget
15,500 active frontline personnel
Kuwait has Patriot missiles and some fairly sophisticated aerial capabilities, including F/A-18 Hornet fighter jets. The US provides forms of support and training for Kuwaiti ground troops as well. Kuwait is a solidly equipped military, but it's far away from being a regional player.
Slightly smaller than New Jersey, Kuwait shares borders with Iraq and Saudi Arabia and was occupied by Iraq in the months before the Gulf War in 1990. The Iraqi occupation ended after a US-led multi-national military intervention.
The US Air Force and Marine Corps share the Ali al-Salem Air Base with their Kuwaiti counterparts, a strategic installation located approximately 23 miles from the Iraqi border. This base, along with the al-Dhafra Air Base in the United Arab Emirates and the al-Udeid Air Base in Qatar, has provided
US forces support for ongoing air strikes against ISIS in Iraq and Syria.
Key allies: The US, along with other Gulf monarchies like Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.
$US6.7 billion defence budget
72,000 active frontline personnel
The nation of Oman has long-standing military and political relationships with the US and the United Kingdom.
According to the World Bank, Oman is categorized as having a high income economy and is considered one of the most peaceful countries in the world. Even with a respectably-sized military with scores of aircraft and tanks, the kingdom hasn't really been in a war since the Dhofar Rebellion, which ended in the mid-1970s.
That doesn't mean it's weak, though. The military has newer-model F-16s and has expressed interest in purchasing the Eurofighter jet. 'They have been spending money kind of quietly,' Megahan says.
Key allies: The US and the other Gulf monarchies, although the country has made notable overtures to Iran in recent months.
$US1.5 billion defence budget
110,700 active frontline personnel
The Jordanian Armed Forces is a fully professional military that maintains a defensive posture within the country. The Armed Forces have not been directly involved in a war since the Black September civil war against Palestinian militants between 1970 and 1971. However, Jordan contributes the largest number of civilian police and the fifth-highest number of military personnel to UN peacekeeping operations.
Jordan has been classified as a major non-NATO ally of the US since 1996, making the country eligible to receive extra US defence items, loans, and training. The US has provided the Jordanian military with almost $US82 million worth of excess US military equipment since 2009 and the US has also sold F-16s and Advanced Medium Range Air-to-Air Missiles to the Kingdom.
Jordan is thought to have a strong special forces component but an outdated tank corps and air force. 'They have older British tanks and modernized versions of of older American tanks,' says Megahan. 'I don't think they have them in large numbers and they haven't invested a lot in their air force.'
Harmer notes that Jordan's military has done an impressive job with an unexpected operational challenge: dealing with the potential security challenges posed by the over 1.4 million Syrian refugees in the country. 'The Jordanian military does a very good job of making sure those refugees are physically contained and can't destabilize the rest of Jordanian society,' says Harmer.
Key allies: The US is the big one, but there's been plenty of security cooperation with Israel too, ever since the countries signed a peace treaty in 1994.
$US1.9 billion defence budget
220,000 active personnel as of 2011, before the civil war started
The Syrian military has been locked in a devastating civil war for over three years. Originally, the military was a mixed conscription and professional force. But during the civil war, large numbers of mostly-Sunni conscripts, and even some Sunni generals, defected to the Free Syrian Army, a coalition of rebel groups fighting the regime of dictator Bashar al-Assad.
This has caused the military to become increasingly sectarian as the vast majority of the Syrian regime's professional officers are Alawites loyal to the Assad regime, which is mostly comprised of members of the religious minority group.
Syria received the vast majority of its weaponry from Russia. In 2008, Syria purchased MiG-29 fighter jets and Pantsir S1E air-defence systems from Moscow in an attempt to modernize its military. For the most part, the Syrian arsenal is composed of weaponry that was purchased from the Soviet Union, and Russia has its only naval base in the Mediterranean in Latakia.
Before the civil war, Syria had one of the most powerful conventional militaries in the entire region, along with an integrated air defence system that was thought to be one of the more comprehensive in the world. Today the regime's military is much diminished -- but it still has an operable air force and an order of battle that's managed to hold onto the most strategic parts of the country in spite of efforts from both Islamist and secular rebel groups.
Harmer notes that Syria is '100-per cent dependent' on outside sourcing for its hardware, relying on Russia and Iran to keep its military standing. He added that a deeply unpopular regime has had to confiscate passports and impose other forms of travel restrictions to prevent future conscripts from fleeing the country. Even so, the Syrian military has held up as a coherent fighting force under incredible pressure. 'They have outperformed everyone's expectations,' he says.
Key allies: If it weren't for Russia and Iran, the Assad regime might have fallen by now.
$US4.4 billion defence budget
468,500 active frontline personnel
The Egyptian Armed Forces is one of the oldest and largest militaries in the Middle East. The Egyptian military has existed in its current iteration since 1952, and the military has played a direct role in Egyptian politics since the country's founding -- current Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi is the military's former commander-in-chief.
The US has provided Egypt with over $US70 billion in aid since 1948, the majority of which came in the form of an annual $US1.3 billion military assistance fund established after Egypt and Israel signed a peace deal in 1979. Due to this assistance, Egypt has replaced a mostly Soviet-provided arsenal with US-produced arms.
Egypt has over 1,000 M1A1 Abrams tanks, many of which sit in storage and have never been used. Egypt also co-produces M1A1 tanks domestically. The Egyptian Air Force has 221 F-16 fighter jets, alongside a range of other US-provided aircraft.
But the military's operational abilities are highly suspect, and it's had trouble fighting terrorists and insurgents in the Sinai. It's discussed future arms purchases with Russia but only because of a falling-out with Washington over the summer 2013 military coup that put Sisi in power.
Key allies: The US and Saudi Arabia -- although security cooperation between Israel and Egypt has picked up ever since the summer 2013 coup in Cairo.
$US6.3 billion defense budget
545,000 active frontline personnel
Iran has faced arms embargoes put in place by the United States since the 1979 Islamic revolution and the embassy hostage crisis that followed. In response, Iran has developed its own domestic military industry under the guidance of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps.
The Iranians have been building its own tanks and long-range missiles since 1992, as well as reverse-engineering its own drones. This means that Iran fields inferior equipment compared to many of its US-supplies neighbours -- but gains crucial strategic depth in return.
It has an uninterrupted supply chain to its allies, like Syria's Assad regime. And it doesn't have to depend on the good will of an outside power to remain armed.
'Thirty-five years ago, Iran had no local production capability,' says Harmer. 'Now they build their own submarines and surface ships. Nobody in the Middle East does that, not even the Israelis.'
Iran also maintains a number of US weapons that the country had purchased prior to its 1979 revolution, along with foreign weapons it bought afterwards. Among these weapons are US-made F-14 Tomacats and Russian-built Su-24s and Su-25s.
Iran has been involved in a number of proxy conflicts, including funelling supplies and fighters into Iraq, Syria, Gaza, and Lebanon. The militant organisation Hezbollah is largely an extension of Iranian foreign policy into the Arab Middle East.
That doesn't make Iran a major conventional military power, though. As Megahan explains, the military is hampered by corruption and poor leadership, with regime loyalty often mattering more than merit among the officer corps. Iran has invested heavily in building its own weaponry, including ballistic missiles. It's all unproven.
'They try really hard to have an indigenous military industry,' he says. 'There not a lot of evidence to suggest that it's actually really going well.'
Key allies: Syria, Shi'ite militant groups in Iraq and Lebanon, and Sudan.
$US14.4 billion defence budget
65,000 active frontline personnel
The United Arab Emirate's Union Defence Force is headquartered in Abu Dhabi and boasts diversified military equipment from the US, Russia, UK, Ukraine, France, Italy, and Germany.
Simply put, it's the Middle East's rising military power. The UAE has bought new weapons systems, upgraded its existing ones, brought in American trainers and contractors, and instituted universal military service for males. It has been closely involved in the fight against ISIS, and secretly deployed jets from Egypt to bomb Islamist militants within Libya without US support.
Megahan says that the UAE's air force has upgraded its planes to the point where it flies some of the most advanced F-16's on earth. It has even looked into purchasing the F-35. Emirate defence spending has increased by 85% since 2004, and it has now cracked the top-15 of global defence spenders -- incredibly for a country with only 9 million citizens.
Key allies: The US and other Gulf monarchies.
$US56.7 billion defence budget
233,500 active frontline personnel
The territorially largest country in the Middle East also has the 4th-highest military spending of any country in the world. The country's arms buildup has largely been driven by sales from the US and other western countries.
As a result, Saudi Arabia has the most updated arsenal in the region, with the exception of Israel. Its air force has air-to-air refueling capabilities and advanced fighter jets.
'Saudi Arabia has a lot of air capabilities that a lot of the countries in the region don't have,' Megahan explained, adding that it's plausible the Saudis could have a more advanced air force than even Israel at some point in the mid-future.
Saudi Arabia is in a tough neighbourhood -- the country borders Iraq and Yemen, two of the most chronically unstable countries in the region. But with 36% of the population under the age of 24, a sclerotic monarchy, and sectarian tensions, Saudi Arabia might be building its military strength with future internal turmoil in mind.
Indeed, Harmer says that Saudi Arabia's national guard -- which is responsible for internal security, and not organised with external defence in mind -- is one of the most capable security forces in the entire region.
Key allies: The relationship with the US has been flagging in recent years, but the two are still close partners and Saudi Arabia is still a major purchaser of US arms. Saudi Arabia is the most powerful of the tightly-allied Gulf monarchies, a group that includes Kuwait, Bahrain, and the United Arab Emirates, and Riyadh has provided substantial assistance to the post-coup government in Egypt. It is also speculated that Saudi Arabia has secretly funded Pakistan's nuclear weapons program.
$US18.1 billion defence budget
410,500 active frontline personnel
The Turkish Armed Forces is composed of a mix of conscript and professional soldiers. Conscription lasts for up to a year, though it can be avoided by paying a fee. Turkey is a member of NATO, and it also contributes operational staff to the Eurocorps multinational army initiative. NATO has stationed Patriot missiles within the country as a defence against missile attacks from Syria.
Since 1998, Turkey has attempted to modernize its military, which has started production of its own native next-generation tank. Turkey produces a lot of advanced defence technology in-country now, Megahan says: 'We're seeing more Turkish-made systems in the Turkish military, whereas before it was a lot of American equipment.'
Turkey is also committed to purchasing the F-35 fifth-generation fighter jet, and produces a range of parts for the aircraft in an attempt to bolster its own avionics industry. The country also fields a fleet of over 200 F-16s.
The Turkish Armed Forces have not been involved in a traditional war since the Turkish invasion of Cyprus in 1974. However, Turkey's enormous and NATO-allied military has battled an asymmetric Kurdish separatist movement since the 1980s.
Key allies: The US, as well as dozens of European militaries -- Turkey is the only NATO member in the region.
$US15 billion defence budget
176,500 active frontline personnel
The Israel Defence Forces has defended against a diverse range of enemies since the country achieved independence in 1948. Israel has successfully fought large conventional armies, like the Egyptian and Syrian militaries in 1967 and 1972, as well as asymmetrical foes, like Palestinian militant groups.
Israel has a conscription system in which most Jewish and Druze citizens of the country are required to serve in the military for either two or three years. A close defence relationship with the United States and an energetic domestic defence industry give Israel a qualitative edge over all of the region's other militaries: Israel has space assets, advanced fighter jets, high-tech armed drones, and nuclear weapons. Its airforce has incredibly high entry and training standards. 'Pilot to pilot, airframe to airframe, the Israeli air force is the best in the world,' says Harmer.
Israel also has one of the region's most battle-ready armies, a force that's fought in four major engagements since 2006 and has experience securing a few of the most problematic borders on earth.
Israel's military has also never attempted a coup or ruled the country directly, unlike several others on this list.
Thanks to Israel's small size, the military can rapidly mobilize its reserves on relatively short notice.
Key allies: The US is the major one, though Israel enjoys a degree of security cooperation with Jordan and Egypt.
Budget: as much as $US3 million in revenue per day
Active fighters: 10,000-30,00o
Other weapons: armoured vehicles, shoulder-fired rockets, and an inoperable scud missile
The former Al Qaeda in Iraq carved out a safe haven in Syria amidst the country's disintegration in 2012. Within a year, the group had reconstituted itself as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant and had been kicked out Al Qaeda for its extremism and region-wide ambitions. Today ISIS rules over nearly 6 million people spread out over a roughly Belgium-sized slice of Iraq and Syria. It is perhaps the world's richest terrorist organisation and has scored victories against a wide range of regional militaries and irregular forces.
ISIS is currently fighting the Assad regime, the Iraqi military, the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps, the Kurdish Peshmerga, various Iranian-supported Shi'ite militias, and local Iraqi militant groups, all while being subjected to US airstrikes. The group has ransacked government weapons stashes in both Syria and Iraq. It is also recruiting and disseminating propaganda through sophisticated use of social media.
Even fighting on multiple fronts, the self-declared Islamic State is a force to be reckoned with and is positioning itself to be a regional or even global menace for years to come.
Key allies: None. Even Al Qaeda wants nothing to do with them. Even so, the group has managed to attract thousands of foreign fighters.
Budget: Up to $US200 million in direct support from Iran, along with millions from international drug and contraband smuggling
Active fighters: 20,000-30,000, one-quarter of which are on active duty
Other weapons: Long-range rockets, drones
Lebanon's Shi'ite Islamist militia dates from the early 1980s and was established with the help of Iran, the group's major state sponsor. Hezbollah is obligated to disarm under the 1989 Taif Agreement, but during the 1990s Syrian occupation of Lebanon, Hezbollah was allowed to keep its arms and act as a proxy force for Damascus and Tehran. Today, Hezbollah serves Iranian interests by keeping Lebanon from drifting too close to the western or Sunni Arab bloc, intervening on Tehran's behalf in Syria, and serving as both a military deterrent and expeditionary force against Israel.
Hezbollah is a sectarian militia meant to defend Lebanon's long-marginalized Shi'ite community. The group's scope and arsenal suggests greater ambitions: Hezbollah has around 100,000 rockets, more than all but a handful of the world's official militaries. Hezbollah cells have been found on five continents, and the group commands a formidable global smuggling empire. Hezbollah has launched successful terrorist attacks in South America and Europe -- most recently, Hezbollah operatives bombed a bus full of Israeli tourists in Bulgaria, in 2012. And Hezbollah was likely responsible for the 2005 assassination of Rafiq Hariri, then the most powerful Sunni political figure in Lebanon.
The group can also hold its own on the battlefield. It effectively forced the Israeli army out of southern Lebanon in 2000 and fought Israel to a standstill during a July 2006 escalation. More recently, Hezbollah provided the muscle that swung the decisive battle of Qusayr -- and with it the Syrian civil war -- for the Assad regime in early 2013.
Key allies: Iran.
Active fighters: 8,000-20,000
Other weapons: Mid-range rockets, attack tunnels, suicide bombers
The Palestinian Islamist movement has been responsible for thousands of attacks against Israeli civilian targets. But the group is almost unusual among non-state actors in the region for its ability to impose its rule on a single territory for a long period of time -- before a September 2014 power-sharing agreement with the Palestinian Authority, Hamas was the sole ruler of the Gaza Strip for over seven years.
Although its arsenal was badly depleted during its war against Israel during the summer of 2014, the group has been adept at replenishing its arms stash -- Gaza is the end-point of weapons smuggling networks that reach all the way to Sudan, Iran, and Libya. Hamas lost hundreds of fighters and a network of cross-border attack tunnels during the 2014 war but ended the conflict still in control of Gaza, suggesting that even Israel recognises the group as a permanent, if perhaps unwelcome, feature in the Middle Eastern scene.
AQAP is widely thought to be the Al Qaeda affiliate most committed to attacking the US. The 'underwear bomber' who attempted to blow up a transatlantic flight in December of 2009 received support and training from AQAP. It also provided a safe-haven for radical American cleric Anwar al-Awliki, who had a role in inspiring the 2009 shooting attack in Fort Hood, Texas.
The group takes advantage of the relative safe-haven offered by Yemen's desert wilderness, a remote corner of a poor and chaotic country. It pulled off an attack in Sa'ana in May of 2012 that killed over 100 people and remains a regional security threat despite being the target of sustained US drone strikes. The group has also repeatedly plotted strikes against US targets, even if none have been successful yet.
Key allies: The rest of Al Qaeda.
With ISIS's rapid gains over the past couple of months, it's easy to forget that they aren't the only jihadist group in Syria. Jabhat al Nusra has been around longer than ISIS and has a few major sticking points with the Islamic State: JaN is an Al Qaeda affiliate, while ISIS was kicked out of the organisation in February of 2013. Despite their shared jihadist ideology, the two have fought one another with just as much intensity as they have fought their various other enemies in the region.
JaN has also shown a willingness to fight alongside at least some of Syria's secular rebels. They have pulled off a few of the more notable terrorist attacks of the conflict, enlisting the first American suicide bomber of Syria's civil war, and kidnapping dozens of UN peacekeepers.
Key allies: The rest of Al Qaeda, and allegedly Turkey.
Active fighters: Several tens of thousands
The conflict in northwestern Yemen's border areas is hard to characterise -- as a Washington Institute for Near East Policy backgrounder puts it, the war, which has been fought on and off since 2004, 'is between the state and a marginalized minority on the periphery of power who are accustomed to autonomy.' That minority is the Shi'ite Houthi clans living in the northern desert, which boast a large and allegedly Iranian-supported irregular army that's battled Yemen's military to a standstill for nearly a decade.
The stalemate was broken in September of 2014, when the Houthis marched on the capital of Sa'ana and took over several ministry buildings before reaching an agreement with the government.
The conflict has killed thousands and displaced another 300,000 more. The Houthis have also attacked inside of Saudi Arabia and have apparently gained in prominence and popularity throughout Yemen, a chronically unstable country that is also home to Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, perhaps the world's most dangerous Al Qaeda affiliate.
Key allies: Iran, allegedly.
Active fighters: 80,000-100,000
The army of Iraqi Kurdistan is one of the most formidable fighting forces in the Middle East, a militia that successfully fought off Saddam Hussein over a decade of conflict with the Iraqi dictator then secured northeastern Iraq as the rest of the country disintegrated.
Today the Peshmerga receives US training and Iranian arms and is on the frontlines of the fight against ISIS. The force has been able to secure the vitally important Mosul Dam and swept into the disputed city of Kirkuk just a few days after ISIS captured Mosul. Armed largely with ageing Soviet-produced weaponry, the Peshmerga is taking on the character of a conventional military -- it's the army of an increasingly autonomous Kurdistan rather than a ragtag ethnic militia.
Key allies: The US, Iran, and -- perhaps surprisingly -- Turkey.
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