From the outset, ISIL intended to be more than simply a franchisee of the al-Qaeda organization or yet another radical Islamic movement.
The Islamic State today consists of an arc of towns and cities spanning the Syrian and Jazeera deserts, an archipelago coming increasingly and perilously close to Baghdad, as shown in the excellent map (below) developed by Bill Roggio at Long War Journal. Moving from its base in Fallujah and in eastern Syria, in the last few days ISIL has stormed Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city, and taken Tikrit, midway on the highway to Baghdad. Meanwhile, Iraq’s security forces have crumbled. ISIL fighters looted hundreds of millions of bank deposits and seized untold quantities of weapons and supplies, including U.S.-supplied HUMVEES. Government troops, supplemented by the paramilitary wings of the major Shi’i parties, are trying to re-muster a defense at Samarra, just 70 miles outside of Baghdad, and are appealing to the U.S. for air support.
ISIL is probably the scariest of the many radical Islamist groups to surface in Iraq since 2003. First under the leadership of the Jordanian Abu Musab az-Zarqawi, the group was so violently anti-Shi’i that even al-Qaeda’s central command deemed them over zealous. Changing the organization’s name to Islamic State of Iraq did little to dampen its penchant for brutality. When the Syrian civil war erupted, ISI turned eastward, adding the Levant to its moniker and mandate. After a public spat with Ayman az-Zawahiri over its well-deserved reputation for abusing civilians, though, ISIL formally severed ties with al-Qaeda in 2013. Since then it has fought pitched battles with other rebel factions, including the Nusra Front, al-Qaeda’s new designee for the Syrian region.
As Barak Mendelsohn argues, it is important to take ISIL’s claim to embody a state (dawlah) seriously. From the outset, ISIL intended to be more than simply a franchisee of the al-Qaeda organization or yet another radical Islamic movement. Several times in 2003 they declared portions of Fallujah to be liberated zones and seats of a new Islamic Emirate. ISIL leaders openly disdain the demarcations of national borders, which they deem an artificial imperial imposition on the Islamic world. They even go so far as to use the geographic terms, like Levant (ash-sham) and Mesopotamia (bilad ar-rafidayn), instead of the colonially-prescribed names Syria and Iraq. ISIL has done everything it could to set itself up as an alternative government. Its shariah courts dispense justice and assessed taxes on a host of commercial activities, including cell phone companies. After seizing control of Syria’s Raqqa province form its rival Nusra Front and the Syrian Free Army in 2013, ISIL imposed the Islamic poll tax (jizya) on Christians living in the area in return for protection.
In many ways, then, ISIL has come to resemble a quasi-state, a political entity that enjoys real political control over territory, but lacks formal recognition of its authority. Quasi-states exploit a strange and liminal existence at the farthest margins of state control. Places like Somaliland and Nagorno-Karabakh can only retain politically autonomy because of the utter decrepitude of the nominal sovereign power. Similarly, ISIL owes its success to the long-standing weakness of the Iraqi army and the dramatic breakdown of the Syrian state since 2011.
But the persistence of quasi-statehood depends as much on a state’s willingness to assert sovereign control as its capacity. As Jeffrey Herbst notes in his study of weak states in Africa, some areas are so economically or politically peripheral that it simply doesn’t pay to expend limited state resources to control them. Thus, weak states can tolerate the emergence of warlord mini-states and seemingly autonomous enclaves as long as they remain in such marginal areas and pose no threat to the center. Sparsely populated and devoid of significant natural resources (as shown in the maps here and here), ISIL’s territory has hardly been worth re-conquering—until now. From Nouri al-Maliki’s presidential palace in Baghdad, the Anbar province, ISIL’s stronghold, seemed a distant backwater region (though it is, in fact, only 40 miles west of Baghdad). Until the breakthrough from Mosul and the north, the primary focus of Iraq’s political elite was on the political wrangles among various Shi’i factors over the formation of a Maliki’s third government following the April 30 election, not dealing with ISIL. In fact, ISIL’s control in Anbar made voting there next to impossible, further obviating the need to be concerned about the region’s largely Sunni electorate. Similarly, the Assad regime has ignored ISIL’s presence in the remote north-eastern region to focus its attention on regaining key territories around Damascus and the Mediterranean coast.
ISIL’s current expansion, though, will likely provoke a re-alignment of political coalitions to resist or even crush it. ISIL is now fighting a multi-front war. As it moved on Mosul, ISIL’s position around Aleppo, Syria’s largest city, have come under assault by a new alliance of Kurdish and Islamist rebel factions. Moreover, ISIL is now on collision course with the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG), ironically another quasi-state that emerged from Iraq’s decades of deterioration. ISIL has periodically struck at Erbil, but its sudden arrival at the KRG’s doorstep and in areas where the Kurds themselves have territorial claims, have spurred a more aggressive response. Already KRG’s peshmerga, a far stouter force than the apparently tissue-thin Iraqi army, have seized hold of Kirkuk, the oil rich region to the west of the Mosul-Baghdad highway. Moreover, ISIL’s abduction of Turkish citizens, including the consular staff in Mosul, are likely to incite further pressure from an even more formidable military foe and solidifying an anti-ISIL coalition that includes the incredibly strange bedfellows of the KRG, Turkey, Iraq, Syria, Iran, the U.S., and Saudi Arabia.
Potential challengers come from within as well as without ISIL’s quasi-state domain. ISIL is not marching alone, but in alliance with other armed actors. ISIL’s capture of Tikrit was apparently an inside job, aided by a shadowy group called the Naqshbandi Army, believed to be ex-Ba’thists front organized through a Naqshbandi Sufi lodge. Even more significant has been ISIL’s alliance with Sunni Arab tribes, who have their own reasons to try to avoid falling under control of a Shi’i-dominated government in Baghdad. ISIL has repeatedly tried to exploit this antipathy to try to mobilize tribes to upend state authority. Yet, as Fotini Christia shows, alliances in civil wars are inherently unstable and prone to reversal. Like other Wahhabi-inspired groups, ISIL deems Sufism to be barely above Shi’ism in the hierarchy of heresy and nationalism a kind of apostasy, making long-term collaboration with the Naqshbandi-Ba’thists in Tikrit ideologically problematic, to say the least. Iraqi tribes that had worked with al-Qaeda in the early years of the American occupation defected en masse during the so-called “Sunni Awakening” of 2006, forming the militias that helped to expel Islamist fighters. The Maliki government has had its own turn at playing the tribal card, offering favored sheikhs access to the lucrative patronage system in return for electoral and military support against ISIL and has had success wooing tribal allies.
Ultimately, stemming ISIL’s expansion can only come through political, not military, means. Maliki has been embroiled in virtually unending crises and impasses that sapped the government’s attention, resolve, and resources. Yet, if ISIL’s advances continue unchecked, everyone’s head will likely be on the chopping block. This realization potentially gives new impetus for a grand political bargain that might spur a more concerted response to the ISIL challenge. In the long run the KRG can put aside its own battles with Baghdad over oil rents to concentrate on defeating a common threat. Maliki will also have to be more magnanimous with Sunni leaders who have long voiced complaints about the nature of Shi’i-dominated government and find ways to relocate and resettle the tens of thousands of largely Sunni Arabs who have fled ISIL’s advances. ISIL’s quasi-statehood can only end when Iraq itself becomes the operational state it once was.
Ariel I. Ahram (@ariel_ahram) is an Assistant Professor in Virginia Tech University’s School of Public and International Affairs. He is the author of Proxy Warriors: The Rise and Fall of State Sponsored Militias.