The Caliphs’ big gamble

First published at OpenDemocracy 

The Islamic State of Iraq and Sham (ISIS) shocked the world and made the headlines globally when they announced the establishment of an Islamic State on the first day of the holy month of Ramadan. This was effectively the rebranding of a chameleon like organisation that has changed its name and strategy to fit its political agenda.

While this was a surprise for many, it should not have been. ISIS, late last year, had already declared the Syrian city of Raqqa as their capital. As their name suggests, their core aim is the establishment of an Islamic Caliphate. While other Islamist organisations operating in the region may list this as one of their goals, for ISIS, it is their raison d’être.

After the surprise fall of Mosul, ISIS capitalised. Not happy with capturing Iraq’s second city, they stormed south, lapping at the edge of the capital Baghdad. Their influence now spanning from Aleppo, across the Syrian cities of Raqqa and Deir ez-Zor, into Iraq, Mosul, and as far as the eastern Iraqi province of Diyala.

Alongside extreme Sharia punishments and a Takfiri approach to other sects, ISIS has aimed to govern the areas that they control, increasing its appeal to many jihadists. Into the vacuum of power in eastern-Syria and the western-Iraq hinterlands stepped ISIS. ISIS were there to stay. In their takeover of Mosul they did not destroy government offices, ransack the city or destroy infrastructure. This approach has brought more foreign fighters to their ranks, eager to take part in this project of quasi-state building. The establishment of a Caliphate with the shady figure of Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi as its Caliph was a strategic move. A natural step, but a major gamble.

For a long time ISIS had been perfecting its image. Utilising the internet and social media it spread its message. This worked. To the consternation of western governments, foreign jihadists have come flocking to the black banners of ISIS. With their propaganda machine churning out high production value videos and materials available in multiple languages, it is clear that ISIS was trying to appeal to a global audience. The establishment of a Caliphate is an extension of this. An attempt to rally more support from that same global audience.

The gamble

However, with this comes a big gamble. The gains made on the global stage have to be offset against the possible losses elsewhere. While their global popularity may have been raised in certain jihadi circles, it has fallen in others. This approach of stepping on toes is not new. ISIS, previously the Islamic State of Iraq, risked losing international and local support by stepping into the Syrian conflict. They went ahead despite the claim by the figurehead of Al-Qaeda, Ayman al-Zawahiri, that Jabhat al-Nusra should be the sole Al-Qaeda affiliate in Syria. The relationship between ISIS and Al-Qaeda was irretrievably damaged. In Syria, Jabhat al-Nusra and ISIS have been in a state of open discord (fitna).

Since January, ISIS have effectively been at war with all other rebel and Islamist organisations in Syria. Since being involved in the Syrian conflict they have done very little to engage Bashar al-Assad, preferring to carve out their influence and control at the expense of the other fighting factions. The establishment of a Caliphate has not increased their standing within these factions. There have been defections made to the Islamic State by members of Jabhat al-Nusra, most notably in Abu Kammal and Dier ez-Zor. This will only have hardened the feelings of al-Nusra leader, Abu Mohammed al-Golani and Ayman al-Zawahiri towards the Islamic State. Jabhat al-Nusra will now be feeling the pressure as Al-Baghdadi and his men take the lead. With a number of high level and public defections, their power is being corroded by the establishment of the Islamic State.

Internal friction

While ISIS are gambling on their relations on the Syrian side of the now non-existent border, they also risk it in Iraq. As many have pointed out, ISIS are not the only organisation to be involved in the Iraq surge since June 10. An uneasy alliance was made between ISIS, Baathist organisations such as The Army of the Men of the Naqshabandi (JRTN), other Islamist groups such as Ansar al-Islam, and the local Sunni tribes. All contributed to the gains that were made across the country, and none are as keen on the establishment of a Sunni extreme state straddling the border of Iraq and Syria.

Ultimately all the groups fighting alongside each other in Iraq are ideologically different. This has not mattered in the past. ISIS and Baathist groups have historically acted symbiotically. Even with the Baathist love for smoking and drinking, two things that would not go down well in the new Islamic State, the two organisations worked together.

But since their recent operations in Iraq, the two groups have clashed. Multiple skirmishes between the groups have been reported, the most significant occurring in Hawija, a city near Kirkuk. What the establishment of the Islamic State shows is that power-sharing with other local groups is not an option. Pledge allegiance (bay’ah) or get out. After rumours of the roundup of Baathists Mosul, Izzat Ibrahim al-Duri, leader of the JRTN, publically praised the Islamic State and its fighters. Despite this, fighting between JRTN and the Islamic State continues, most recently in Saadiya, Diyala province.

New friends, new enemies

In Syria, a number of local groups have pledged bay’ah, including Liwa al-Dawud, Jaish al-Islam and a number of other small groups. However, this has been matched by rejection from organisations such as the Islamic Front and Jaish al-Mujahideen.

Bay’ah is problematic, not only on a local level, but also globally. With the establishment of a Caliphate, the Caliph then expects the allegiance of Muslims around the world. This has not only irked moderate Muslims, but also hard-line jihadists. Sheikh Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi, the mentor of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, before their split, and a hugely influential jihadist thinker has previously spoken out against ISIS and now against the Islamic State. Add to this the recent destruction of both Shia and Sunni holy shrines and places of worship and it is easy to see that the Islamic State do not worry about the views of either mainstream or hard-line Islam.

The Islamic State have been strengthened by their recent gains in Iraq; that is without question. It will allow them to consolidate their position on both sides of the border, regaining and reinforcing areas. The longevity of the newly established Islamic State, will depend on its ability to fight on multiple fronts. The jihadist ‘blitzkrieg’ worked, it is virtually impossible to envisage Mosul back under government control anytime soon.

The question that arises is not whether the Islamic State can cope with an Iraqi Army push back. Recent fighting in Tikrit has shown that this is beyond the Iraq Army in the short-term. The question is whether internal divisions between the fighting groups in Iraq and Syria and the Islamic State will test its abilities. While resource laden, the Islamic State is surrounded. Iraq, Syria, Iran, Russia and the United States are all on the same side in this bizarre example of geo-politics gone wild. Even Turkey is regretting some of its past Syrian policies.

The squeeze between Iraqi, Syrian and international forces and the conflict between armed groups in the region is the gamble that the Islamic State has made. The establishment of a caliphate has shown ISIS who their friends and their enemies are, creating new divisions within the region. A risk that has been calculated. In return for this gamble, global jihadist recruitment from an ever growing list of nationalities and pledges of allegiance are the prizes. For the time being, al-Baghdadi’s gamble is paying off.

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About MERI:  The Middle East Research Institute is Iraq’s leading policy-research institute and think tank. It is an independent, entirely grant-funded not-for-profit organisation, based in Erbil, Kurdistan Region.  Its mission is to contribute to the process of nation-building, state-building and democratisation via engagement, research, analysis and policy debates.

MERI’s main objectives include promoting and developing human rights, good governance, the rule of law and social and economic prosperity. MERI conduct high impact, high quality research (including purpose-based field work) and has published extensively in areas of: human rights, government reform, international politics, national security, ISIS, refugees, IDPs, minority rights (Christians, Yezidis, Turkmen, Shabaks, Sabi mandeans), Baghdad-Erbil relations, Hashd Al-Shabi, Peshmarga, violence against women, civil society. MERI engages policy- and decision-makers, the civil society and general public via publication, focused group discussions and conferences (MERI Forum).

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