In early 2014, the Islamic State (IS), an organization then known as the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), swept across northwestern Iraq while simultaneously expanding the territory under its control in eastern Syria. It is led by members of what used to be al-Qaeda in Iraq and incorporates Iraqi Sunnis who hold grievances against the Shia-dominated government in Baghdad and a variety of armed Syrian opposition groups. By mid-2014, IS threatened to further expand in Iraq and Syria, while there were genuine fears that it could cross into the entire Middle East. It has entrenched sectarian divisions and further weakened the state in Iraq and has worsened an already devastating civil war in Syria. It represents a magnet and a safe haven for terrorists in the heart of the Middle East.
The expansion of the Islamic State (IS) has caused serious concerns about the possibility of states in the Middle East collapsing. Yet a careful reading of the situation reveals that the IS is, in fact, gradually strengthening its role as the pivotal actor in regional politics. This is significant in three aspects:
First, powerhouses such as Iran, Turkey and Saudi Arabia are gradually acknowledging the necessity of regional cooperation. Of crucial importance, their approach is mainly based on keeping current states and state institutions intact. This is particularly the case in crisis-hit Iraq, Syria and Lebanon.
To halt the spread of IS, which seeks to establish a pan-Islamic caliphate that doesn’t recognize current national borders as well as international norms and institutions, regional powers have been forced to adopt proactive policies to prevent the complete collapse of weaker states. The priority of Iranian, Saudi and Turkish policy toward Iraq and Syria is, thus, to avoid the collapse of the respective Iraqi and Syrian states. Needless to say, this objective is pursued with different aims and principles.
It is clear that for regional powers intent on preventing the spread of insecurity into their own territories — and who seek to preserve regional security for distinct political and economic reasons — there is no choice except to strengthen the institution of the state in the neighbourhood.
Make no mistake; IS activities in Syria have so far been at the expense of both the Syrian regime and moderate opposition groups. It is no secret that the latter are jointly in favour of keeping the Syrian state intact. The status quo is not benefiting the interests of any of the regional or extra-regional actors involved in the Syrian crisis. Similarly, the expansion of IS in Iraq, which has pushed the country to the brink of collapse, is not benefitting any of the relevant parties.
Second, in the domestic arena, there has been a change in the public view of the place of the state in establishing order and stability. IS is a new kind of common threat that has brought with it extreme violence, increased sectarian divisions as well as attacks on human values and historical heritage. This has increased the sense of insecurity among people in the region. Indeed, the situation is boosting popular support for current states and state institutions as the only option to battle these kinds of threats.
In fact, as a result of the Arab Spring, a shift from traditional minimal government to maximal government is gradually taking place. As part of this, we are witnessing the gradual establishment of inclusive governments that allow all political forces to address the current political crises and to bring stability, all of which is necessary to battle IS. The current situation in Iraq is a prime example of this.
Third, at the international level, and especially in the West, there is a gradual understanding that cooperating with regional countries and strengthening existing state institutions is the only way to battle IS as it has managed to adjust its operations to different geopolitical, historical and socio-economic contexts of countries and regions. It operates differently in Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, Libya, Egypt, Malaysia, France, etc. Therefore, it seems that the West is reaching the conclusion that a less costly way to battle IS is to enhance existing state institutions — whether traditional or modern — and encourage regional cooperation. As a function of this, the West further perceives cooperation between Iran and Saudi Arabia on regional crises as an urgent necessity and precondition to seriously battle IS.
At the same time, the international community is increasingly realizing the complexities of the post-conflict situations and state-building processes in the region. This includes the necessity of enhancing existing state institutions, such as police, armies and other security forces. The experiences of Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Yemen and even Egypt show how the gradual weakening of these institutional forces creates power vacuums that provide the ground and necessary political space for the expansion of terrorist groups such as al-Qaeda or IS. Similarly, heavy presence of extra-regional actors in regional equations is giving these extremist groups the opportunity to justify their activities, mainly in the name of a war against outsiders and their local partners, thereby assisting with the recruitment of new forces.
As the issue of how to deal with IS is becoming ever-more complicated, the international community is increasingly realizing that the optimal policy at present is to initiate cooperation with the major regional states as new political and security partners. For instance, the improvement in relations between Iran and Europe is first based on the acceptance of the value of their partnership in mutually addressing regional problems, including IS.
In sum, the threat of IS is, in effect, strengthening the states in the region. To defeat IS, three things must be considered. First, regional/extra-regional cooperation is necessary to create a common understanding of how to preserve stability, thereby battling IS. Second, inclusive governments must be established to attract all political forces to battle this common threat. And third, as a result of increased public expectations, more independent policies by regional states must be pursued in their relation with great powers.
Islamic State: Fast Facts Origin
The self-proclaimed Islamic State burst on to the international scene in 2014 when it seized large swathes of territory in Syria and Iraq.
The group can trace its roots back to the late Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, a Jordanian who set up Tawhid wal-Jihad in 2002. A year after the US-led invasion of Iraq, Zarqawi pledged allegiance to Osama bin Laden and formed al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), which became a major force in the insurgency.
Baghdadi, a former US detainee, became its leader in 2010 and began rebuilding IS’ capabilities.
The IS had also joined the rebellion against President Bashar al-Assad in Syria, setting up the al-Nusra Front. In April 2013, Baghdadi announced the merger of his forces in Iraq and Syria and the creation of “Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant” (ISIs).
In September 2014, the then director of the US National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC), Matthew Olsen, said that IS controlled much of the Tigris-Euphrates river basin — an area similar in size to the United Kingdom, or about 210,000 sq km (81,000 sq miles).
IS fighters have access to, and are capable of using, a wide variety of small arms and heavy weapons, including truck-mounted machine-guns, rocket launchers, anti-aircraft guns and portable surface-to-air missile systems.
They have also captured tanks and armoured vehicles from the Syrian and Iraqi armies. Their haul of vehicles from the Iraqi army includes armoured Humvees and bomb-proof trucks originally manufactured for the US military. Some have been packed with explosives and used to devastating effect in suicide bomb attacks. The group is believed to have a flexible supply chain that ensures a constant supply of ammunition and small arms for its fighters.
The militant group is believed to be the world’s wealthiest. It initially relied on wealthy private donors and Islamic charities in the Middle East keen to oust Syria’s President Assad. Although such funding is still being used to finance the travel of foreign fighters to Syria and Iraq, the group is now largely self-funding.
IS is believed to raise at least several million dollars per month by robbing, looting and extortion.
It has become notorious for its brutality, including mass killings, abductions and beheadings.
Beheadings, crucifixions and mass shootings have been used to terrorise their enemies. IS members have justified such atrocities by citing the Quran and Hadith, but Muslims denounce these justifications.
Even al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri, who disavowed IS in February 2014 over its actions in Syria, warned Zarqawi in 2005 that such brutality loses “Muslim hearts and minds”.
What does it want?
In June 2014, the group formally declared the establishment of a “caliphate” — a state governed in accordance with Islamic law, or Shariah.
It has demanded that Muslims across the world swear allegiance to its leader — Ibrahim Awad Ibrahim al-Badri al-Samarrai, better known as Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi — and migrate to territory under its control.