The Artist Formerly Known As al Qaeda In Iraq has just declared their ill gotten turf a bona fide Caliphate!!
The group, previously known as the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) and also known as ISIS, has renamed itself "Islamic State" and proclaimed its leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi as "Caliph" - the head of the state, the statement said.The caliphate – an Islamic state with a single political and religious leader, ruled by a would-be successor to Mohammed – seems to be back in fashion. The institution is a millennium old, though the last caliphate was abolished in 1924, when the secular republic of Turkey snuffed out the final vestiges of the Ottoman Empire. A century on, the Iraqi jihadist group Isis wants to resurrect the caliphate across the Fertile Crescent, that beautiful but war-studded arc of land stretching from the Red Sea to the Persian Gulf. Medieval aims, through modern means.
"He is the imam and khalifah (Caliph) for the Muslims everywhere," the group's spokesman Abu Muhammad al-Adnani said in the statement, which was translated into several languages and read out in an Arabic audio speech.
"Accordingly, the "Iraq and Sham" (Levant) in the name of the Islamic State is henceforth removed from all official deliberations and communications, and the official name is the Islamic State from the date of this declaration"
Can they do it?
Isis has hostile forces in every direction. It will face resistance from anti-Isis Syrian rebels in the west, the hostility of Kurds in the north, and, eventually, a counter-offensive from government forces to the south. Even if the government collapses – and we are a long way from that – then Iraq’s Shia majority will not accept a permanent jihadist state on their northern flank, let alone allow Isis to stroll into Baghdad. Saddam slaughtered Shias in 1991, and Isis has been slaughtering Shias for over a decade. The Shias have had quite enough, thank you.
Iraq’s neighbours will also fight back. Ankara does not look kindly at the fact that Isis has kidnapped Turkish diplomats in Mosul. Iran is not just aghast at the rise of a radical Sunni force on its western border, but concerned about losing an ally in Baghdad that it views as more important than even Assad. Tehran is reportedly airlifting over a hundred tons of supplies to Baghdad daily, and deployed its special forces there weeks ago.
If Isis attempts to conduct attacks against Western countries, as the prime minister warned last week, then it will face the near certainty of air strikes. It can hunker down safely in urban areas like Mosul, but large stretches of its territory are completely devoid of cover. It will suffer grievous losses.
But Isis’ biggest challenge is closer to home. It depends on a coalition of other Sunni militants and local Sunni tribes. Without such allies, it could not possibly have walked over Iraqi security forces so easily. But coalitions like this can fall apart. Remember that Isis was defeated once before, in its previous incarnation as Al Qaida in Iraq. Their campaign of terror was quelled by 2008, thanks to a surge of US troops and the so-called ‘awakening’ of local Sunni tribes who grew tired of the group’s brutality.
True, Isis is stronger now than it was then. The civil war in Syria has buoyed the group, swelling its ranks and hardening its fighters in combat. Those US troops are long gone, and won’t be returning. And the Sunnis who once turned on ISIS are now so embittered by the heavy-handed sectarianism of the Shia-dominated government in Baghdad that many have thrown their lot back in with the jihadists.
The key is whether ISIS can keep local Sunnis on side – or at least on the fence. Currently, Isis have learnt from their past mistakes. They seem to be governing newly occupied cities with a lighter touch, focusing on delivery of public services rather than just beheadings. They have even promised to hand over the captured Baiji oil refinery to local tribes.
But ISIS’ leaders are ultimately power-hungry ideologues. I am sceptical that they can keep up this charade. Sooner or later, they will move towards draconian sharia law, prompting the sort of backlash they faced last year in Syria. This is already apparent in Falluajh.
Or they will clash with their allies. We have already seen hints of this in Kirkuk, where ISIS came to blows with JRTN, a group led by Saddam’s former deputy, over control of fuel tankers. Moreover, where will the money come from? Iraq’s north and west depend on subsidies from the capital. Isis is rich, but it can’t run its own state in perpetuity.
Reports of the Middle East’s death have been greatly exaggerated. Isis is laying the foundations for a caliphate, and it may remain entrenched in Iraq and Syria for years, but its grandiose, imperial vision is a pipe dream. Jihadists are utopians and nihilists. That’s not a particularly durable combination.