While many people were busy watching the 2014 World Cup, a new entity appeared on the world map: the Islamic State, which emerged on June 29 as the successor to the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (commonly known as ISIS), a jihadist militant group. This self-proclaimed “state” does not have a president, it has a caliph, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. Instead of a constitution, it has the Koran. Instead of ministers and embassies, it has suicide bombers and sabers. And instead of the rule of law, it has summary executions.
The Islamic State is now taking root in northern Iraq and northeastern Syria, where it has experienced fighters, many of them foreigners, as well as weaponry, money, and ambitions to expand across the Middle East and Turkey. As former U.S. ambassador to Syria and Iraq Ryan Crocker wrote on June 19, “this is global jihad, and it will be coming our way. . . . This is a determined enemy, and it will not stop where it is now.”
The emergence of a new caliphate—a nation for all Muslims—has far-reaching consequences for the Middle East, the West, and beyond. The Islamic State has sought to break down borders and has empowered the Kurds in their push for independence, while the turmoil unleashed by the militants has reinforced a worrying trend toward a new kind of Western jihadism. Yet a striking feature of recent developments in Syria and Iraq is the lethargy of Western diplomacies. It is as if, despite a wealth of analyses by foreign ministries, intelligence services, and think tanks, the rest of the world treated the looming crisis with benign neglect for too long. The West needs to seriously assess the significance of the newest entity on the world map.
The proclamation of a caliphate on the first day of Ramadan has shattered the comfortable setup of 1916 known as the Sykes-Picot agreement and threatens to call into question the borders of modern-day states in the region. In terms of more recent history, the Islamic State has also wiped out the achievements of the U.S.-led engagement in Iraq that began in 2003. It is high time to answer this wake-up call.
As of July 2014, the Islamic State claims to control vast expanses of land in Iraq and Syria or, more accurately, long corridors linking the towns and cities it occupies. These areas run roughly from the Syrian cities of ar-Raqqah and Deir ez-Zor on the Euphrates River in the west to the Iraqi cities of Mosul and Samarra on the Tigris River in the east. Importantly, the Islamic State has been able to take these areas due to the collapse of the Iraqi army along the Tigris and thanks to the significant support it has received from Iraqi Sunni tribal leaders, including remnants of the regime of former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein. In its southbound blitzkrieg, the group has taken Mosul and snatched sizable quantities of U.S.-made weapons and military vehicles including tanks, armored personnel carriers, howitzers, Humvees, and heavy trucks, as well as a stash of cash said to be around $400 million.
A significant number of the Islamic State’s fighters (the exact proportion is difficult to assess) come from countries other than Iraq or Syria. Most of those from EU member states have Belgian, French, or British passports, which makes it more difficult to track them down within Europe. These foreigners have also enjoyed the freedom to cross the Turkish-Syrian border at will since Turkey has long practiced an “open door” policy in favor of those fighting against the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
In Syria, the Assad regime—which has been strenuously fighting to secure control of a corridor that runs north from Damascus through Homs and Tartus to Latakia as well as attempting to recapture northern cities such as Hama, Idlib, and Aleppo from rebel forces—may well see the emergence of the Islamic State as a dual opportunity. The group’s rise east of Aleppo gives the Assad regime a chance to present itself to Western countries as a potential partner to help contain the jihadists. Simultaneously, while the Islamic State and other extremist groups are fighting each other in outlying areas, the Syrian armed forces can focus on rebels in the westernmost part of the country, which has always been the core of the Assad family’s power system.
In Iraq, the government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki is engaged in both regaining ground and defending the territory it controls, including Baghdad. It is doing so with U.S., Russian, and Iranian military support on the ground and in the air. This array of assistance, which would have been unavailable to the Iraqi government until recently, is itself an illustration of the complete reshuffling of Middle Eastern geopolitics.
Despite that assistance, Iraq may be on an irreversible path toward fragmentation. The country’s political leaders have failed to agree on how to bridge divergences between the country’s Shia, Sunni, and Kurdish communities. Whatever compromises leaders had previously achieved were in fact induced—if not imposed—by intense U.S. diplomacy. When the United States disengaged from Iraq militarily and politically, traditional divisions surfaced again. Some think that “it’s not too late to reengage with Iraq,” but many others are now predicting a partition of the country.
The emergence of the Islamic State has further threatened the existing state setup by greatly emboldening Iraqi Kurdistan. The jihadists were no match for the Kurdish peshmerga armed forces, and they were careful not to challenge them. Even though Kurdistan is still formally a semiautonomous region of Iraq and is grappling with its own “domestic” political hurdles, the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) now has an opportunity to transform itself into a much bigger political and military entity.
The KRG already enjoyed good relations with Turkey, to the extent that the Kurdish authorities have been able to directly export their oil via a pipeline to the Turkish city of Ceyhan, to the dismay of the government in Baghdad. The KRG recently made an opportunistic move by taking control of the city of Kirkuk, which is now the major center for Iraqi Kurds. The Turkish authorities are uneasy about the Kurdish takeover, although they consider Kirkuk a Turkmen city and therefore ethnically closer to Turkey.
In the medium term, the prospect is looming of an independent Kurdistan made up of areas controlled by the KRG in Iraq and the Kurdish territory in the northeastern tip of Syria. On July 1, the president of Iraqi Kurdistan, Massoud Barzani, declared that Iraq was already “effectively partitioned” and that the KRG would “hold a referendum” on independence and be bound by its results. Baghdad will strongly object, and not all Iraqi Kurds will agree on subjects ranging from economic policy to how to deal with Baghdad, Ankara, and the Islamic State. Therefore, nothing can be taken for granted. But an independent Kurdistan is no longer just a distant pipe dream.
Many Implications for Turkey
The biggest implications of an emboldened Kurdistan may be felt across the border in Turkey, although the domestic and foreign aspects of the Kurdish issue did not intersect much until recently.
Within Turkey, since the Kurdish insurgency began in 1984, the word Kurdistan has been taboo. However, over the past few years, Turkey’s perception of the Kurdish issue has evolved substantially on several fronts. Speaking, singing, or writing in the Kurdish language is no longer a criminal offense. The first political party with the word Kurdistan in its name—Turkey’s Kurdistan Democrat Party—was just created. More importantly, a Kurdish candidate, Selahattin Demirtaş, is running in Turkey’s presidential election due in August 2014 and may snatch up to 8–10 percent of the votes, according to recent polls.
Since 2012, the Turkish government has been working on a peace package with the leader of the separatist Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), Abdullah Öcalan, through a dialogue between its intelligence chief and the Kurdish activist, who is currently imprisoned on İmralı island in the Marmara Sea. This dialogue was motivated mostly by the electoral ambitions of Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) and has been complicated by the large degree of autonomy demanded by the Kurds. Despite several attempts, talks have not yet come to fruition. Still, the success of Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in August’s presidential election (he is currently the leading candidate) seems to hinge partly on the vote of Turkey’s Kurds.
On the external front, the “zero problems with neighbors” policy launched a few years ago by the Turkish government—a somewhat haphazard concept when seen from outside Turkey—has produced many setbacks (with Egypt, Iraq, Libya, and Syria) but also one single friend, the most unlikely of all: the Kurdistan Regional Government.
Befriending the KRG has had multiple advantages for Ankara. Turkey can sell its manufactured goods to Iraqi Kurdistan and deploy its construction companies there. The Turkish government can buy oil from the KRG or let it flow to the outside world from Ceyhan, making the landlocked region of Iraqi Kurdistan dependent on good relations with Turkey. Ankara can rely on the well-armed and efficient KRG peshmerga to maintain order in Iraqi Kurdistan, where the PKK keeps its fighters.
Despite the dangers from its own Kurdish separatists, Ankara has found an interest in boosting the prosperity and autonomy of the KRG. Paradoxically, after years of turning a blind eye to the transit of jihadists to and from Syria, including those fighting for ISIS, Turkey now seems inclined to find comfort in the prospect of an independent Kurdistan in Iraq and Syria, even though such a development would inevitably create a strong appeal for Turkish Kurds. The rise of a stronger KRG and the possibility of an independent Kurdistan may radically change the balance in the medium term, but the notion of an independent Turkish Kurdistan remains unthinkable at this point. While Ankara officially supports a unified Iraq, the establishment of a solid, well-armed independent Kurdistan across the border could end up being the best buffer zone between Turkey and the Islamic State.
But an independent Kurdistan would stabilize only part of Turkey’s southern borders. The country would still have to deal with a number of border crossings controlled by the Islamic State in its Şanlıurfa and Gaziantep Provinces. The militants’ proclaimed hostile intentions toward Turkey and the West have raised such strong concerns in Europe and the United States that the transit of foreign jihadists from Turkey into Syria and Islamic State–controlled territory has become a major source of contention between Turkey and its Western allies.
This was already the case when Erdoğan visited U.S. President Barack Obama in the White House on May 16, 2013, but it has recently become a much bigger issue. Land borders, airports, and bus stations have become the focal points of counterterrorism efforts that will benefit not only Western countries but also Turkey itself.
Beyond concerns about Turkey’s porous border, suspicions abound that Ankara has ignored, if not facilitated, the transit of ISIS jihadists (including al-Baghdadi and Abu Omar al-Shishani) and even, at one point, delivered weapons to rebel groups. The Turkish government has refuted these allegations and is now cooperating with Western intelligence services. However, it will take serious and substantial deeds, not just bold proclamations, to restore Turkey’s credentials in this respect. This is a moment of truth: amid such regional turmoil, Turkey is expected to behave consistently with its Western political and security affiliations.
A New Breed of Western Jihadists
The spread of jihadism in Syria and Iraq has confronted the West with another stark new reality: hostility from within. The hideous acts committed by Mohammed Merah, who carried out a series of gun attacks in Montauban and Toulouse in 2012, or Mehdi Nemmouche, who is suspected of killing four people in Brussels in 2014, will long haunt Western politicians. Both French citizens who had recently joined the jihad, the two men traveled to either Afghanistan or Syria before coming back to turn their weapons against off-duty soldiers, civilians, children, or tourists.
It is estimated that up to 3,000 citizens of European or North American origin have been or are currently fighting jihad in Syria or Iraq. They hold French, Spanish, Belgian, British, U.S., or Canadian passports, and some fighters may be used by the Islamic State against targets in their countries of origin.
This scenario is radically different from the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, or from earlier instances in history when young Europeans fought abroad for a cause they believed in, for example the International Brigades who took part in the Spanish Civil War of the 1930s. The “returnee jihadist” is a new and worrying threat that uses terrorist methods to wage war at home against democratic states in the name of an intolerant religious ideology.
The West Faces a New Interlocutor
The emergence of the Islamic State represents what France efficiently managed to avoid in Mali with the swift military intervention it undertook there in early 2013: the rise of a self-standing, organized Islamist territory.
The Islamic State’s proclamation of a caliphate and its recent advances in northern Iraq provide a territory, cities, airfields, and hardware to an insurgency that was previously confined to sporadic and highly mobile operations. In military terms, this gives the Islamic State a more perennial power base, more firepower, more training camps, and more planning capabilities. The group also has the capacity to move across vast swaths of empty land where preexisting state borders were never easy to control. The threat to Iraq, Syria, Jordan, and Turkey is bigger than ever before, albeit of variable magnitude.
Simultaneously, the Islamic State is now well equipped to disseminate its narrative to the outside world far beyond the social media methods it has used to recruit its followers. The group’s professionally crafted Islamic State Report has become a weekly feature on the Internet and is complete with videos, links to recruitment websites, and even an online shop.
The focus of the Islamic State’s narrative is its intention to put an end to the “partitioning of Muslim lands by crusader powers” embodied in the 1916 Sykes-Picot agreement and to “unite the Muslims under one imam carrying the banner of truth.” Tellingly, the lead article of the fourth issue of the Islamic State Report carried the title “Smashing the Borders of the Tawaghit” (“Tawaghit” are those who idolize anything except Allah) and pictured a U.S.-made military truck captured by Islamic State forces crossing the Syria-Iraq border. On July 4, the Islamic State posted a video purportedly showing al-Baghdadi delivering a sermon at a Mosul mosque. It was the first time the self-proclaimed caliph had appeared on the Internet. The Islamic State’s battle with the West is also one of images.
Many questions remain about the possibility of the Islamic State establishing a perennial presence in the territory it claims to control. How successful will the group be in its fight with al-Qaeda, a group with which it had close links until February 2014? How will the Islamic State resist competition from other Sunni political forces? How able will it be to administer the territories it has conquered? How feasible would a redrawing of existing borders actually be? The answers to these questions are far from clear.
Notwithstanding the ongoing debate on the Islamic State’s capabilities, the group presents two critical dangers from a Western point of view.
First, if the Islamic State maintains its territorial presence and manages to secure more military hardware, more cash, and official media, the world will have a new type of interlocutor to deal with. The Islamic State does not fit into any existing international relations frameworks and will not even recognize these because its entire behavior is based on extreme religious concepts and geared toward erasing preexisting states in its region.
The second danger is that by co-opting, indoctrinating, and training fighters from the Maghreb, Western Europe, Russia, and North America on the basis of an absolutist religious concept (the caliphate), the Islamic State nurtures a new breed of “cosmopolitan jihadists.” That could have a strong mobilizing effect on young Muslims around the world, boosting recruitment; at the same time, it could have an equally strong destabilizing effect on recruits’ respective societies, as fighters are sent back home to perpetrate hostile acts.
The catalogue of possible actions to contain the Islamic State is long. Options range from military action on the ground to shoring up existing states currently under threat, such as Iraq and Jordan, to counterterrorism activities by the West (including Turkey), Russia, and countries in the region—with the possible inclusion of Syria. Some have argued that the chaos should be left to dissolve amid the self-consuming violence. On the diplomatic front, the emergence of the Islamic State will substantially affect the counterterrorism dialogue under way between the United States and the EU, on the one hand, and Russia or Turkey, on the other.
The momentous developments currently taking place in Iraq and Syria are at least as important as the terrorist attacks of 9/11, even if they have attracted much less attention by virtue of the relative media vacuum in which they have so far occurred. It may not look like it, but on June 29, 2014, a whole new world may have emerged. The biggest folly would be for foreign policymakers to belittle the proclamation of the Islamic State.