This weekend just gone, on the eve of the Islamic fasting month of Ramadan, an ‘Islamic State’ was declared by Sunni jihadists which transcends the borders of eastern Syria and north-western Iraq. The declaration, which undercuts the already disputable sovereignty – in the Weberian notion of the term – of both aforementioned nation-states, is the result of the (apparently) growing strength of the political conglomerate ISIS (otherwise known as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant) in the regional dynamic of conflict which, in its most contemporary form, has consumed the Middle East for more than a decade (not to mention the war-torn memory of centuries previous). Belligerents in such conflict vary from Sunni Muslim extremists, to Shi’ite Muslim opponents, to sectarian forces, to Western powers, all with varying international alliances. What the declaration actually means for the regional political order, however, is not clear. True, the immediate Middle East, given the historical development of its geopolitics, is perhaps the most prone of all unstable areas towards territorial controversy. It could be considered, however, that the Islamic State is a clever red herring, designed to aggravate or provoke particular actors, thus furthering the jihadist aims of ISIS. What can be discerned for certain is that the incident is just another role of the dice in the complex Middle Eastern struggle between religion, race and politics.
The Geopolitical Declaration
The Islamic State – termed a Caliphate with the divine support of the legacy of the Prophet Muhammad – effectively encompasses land already controlled by ISIS (see below). That is, the desert west of the three central Iraqi lakes to the Syrian-Jordanian border, a large chunk of north-western Iraq, and areas on the immediate Syrian side of the Syrian-Iraqi border. ISIS also claims control over wider areas, including the majority of the Syrian desert, and parts of south-eastern Iraq encroaching on the capital Baghdad. Beyond that, it seems that the political aim of the group is control the entire region, for the purposes of the profession of Sunni Islam through government in countries traditionally (in the modern era) dominated by military forces.
Journalists are busy discussing what this declaration is a sign of. Some have noted the timing of the declaration with the beginning of Ramadan, suggesting that they have been aligned for maximum socio-political impact. Hence, it is, to some, simply a publicity stunt that alters no part of reality. In that reality, ISIS do indeed control areas of Iraq and Syria, but, in the same way that Russia has claimed the Crimean peninsula in recent months, the integrity of United Nations-supported territorial boundaries should be stronger than the will of a group of extremist rebels.
Others have suggested that the declaration is an attempt to rally support before launching further assaults on the political hubs of the Syrian and Iraqi governments. In the last few days, ISIS has militarily lost out slightly in areas within which it was looking dangerously strong. For example, Iraqi government forces are thought to have retaken key areas of Tikrit, a city north of Baghdad, considered a military gateway to the southeast of the country. This slight knock to the strength of ISIS’s position in Iraq may have prompted the acceleration of operations, resulting in the declaration of the Islamic State. Is it, therefore, a defensive move rather than an aggressive one?
One may consider that ISIS has been rather fortuitous to get so far, to the extent of declaring its own country in a region already in rife with political turmoil. The Iraqi government has hardly been without support. This week, it received a shipment of Russian fighter jets to help stave off the rising power of ISIS; another is due shortly, the two combined are supposedly worth more than USD$1bn. The US too have provided material aid to the Iraqis, prompting further criticism of the 2003 Anglo-American invasion of Iraq, and the labelling of this latest material support as hypocritical (this website has published, admittedly controversially and perhaps too briefly, previously on the logic of the Iraq War from Tony Blair’s perspective, see http://wp.me/p3g0mz-z).
Perhaps most controversial was the support of the Iranians, who are thought to be supplying funds and weapons to the Iraqi government for fear of a mass Sunni uprising to the west of their borders. The exchange rings bells of the opposite fear held by Iraqi leader Sadaam Hussein in the early 1980s, after Shi’ite cleric Ayatollah Khomeini rose to power in Iran during the 1979 revolution and threatened a mass Shi’ite uprising in other Islamic countries. No military move has yet been made by Iran, although it will be interesting to see, if the Islamic State in whatever form survives for a significant amount of time, what the reaction of the Iranian Shi’ite government would be (this website has also published previously on political Shi’ism and its strife with Sunni Islam, see http://wp.me/p3g0mz-4A).
As ever with Middle Eastern politics, the Kurds must play a part in proceedings. When Britain and France carved up the old Ottoman provinces as part of the 1916 Sykes-Picot Agreement, enforced by the 1920 League of Nations mandates, they ignored the more natural ethnic divisions of the region, leaving the Kurds of Kurdistan – an area split over eastern Turkey, northern Iraq and corners of Iran and Syria – without a homeland. Their struggle has thus since been politicised, not least because of their appalling treatment by various dictators. So far in connection to ISIS, the Kurds, who ‘enjoy’ partial autonomy in Iraq, have resisted the Sunni Muslim aggression in favour of defending Iraqi sovereignty. Some believe, however, that there may be a chance for the Kurds to finally push for their own sovereignty, again, depending on the success of the Islamic State under an ISIS government – if that is every to fully materialise. Calls were made today (01/07/14) for decentralisation across Iraq from the Kurdish Deputy Prime Minister, in order for the settled political units to survive.
Time will tell if ISIS is a genuine threat to many things, including general peace, the sectarian divide of Shi’ite and Sunni Islam, and Western presence in the Middle East. The declaration itself may not be as significant as the aftermath that may ensue, especially if the Iraqi government continues to receive support from various sources. The rebels in Syria, still engaged in conflict with Bashar Al-Assad and his supporters, will also dictate the outcome of the ordeal. In the meantime, there may be another Western crisis of liberalism – do we intervene or do we not – a potential threat to already thin international alliances.