Military operations against the Islamic State conducted by a loose coalition of governments led by the United States have brought what was basically a regional conflict to the international stage. Coalition forces have carried out air strikes on oil refineries and other strategic targets in Syria and Iraq controlled by the Islamic State. At the same time, they are developing plans for large-scale ground operations. Observers note that strikes on Syria’s territory were conducted in clear violation of international norms since the United States did not obtain support from either the U.N. Security Council or the government in Damascus.
Why is the West’s reaction to the Islamic State group so hurried and overdue? It is unlikely to be the mere result of shocking videos of Western hostages executed at the hands of Islamists or the Islamic State group’s military successes on the Iraqi and Syrian fronts. The United States, from all appearances, is frightened to the core by the self-proclaimed caliphate organization, which poses a threat to the geopolitical balance in the Middle East and calls into question the continued existence of virtually every government in the region. By proclaiming the caliphate, the Islamic State group has put forth the idea of a Sunni-Islamic international and aims to become its core. This is what distinguishes it from movements such as the Taliban or Hamas, which focus on purely national goals. The word “caliphate” suggests a return to the “true Islam” of the first caliph that united the entire Arab-Muslim world.
The origins of the Islamic State group are in the Sunni areas of Iraq, where shortly after the American occupation in 2003, the Jordanian Abu Musab al-Zarqawi established a regional branch of al-Qaida. After al-Zarqawi was killed by American airstrikes in 2006, Abu Omar al-Baghdadi became the new emir of the movement (Baghdadi the First) and subsequently proclaimed the Islamic State of Iraq. Despite the death of Baghdadi and other leaders of the Islamic State group, the organization maintained its basic structure. The civil war in Syria gave this movement a second life. The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant appeared on the Syrian theater of war as a result of the merger between Iraqi and Syrian groups, which quickly placed under its control significant portions of Syrian territory, previously occupied by the moderate Syrian opposition. And after a victorious offensive in Iraq in June 2014, ISIL became the Islamic State, or the caliphate. As the ideological successor to al-Qaida, the Islamic State has a similar ideology and purpose. However, it is not a typical terrorist organization but a governmental scheme aimed at building a caliphate that controls all spheres of life. Their methods of armed conflict are even more cruel and radical and include maintaining full-scale military operations and ruthless individual terror.
The name change from ISIL to the Islamic State took place this summer, when the leader of the movement, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, declared himself Caliph Ibrahim and the territory he controls in Syria and Iran a caliphate. The proclamation of an Islamic caliphate marked a new stage in the history of the movement, which emerged about a decade ago as a regional chapter of al-Qaida.
The newly proclaimed caliphate is fundamentally different from other famous Islamic movements, which include the Muslim Brotherhood, al-Qaida, Hamas, Hezbollah, al-Nusra Front and others. The very terms “state” or “caliphate” suggest a type of social structure in which war against the “infidels” is an important, though not the only, objective. The Islamic State group has taken on the role of a practical social organization over its controlled territories and has managed this, albeit with barbaric and medieval methods. In contrast to other Islamic movements, the Islamic State group is basically self-sufficient. After seizing a bank in Mosul, the caliphate obtained large cash reserves and paradoxically, its primary internal currency is the American dollar. The Islamic State has become the richest terrorist organization in the world by controlling major dams on the Euphrates, as well as oil production, arms trafficking, hostage trading and other illegal activities.
This wealth is multiplied by the excellent organization of all structures; the West never ceases to be amazed by the Islamic State group’s highly qualified oil production specialists, military training, judicial and administrative matters as well as the skills of the camera operators capturing scenes of terrorism and executions. The explanation is obvious: the personal best from the Baathist apparatus that had been dismissed by the American occupation administration and their Shiite allies after the overthrow of Saddam Hussein are now working in the caliphate as are jihadi arriving from the West.
Will the current military operations against the Islamic State be successful? Experience from similar operations by Western nations in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya show that using purely military means to defeat the Islamists is an almost impossible task. Under the pressure of superior military force, the militants frequently dissolve into the mountains, deserts and among the local population, and then resume the fight. In Afghanistan the once-vanquished Taliban have already stormed Kunduz on the border of Tajikistan and in Libya, Islamists have captured major cities and airports.
But the biggest threat to the West is the international nature of Islamist movements. Millions of Muslims live in Europe (6.5 million in France, 4 million in Germany, 3 million in the United Kingdom), and many of them are supporters of the Islamic State. Europeans took an active part in military operations in the Middle East. At the end of August 2014 about 3000 jihadi from Europe fought in Syria and Iraq (other estimates are significantly higher) including more than 900 from France, 500 from the United Kingdom, 130 from Austria and about 400 from Germany. In the event that the situation escalates they will take the terror directly to the territory of these European governments.
No matter how you relate to radical Islamic movements and their archaic worldview, there is an incontestable fact: These forces emerged as a radical reaction to Western expansion and the politics of Israel and pro-Western Arab regimes. From the outset, the United States and the monarchies of the Persian Gulf have actively supported Islamist movements, first against the Soviet Union and its allies and then to overthrow secular Arab regimes. Like al-Qaida and the Taliban, the Islamic State group was originally created with the support of the U.S. intelligence agencies and the Persian Gulf states. Turkey, Qatar and Saudi Arabia were extremely active in helping the Islamists, especially in the period when the Islamic State was fighting with the Syrian Armed Forces in northern Syria. Now Qatar and the Gulf states categorically deny their involvement in financing the Islamic State, but it is no secret that the strategic goals of these Sunni monarchies remain their battle with the Shiite Crescent from Lebanon to Iran, including Iraq and Syria, and they are prepared to form alliances with whomever it is convenient.
At first glance this emerging situation does seem paradoxical: the Islamic State has declared war on its former sponsors, but this had already occurred with the Taliban and al-Qaida movements. The United States and its coalition allies were extremely hesitant and only under the pressure of circumstances decided to fight the Islamic State. At the same time, they rely on moderate Islamic movements in Syria and the Kurds in Iraq, even though these forces are neither pro-democracy nor pro-Western. In fact, the United States has few real allies in the region, and they are forced to flirt even with the Mullahs in Tehran in order to confront the self-proclaimed caliphate.