Yezid Sayigh writes: In announcing the establishment of an Islamic caliphate in the areas of Iraq and Syria it controls on June 30 and calling on Muslims everywhere to vow allegiance to its self-styled caliph, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) displayed global ambitions. Whether these are real or not, many outsiders assume that its appeal extends far beyond the borders of Iraq. But in fact ISIS is following a well-worn path for taking power and consolidating it in the limited geographical space of a single nation-state where its true social base lies.
This constrains ISIS’s hope of gaining significantly broader strategic depth, and belies its claims of representing a universal Muslim community, let alone of exercising meaningful authority over them. Despite the spectacular drama of its swift advances in Iraq in June, reality is more pragmatic: ISIS advanced in its own “natural” habitat, whose outer boundaries it has already reached. Iraq is where ISIS survived after the defeat of the Sunni insurgency in 2006-2008 and subsequently revived, and where the fate of its Islamic state will be decided.
Two analogies help understand what ISIS can and cannot do, and the limitations of its caliphate. First, the experience of Al-Qaeda, ISIS’s mother organization, in Afghanistan reveals that no matter how powerful a transnational ideology, movements espousing it must still dig deep roots in local society if they are to survive and thrive. Al-Qaeda appealed to alienated Muslim youth worldwide, but in Afghanistan it had to attach itself to an indigenous armed movement, the Taliban, that was completely embedded in local Pashtun society. Consequently, Al-Qaeda was forced out with relative ease by the US invasion in late 2001, but not the Taliban.
Only in Iraq does ISIS resemble the Taliban. In Syria, in contrast, ISIS resembles al-Qaeda in Afghanistan. To be sure, there is considerable cross-border overlap: ISIS can and probably will take root in Syria, much as a sister Taliban emerged in the northern provinces of Pakistan bordering Afghanistan. But neither Taliban movement has been unable to extend beyond its local social base into other parts of the two countries, despite the presence of other Islamist and jihadist groups. For ISIS, the implication is that its Iraqi base remains the critical core; if pressed, ISIS will prioritize consolidating it. [Continue reading…]