ISIS has been operating in both Syria and Iraq for a few years; however they have shot to prominence in June 2014 due to its claim of having established a Caliphate on territory constituted from both countries. Whilst the Caliphate is a revered institution in both in Islamic scholarship as well as the sentiment of the Muslim masses as cited by numerous polls, the claims of ISIS have only found small pockets of support around the world.
A key discussion point has been the viability of the State declared by ISIS, particularly focussing on the aspect of security. ISIS asserts that the hard power of its authority as a Caliphate is derived from the bayah (pledge of allegiance) sworn to it by the influential Sunni tribes in Iraq, giving it effective control of the territories of these tribes and beyond. The Sunni tribes are known to be significant players in the region, being pivotal in the Anbar insurgency during the American occupation of Iraq and infamous for switching sides from Al Qaeda to help the American effort to drive them out of their lands.
Concerns of vulnerability to attack by foreign powers are addressed by drawing parallels with the historic Islamic State established in Medina in the 7th Century, when the Muslims received the support of only two key tribes of the town. The great powers of the time were the Eastern Roman (Byzantine) Empire and the Sassanid (Persian) Empire, which it is claimed that if they were to have attacked the nascent Islamic State in Medina it would have been destroyed. Are these claims based on solid reasoning?
There seems to be an implicit assumption that the Roman and Persian empires themselves were in a reality where they were focused on the area in which Medina existed, therefore able to influence the security of the region.
This is simply not the case, as they were both busy fighting each other and left much of the Arabian Peninsula to their tribal allies to deal with. Even this was so that the tribes maintained a buffer zone against their own empires. We know this from documented history as well as from the Quran itself, where in Surah Ar-Rum the ongoing battles between the Romans and Persians, including the then impending Roman victory, is discussed.
Therefore the battles that the Islamic State in Medina took part in during the early years were between powers of a similar order of magnitude, rather than a couple of tribes against hundreds of thousands of men.
The region of Iraq today, as well as for much of the previous 25 years, has directly been the focus of Western aggression through a hugely destructive war, an almost decade long implementation of sanctions, followed by another hugely destructive war, followed by an almost decade long occupation. After the occupation itself has ended, America has left in place its political system as well as a core security team in key areas such as Irbil and Baghdad, retaining influence in the area.
The Sunni tribes, whilst having the ability to decide security on a local level, are not able to do so in the context of modern states. In other words, whilst they may be instrumental in deciding which group or tribe can exist in the area, they do not possess the might to repel an attack by a foreign force such as America by any stretch of the imagination to the extent that they can guarantee security for an independent political vision.
This then leads one to question America's silence over ISIS's advance in both Syria and the Sunni region of Iraq yet its immediate and strong reaction to potential advances on the Kurdish areas as well as Baghdad.
Moreover, there is a well publicized school of thought within American thinking which discusses the fragmentation of the Middle East and the breaking of Sykes-Picot borders by America itself. In addition, the fact that ISIS can suddenly capture a huge amount of wealth and American weaponry as well as the entire city of Mosul, where no shot was fired, without the US batting so much as an eyelid leads to further questions. Add in to this the horrific nature of many of ISIS's "PR" releases which are highly sectarian in nature.
When viewed in this wider context ISIS not only are revealed to by far short of attaining the capability of a secure state, their actions and deeds are highly suspicious and curiously in line with overarching American objectives for the region. The bonus of exploiting the deeply respected and cherished institution of the Caliphate can only be a propaganda coup for those that wish to see it buried in the books of history forever, given that the apparent merciless nature of the treatment of non-Muslims and Muslims disagreeing with ISIS would revolt the majority of the world, Muslim or non-Muslim.
Published on 22nd August 2014 on Asia Times Online as ISIS: Caliphate or pretenders?