Large-scale fighting raged in Iraq on Monday, following Sunday’s proclamation of an Islamic caliphate over large areas of Syria and Iraq by the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS). The jihadist group declared its leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi as leader of the new entity and its caliph, theoretically combining religious and state authority in the tradition of Muhammad’s early successors, across Iraq and Syria and beyond.
This development should not be dismissed as mere propaganda. For the first time since the abolition of the Ottoman Caliphate in the aftermath of the Great War, there is a substantial state-like entity presuming to revive the mantle of Sunni Islamic universalism.
First of all, it is worth examining what exactly makes a state a “state.” Traditional international law postulates the possession of population, of territory, and the existence of a government which exercises effective control over that population and territory. To put it more technically, a state exists if it enjoys the monopoly of coercive mechanisms within its domain.
Some authors also postulate the prevalent loyalty of the population to the government, but recent legal practice does not support the assertion. In April 1992 the U.S. recognized “Bosnia and Herzegovina” in its Yugoslav federal boundaries, although its nominal government – led by the dedicated jihadist Alija Izetbegovic – commanded the loyalty of only two-fifths of its citizens who happened to be Muslims, and controlled at most a third of the territory. On the other hand, unrecognized state entities such as Transnistria, Abkazia, Northern Cyprus, South Ossetia and Nagorno-Karabakh (like them or hate them) command their denizens’ overwhelming loyalty and exercise effectively undisputed control over their entire territory.
Finally, there are international jurists who cite the ability of the self-proclaimed state’s authority to engage in international discourse, but that is a moot point. The capacity to control a putative state’s territory and population almost invariably leads to such ability, regardless of the circumstances of that state’s inception: South Sudan is a recent case in point, and the creation of Israel in 1947 also comes to mind.
ISIS currently controls an area the size of Illinois at least, and perhaps as large as Nebraska, composed in roughly equal parts of northern and northeastern Syria and western and northwestern Iraq. It has at least ten million inhabitants, and most of those who did not cherish life under its black banner have already fled to Damascus or Baghdad. The Caliphate has substantial funds at its disposal, initially given ISIS by the Saudis, Kuwaitis, Turks, Qataris, Bahrainis, UAE donors et al, but it recently augmented its coffers to the tune of half a billion dollars looted from the Iraqi government vaults in Mosul and Tikrit. It is also, by all accounts, effective in collecting taxes, tolls, “donations” and excise duties. With no debts or liabilities, the existing stash and ongoing cash-flow makes the emerging ISIS Caliphate more solvent than most small or even medium-sized sub-Saharan “republics” or Pacific island states currently represented in the United Nations.
What about the economy, one may ask. Some perspective is needed here: when oil and gas are taken out of the equation, the entire Arab League (population 350 million) contributes less to the overall global wealth than Benelux (population 28 million). Local exchange of goods and services continues unhindered. Most importantly, the ISIS Caliphate is effectively self-sufficient in energy, having captured the Ajeel oil wells east of Tikrit and Mansouriyat 1, in Diyala province, in Iraq. Across the border in Syria, ISIS now controls Al Omar oil field and a major well near Al Mayadin, in Deir al Zour province.
If the Caliphate consolidates its control over Iraq’s largest oil refinery, the Bayji facility (which was not damaged in recent fighting), there will be enough oil and derivates not only for the Caliphate’s own needs, but also to earn foreign exchange needed to buy all the food and other goods it needs from abroad (hostile neighbors included). It is noteworthy that al-Baghdadi’s budding state is in a much better financial shape, on per-capita basis, than Egypt or Yemen.
The most important issue is of course military security. Can the ISIS caliphate survive? Is it sustainable militarily? If it cannot, then everything else is theoretical. In the fullness of time, and left to their own devices, Damascus and Baghdad – with some help from Teheran and Moscow – just might do the job. They are trying already:
Last week Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki declared he welcomed Syrian government airstrikes on ISIS units along the Iraq-Syria border.
Iraq’s ambassador to the United States, Lukman Faily, told Al-Monitor on June 26 that Syrian air support “is a key game changer.” In his words, “the support that we sought from the U.S. is not coming in a timely manner to deal with our urgency,” so Baghdad welcomes help from wherever it comes.
On June 28 Russia delivered ten Sukhoi SU-25 fighter jets to Iraq, which is consistent with Moscow’s regional strategy. It was hailed in Baghdad as a welcome rescue move. By contrast the U.S. has declined Iraqi requests for speeded-up deliveries of F-16s, citing ISIS advances as a reason.
Iran is providing drone flights, weapons, advisers, and (allegedly) Revolutionary Guard volunteers in support of the Iraqi government.
The Caliphate is nevertheless winning for now. Its prospects are further brightened by the fact that the United States may “level the field” in favor of ISIS (i.e. ensure its long-term survival) with President Obama’s request to Congress last Friday for $500 million in eminently lethal aid for the “vetted” – and of course “moderate” – opponents of the Syrian government. Their likely composition is apparent in John McCain’s family album from Syria, the moral replica of his Right Sector buddies in Kiev.
This is exactly what Caliph Ibrahum (Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s real name) wants the U.S. to do. He knows that any “vetting” would be left to Turkey and Saudi Arabia, the main past sponsors of ISIS. He salivates at the thought of half a billion worth of U.S. hardware coming his way, or else being there up for grabs if delivered to the long-moribund “Free Syrian Army.” He is justifiably confident that nobody in Washington will have any control whatsoever over the weaponry once it reaches the local distribution points. He counts on Ankara and Riyadh to quietly condone the Caliphate’s extension against the Shia/Alawite “apostates.”
Of course Khalif Ibrahim will instruct his warriors to refrain from staging another Benghazi, for the time being at least, lest the infidels in the Great Satanland start having second thoughts.
On balance, the new Caliphate is a viable project, because – as per Vladimir Ilyich Lenin – the Government of the United States is acting as its “objective ally.” Barack Hussein Obama’s intended crime in funding and arming the Caliphate, announced last Friday, has the potential to exceed George W. Bush’s crime in starting the Iraq war.