Ongoing ferment among Middle East Muslim movements has taken a new turn as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria has established a caliphate in areas under its control, renamed itself the Islamic State and declared its leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the head of all Islam.
ISIS has taken these steps following its military success in Iraq and Syria, enabling it to claim parts of both countries and proclaiming its capital in Raqqa, Syria.
Neither Syria’s nor Iraq’s government welcomes the development, in no small part because of the territory lost. If either of them were in solid shape, they would move together or independently to reclaim their land, eliminating the Islamic State. They aren’t, of course, with the Assad regime in Syria trying to get back on its feet after a three-year civil war and the Shiite Maliki regime in Iraq fighting for its life against the Sunnis and the Kurds.
It is also unlikely that al-Qaida will embrace the creation of the Islamic State and its leader, who has been declared as Caliph Ibrahim. Both the caliphate and the caliph have to be seen as divisive among Islamists as well as a rival of al-Qaida and its leadership. Although the development is troublesome in general, the United States might come to welcome it if it results in the weakening of al-Qaida, the U.S. bete noire since the 9/11 attacks.
The Islamic State’s survival will depend on its ability to accomplish more militarily. Its current target is, principally, Iraq, where the Shiites are trying to rally, politically and militarily, to hold onto Baghdad. In the meantime, Americans have to wonder what President Barack Obama is doing, sending hundreds more U.S. troops back into Iraq. The assumption is that they will protect the thousands of Americans still there, and, eventually, if necessary, assure their safe departure, not defend the hapless Maliki regime from reaping what it has sowed.
Another concern about the radical Islamic State is that its next target will be Jordan, which is bloated with Iraqi, Palestinian and Syrian refugees. If the Islamic State survives and shows itself able to govern based on its professed principles and military acumen, the next concern will be whether it has other countries in mind, such as Saudi Arabia and the tiny Persian Gulf states.