What it means for us
Abu Bakar al Baghdadi’s announcement of the caliphate may have gone a little too far, but is the expansion of the extremist sunni rebellion from the heart of the Levant to Iraq and now reaching Jordanian and Saudi borders really surprising? “Horror it may be. Shock it is not,” noted that canny Middle East correspondent (The Independent) Robert Fisk in one of his recent dispatches.
After all, it wasn’t too long ago that Saudi paid al Qaeda hordes ran amok in Libya as NATO jets enforcing a no-fly-zone provided air support. It was of little significance, apparently, that they had just fought a bloody war in Iraq and were still fighting in Afghanistan. Libya showed they could come together for a bigger common goal, with Riyadh always the facilitator.
But an attempted repeat performance failed when the Arab Spring reached Syria. Saudi petro-politics was visible again – FSA quickly folded and al Qaeda proxies came in possession of large swathes of territory – but NATO airpower could not be deployed. The Iranians, and especially the Russians, threatened retaliation, and Washington had a belated realisation of the folly of unleashing radical sunni militants on such a large scale. And the Israelis also got upset as the Syrian tragedy unfolded. It took them a while to realise this, but they ultimately settled with Assad as a more preferable enemy than out of control mercenaries from the eighth century.
Yet even though Bashar al-Assad dug in his heels, cut deals with Moscow and Tehran, and leveraged Lebanon’s Hezbollah to repel rebel advances, Syria’s sunni uprising triggered similar sentiments across the eastern border in Iraq, especially after long years of persecution under Nouri al-Maliki’s shi’a majority government.
Even though the Americans and Brits declared victory and left years ago, the Islamic State – now a reality with a caliph in the seat – has done more to humiliate and embarrass Bush and Blair than any manner of civil or social protest seen in the last ten years.
And it is no coincidence that clashes first erupted in Fallujah and around Mosul. Those with slightly long memories will remember how he former was always a thorn in the side of the American occupation barely a decade ago, and the latter, along with Tikrit and the border town Tel Afar (now also in rebel hands), had to be ‘recaptured’ twice, and right to the end was in danger of falling back to insurgents.
And even though the Americans and Brits declared victory and left years ago, the Islamic State – now a reality with a caliph in the seat – has done more to humiliate and embarrass Bush and Blair than any manner of civil or social protest seen in the last ten years. Yet the west is still duplicitous.
Both Washington and London have expressed “deep concern” at rebel advances in Iraq. But even as they support the Iraqi government in its fight against IS (formerly ISIS and ISIL), they are still opposed to the Assad regime in Syria, even though Baghdad and Damascus have a common enemy in AQ offshoots, particularly Baghdadi’s caliphate. They also continue to turn a blind eye to billions of Saudi, Kuwaiti, and initially Qatari petrodollars arming both IS and Jabhat al-Nusra in Syria.
The real concern over the matter, as noted in the international press, is in Tehran and Damascus, and to an extent in Moscow. Assad’s luck had finally turned over the course of the last year. His forces had liberated key towns, retaken strategic outposts, and secured most border crossings. But with IS gaining momentum in Iraq, a fresh assault on both capitals is now expected.
Obama’s intentions, though, are still not clear. He’s made no secret of the need to eradicate the rebellion inside Iraq, including the caliphate. Yet he’s again publically pledged to bolster what he calls ‘moderate’ Syrian opposition, realising well that any weapons or money transferred to remnants of the FSA will quickly find their way to more extremist outfits. And this policy, especially at this time, is raising eyebrows in Tehran. Considering this dual US position, many in Iran’s high command are wondering whether Washington was complicit in the sudden blitzkrieg that unhinged the Maliki government and gave Saudi a permanent, and potent, foothold in the shi’a, oil producing, crescent?
There is another theory doing the rounds though, but one with less appeal. The US has come to understand the extent of Saudi involvement in the rise of sunni fanaticism, especially the IS and its caliphate. And even though publically Washington and friends will keep the anti-Assad posture for Syria, secretly they will arm the opposition’s lesser evil segment, meaning groups IS is engaged in internal battle with, and aim to implode the insurgency first and deal with Riyadh later. Such a policy would also sit well with Israel, which has dropped its sharp anti-Assad line after briefly experiencing a Syrian rebel takeover of the Golan border post last summer. Clearly, Tel Aviv prefers the Baathists to Saudi’s proxies.
But whichever route he takes, Obama will not have long to decide. IS’s serious gains north of Baghdad have subsided, but it is still securing territory in sunni majority Anbar province, and threatening an advance on Baghdad and Damascus alike. Also, even though much of Iraq’s oil infrastructure is in the south, in Basra, and there is little immediate threat of the capital falling, Baghdad is nonetheless in near siege conditions. Much of its food supply comes from the north and Turkey, and the caliphate has blocked land routes to the capital, resulting in high inflation and food shortage in the city.
Whatever its immediate and long-term future, the IS caliphate has, without a doubt, reconfigured much about the Arab Muslim world. The Sykes-Picot agreement, which distributed spoils of the fallen Ottoman Empire among British and French colonial masters, is effectively dead. Or it will be sooner rather than later. And it is the first time in approximately 90 years that any grouping has announced another caliphate.
And Baghdadi’s caliphate is double-edged. It will win few followers if a quick government counter attack – perhaps supported by US, perhaps by Iran, perhaps both – is able to send the leader of the State back into the wilderness. Also, its ultimatum that all strands of sunnis all over the world, including political and militant wings, must owe allegiance to it or face “bullet in the head” could also backfire. A number of indigenous rebel militias operating across the Muslim world, especially in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Somalia and Nigeria, only loosely accepted AQ as their spiritual head, and might not like being threatened into the caliphate that most would want to head and run themselves.
In Pakistan, there are fears that the Isis’s survival and revival story will become eulogised among the Taliban, and after they regroup in their Afghan sanctuary, they will come back stronger and with greater purpose.
On the other hand, it could also serve as an inspiration for other radical groups with similar agendas. That Baghdadi’s rise has brought fresh hope to the Syrian uprising is obvious, and Assad and friends must now recalibrate their war effort. It has also upset long standing regional alliances. Signs are beginning to appear that the Americans are not as happy with the Saudis as they used to be, primarily because of their obsession with Islamist militancy of the al Qaeda mould. And there are also signs that the IS might be what it takes to force Washington and Tehran into a working relationship. Surely the nuclear talks cannot continue in isolation. And even though the two still (publically) differ on Syria, they have the same interest, and same fears, about Iraq, and will have to work together to counter the caliphate, especially as it reaches for the oil fields in the south.
In Pakistan, there are fears that the Isis’s survival and revival story will become eulogised among the Taliban, and after they regroup in their Afghan sanctuary, they will come back stronger and with greater purpose. Yet, at the same time, there are also signs that success in Iraq is acting as a magnet for Pakistani jihadis. On the run from Zarb-e-Azb, it seems far more practical to set up camp in Iraq and Syria where the caliphate, at least for now, has grasped the initiative.
There are stories from the north of even the Haqqanis, now declared fair game in the military operation, have turned to funnelling fighters to the Levant and Iraq, where some thousand Pakistani jihadis have now gathered to support the caliphate and advance on Damascus and Baghdad alike.
Al Baghdadi’s sudden rise to prominence, even though he’s been active since at least 2010, has raised more questions than answers. But however long before his antics fizzle out or are dealt with – if at all – his groups has taken over from where al Qaeda proper left, and turned an entirely new leaf in the book of 21st century insurgency. Nobody is sure about the number of its fighters, or the extent to which the ‘global jihad project’ is willing to entertain him at the top, but he’s already made an impact that has rocked the world.