Who Controls the ‘Caliphate’?
Reading the reports about the events of the past week in the Middle East and it is difficult not to conclude that there is an attempt to reconstruct a Muslim Caliphate. This week the Islamic State of Iraq and al Shams (ISIS) has conquered a large portion of western Iraq and sit just outside the capitol Baghdad. They now control much of the territory between Aleppo in Syria and Tikrit in Iraq. ISIS has been very vocal about creating an Islamic Caliphate, echoing the same sentiments made by Usama bin Laden when he was running al Qa’ida in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Now ISIS is in a sort of competition with the old al Qa’ida organization that is still fortified in the mountains between Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Many have claimed that there is a schism between these two groups. To be sure, there is a great deal of strife between al Qa’ida and ISIS and research shows that it is about power over the jihad taking place in the Middle East. The split began when Abu Bakr al Baghdadi, leader of the jihadi forces in Iraq, marched into Syria and attempted to wrest control away from Ayman al Zawahiri the Jabhat al Nusra. In the end, Zawahiri ended up announcing that ISIS would no longer be considered in the sphere of influence of al Qa’ida.
It now appears that ISIS has much more influence on newly inspired jihadists arriving in the Middle East seeking to fight in Iraq or in Syria than does al Qa’ida. There does not seem much difference between the vision of the Middle East, as defined by ISIS, and the vision of the Middle East as was once defined by al Qa’ida. In an interview with Zawahiri from al Sahab in September 2005, the al Qa’ida chief spelled out the purpose of the jihad. “It [al Qa'ida] has become a popular and trailblazing organization, confronting the new Zionist-Crusader campaign, in defense of all the plundered Muslim lands, and fighting all the apostate and collaborating regimes that rule our Muslim umma.” Nearly a decade later this agenda has appeared to be picked up by al Qa’ida affiliates and not carried by what is called al Qa’ida Central (AQC). When it appears that AQC no longer carries the banner of jihad, then the next logical step would be to see the affiliates no longer acquiescing to AQC’s direction. ISIS could very well be the first jihad group to make this move.
The gains made by ISIS in the Middle East now threaten two key allies to Iran. The Wall Street Journal has a piece claiming that two divisions of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps’ Al Qods force has entered into Iraq to assist in taking back ground lost to ISIS and protecting the Shi’ite holy cities of Najaf and Karbala. This is on the heels of Iran announcing that they would do just these things and that the international community needs to assist the government of Iraq in the face of the jihadists.
The West is completely impotent to help Iraq or do anything of substance in the battle between the different factions in the Middle East. This impotency is primarily the result of a lack of political will on behalf of the people in the democracies of the West, but is it also the result of the lack of desire on behalf of the leaders of these democracies to lead a confident West against these forces.
In the end, this is a war that is going to be settled by Muslims. This is the region’s two World Wars all wrapped up into one long conflict between Sunni and Shi’ite. The Sunnis are not unified but they still out number the total number of Shia. This could be why Iran has decided to stop confronting the Sunni groups with covert tactics and proxy forces and start using conventional military forces in Iraq now. Iraq seems to be the stage where the decision of who controls the Muslim world is going to be made. In the end, will the West be able to sufficiently handle the ultimate victors? The future does not look bright.