Is ISIS a crisis?

J. Martin Rochester, Curators’ Teaching Professor of Political Science at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, is author of 10 books on international and American politics, including the forthcoming “New Warfare:  Rethinking Rules for An Unruly World.”  In addition to teaching courses in international politics, international organization and law, and U.S. foreign policy, he has served as Chairperson of the Political Science Dept. at UM-St. Louis.

By Marty Rochester

ISIS (the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria) recently has competed for world media attention with the Gaza War. Some commentators have speculated about what might happen if Hamas were to be obliterated and replaced by an even more extreme Muslim fundamentalist group dominating Palestinian politics, such as ISIS. 

Admittedly, ISIS makes Hamas look like a relatively benign actor. But that is not saying much when the former is so monstrous that even al-Qaida has distanced itself from that group. One would hope that as Israel continues to seek a “partner” in the peace process, the choices would be a bit more far-ranging than those alternatives, although it remains to be seen whether Mahmoud Abbas and the more moderate elements of the PLO can fill that void. 

What should we make of ISIS? It started as “al-Qaida in Iraq” in 2004 and morphed into an independent radical jihadist movement that by 2013 had spread into neighboring Syria. Led by an “emir” named Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and numbering several thousand fighters, ISIS has demonstrated that it is a well-coordinated military machine adept at spreading its ultra-orthodox jihadist message through innovative use of modern social media. Its theology is Sunni rather than Shiite, although it has dealt violently with all “infidels,” not only Christians and Jews but also Shiite Muslims and even Sunni Muslims who have not fully accepted its extreme interpretation of the Quran, including strict observance of sharia law. 

What is the likelihood that ISIS will take over not only Iraq but the West Bank and Gaza along with the rest of “the Levant” (Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, and parts of Turkey)? 

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First, it is highly doubtful that ISIS will ultimately prevail in Iraq or Syria, two failed states where the reins of government are up for grabs. ISIS remains a terrorist group, and terrorists have rarely, if ever, succeeded in taking over the governance of a country. 

 In Iraq, its success thus far owes to a premature U.S. troop pullout in 2011, an incompetent Shiite-dominated government in Baghdad that has mistreated many Sunnis and alienated other elements of the population, an Iraqi military that is weak in its capabilities and loyalty to the regime, and the failure of the international community to mount an adequate response to ISIS aggression. Given its reputation for brutality, ISIS’s appeal remains limited, with Iraq more likely to break into separate Sunni, Shiite, and Kurdish states than a state ruled by ISIS. 

In Syria, ISIS has become the dominant faction in the Sunni resistance to Syrian dictator Bashar Assad, an Alawite with Shiite ties who has been backed by Iran and Hezbollah. Although Assad may fall, he still remains in power with no signs ISIS is equipped to replace him in Damascus. 

Even less likely than an ISIS takeover of Iraq and Syria is ISIS gaining control of neighboring states such as Jordan, Lebanon, and Turkey, which have secular traditions and at least have functioning governments. It is possible ISIS could fill the vacuum left by Hamas in the Palestinian territories if Israel were to eliminate or weaken Hamas; but, again, ISIS would have little appeal for most Palestinians, certainly the female half, along with the intellectual, commercial and professional classes. 

Historically, terrorists have been particularly unsuccessful in achieving their larger political aspirations, in ISIS’ case establishing a pan-Muslim caliphate ruling over all of Islam worldwide. The latter entity would presumably aim to include Saudi Arabia (the seat of Islam), Indonesia (the largest Muslim country in the world), and even Detroit and Dearborn, Mich., with their sizeable Muslim populations. A Martian invasion seems more likely.

Still, ISIS is marching on and continues to pose a serious security challenge for many countries inside and outside the Middle East, including the United States. A recent Post-Dispatch headline on the violence in Iraq read “Islamic State Destroys Historic Mosque in Mosul.” What is odd is the labeling of ISIS as a “state.” Even if ISIS calls itself such, there is zero likelihood that any other state in the world will recognize it as a new entity with dark boundaries on the world map. 

After all, a “state” by definition is a political unit with a relatively well-defined population and territory over which a central government exercises sovereignty. It is oxymoronic to call a nonstate actor such as a terrorist group a state. 

If somehow ISIS was able to claim statehood, there might actually be a silver lining in that it would have to have an “address” — the emir could not just roam around hiding in caves or tunnels or mountain fortresses – so that we would have a clear target to aim at for purposes of deterrence or retaliation. The caliph might not be around very long. 

State or no state, what is most puzzling is why the international community has not yet tried to mobilize a global coalition through the United Nations to eliminate ISIS fighters in Iraq and elsewhere where you can find them on the battlefield. 

Virtually every U.N. member is hostile to ISIS and feels threatened by it — ranging from the Perm Five on the Security Council (the United States, China, Russia, Britain and France) to the entire European Union to Saudi Arabia to Iraq and the Levant countries and surrounding world regions. 

Heck, maybe we could even get al-Qaida to join. All it would take is some global leadership, but where is Washington? I and others suggested long ago that the Obama administration should seek a U.N. collective security operation, but only this week did Secretary of State Kerry finally propose this idea. 

Who knows – this sort of project might even provide the functional equivalent of a Martian invasion in bringing the world together.