For the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), the Muslim holy month of Ramadan is a month of jihad and crucial decisions. ISIS kicked off the month of Ramadan with the declaration of its Islamic State and it is, no doubt, planning large-scale military operations throughout the month. ISIS’s advance in Syria and Iraq amply demonstrates that the group has a clear military strategy in mind.
ISIS’s confirmation that the holy month would be a month of jihad and martyrdom came as a surprise. ISIS leader Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi must be taken seriously, and his declaration of an Islamic State must also be dealt with in a serious manner. If there is no decisive reaction to this, this putative Islamic State will represent a threat to the entire Middle East.
The militant group’s capture of Mosul two weeks ago proves that Abu-Bakr Al-Baghdadi and his lieutenants can think strategically. ISIS could achieve a new military breakthrough anywhere over the coming months and so concerned regional states must remain vigilant to the ISIS threat.
ISIS can undermine the stability of Baghdad through the suicide attacks that are being perpetrated by its robot-like followers. Everyone remembers the era of Al-Qaeda in Iraq before the terrorist group was driven out by the Awakening Councils when booby-trapped cars were exploding on a daily basis killing dozens. While ISIS could be seeking to extend its grip beyond Syria and Iraq and into Jordan, so the group must not be taken lightly.
The declaration of an Islamic State may be the boldest step taken by ISIS, but it could also be the turning point where the militant group has stretched too far too fast and has thrown away all its previous gains and victories. In its declaration of this Islamic State, ISIS said it had all the legal requirements to establish a caliphate, calling on all jihadist groups, as well as all Muslims across the world, to swear allegiance to Caliph Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi.
This call has had two opposing consequences. First, it has led to a surge of hostility from other jihadist groups towards ISIS. At the same time, it may also serve to attract new followers to ISIS among young Islamists who want to attach themselves to the group’s rising star.
ISIS has achieved victories in Iraq as part of a broad alliance with the country’s oppressed Sunnis against the government of Nuri Al-Maliki. However the declaration of an Islamic State sends a clear signal to Iraqi and Syrian Sunnis—they will be subjects to ISIS and Caliph Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi. Ultimately, this may disrupt the alliance between ISIS and the Sunnis which allowed ISIS to take and hold this territory in the first place. If a new coalition government in Iraq can be formed, and is able to confront and defeat ISIS, everyone will realize that Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi was blinded by his lust for power.
However ISIS’s advance has resulted in another important consequence: a Turkish-Kurdish alliance. This new state of relations between Ankara and Erbil could change the face of Iraq more than anything else. The 2003 US invasion of Iraq changed the Arab face of Iraq. Now, the impossible alliance between Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) President Massoud Barzani could change Iraq again.
Iraq’s Kurds are now moving towards establishing a state of their own, with tacit support from Ankara. This is something that previously would have been unimaginable. The Kurds prevented oil-rich Kirkuk from falling into the clutches of ISIS, but now Barzani is saying that the Kurds will not give up Kirkuk.
For 10 years, the Kurds tried to keep Iraq united. However, after Mosul and Kirkuk, they are now convinced that Iraq needs a new political scene following the failure of Maliki’s policies over the past eight years. A few days before ISIS’s capture of Mosul, the Kurds warned the Baghdad government of the Islamist advance. Baghdad’s response was that everything is under control. After Mosul, the Kurds will focus on protecting their own territory and avoid getting embroiled in the sectarian conflict that is emerging in Iraq. The priority for the KRG and its Peshmerga fighters will be to protect Kurdistan and everybody who has sought refuge there regardless of sect or ethnicity.
As for Ankara, it wants a Kurdish state as a buffer between Turkey and the emerging chaos. In return, this new state of Kurdistan will receive oil and gas contracts. The modern state of Turkey has long given up hopes of the return of disputed territory, including Kirkuk and Mosul, while Barzani has assured Ankara that he views the Kurds in Turkey as Turkish citizens first and foremost. This is the reverse of his stance on the Kurds in Syria and Iran. The KRG president is seeking to take advantage of Erdoğan’s need for oil and a buffer state.
Barzani will deliver on his promises because Turkey represents the lifeblood for this new Kurdistan, not to mention the natural resources that the Kurdish state already enjoys. Kurdish control of Kirkuk will not be reversed. Even if a coalition government is formed, Baghdad will be unable to rewind the clock in Kirkuk. In fact, Iraq and Turkey need the Kurds and their Peshmerga forces to repel ISIS more than the Kurds need Baghdad and Ankara. This puts the Iraqi Kurds in a strong negotiating position.
Regardless of what final form this Kurdish state takes, the outcome of the current unrest will result in a stronger and more influential Kurdish entity. Whether Baghdad likes it or not, this entity will also have a part to play in the ongoing dialogue about the future of Syria and the situation of the Kurds there. In addition to this, a confident Erbil government—backed by Ankara—could also strengthen the resolve of the Kurds in south-eastern Turkey to demand autonomy.
Let us be clear, Baghdadi’s declaration of an Islamic State must be taken seriously; he declared the annulment of the Sykes-Picot agreement which drew up the borders of the region, not just the borders of Iraq and Syria, but also Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan. While ISIS is now focusing on Iraq, their objectives surely go far beyond this.