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How the ISIS Declaration of a Caliphate Will Impact Its Status on the Ground

Our experts analyze why the move to become the Islamic State is significant – and whether anyone will take al-Baghdadi seriously as caliph.

Written by Karen Leigh Published on Read time Approx. 4 minutes

On Sunday, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) declared a caliphate over its terrain, instating strict religious rule over the areas it now controls. The Sunni militant group stormed the Iraqi city of Mosul earlier this month, then closed in on Tikrit (of which it has since lost partial control) and key border posts, essentially opening the border from Mosul to its eastern Syria stronghold of Raqqa.

The group also said it was rebranding, henceforth calling itself the Islamic State.

Despite the group’s confidence and its potent show of force, many wondered if yesterday’s announcement of a caliphate was too soon for a group whose influence in Iraq and Syria was, with the exception of Raqqa province and parts of Deir Ezzor, tentative until this month.

We asked Aymenn al-Tamimi, a fellow at the Middle East Forum who studies the Syrian jihad; Steven Heydemann, vice president for applied conflict research at the U.S. Institute of Peace in Washington, and Theodore Karasik, director of research and development at the Institute for Near East and Gulf Military Analysis (INEGMA) in Dubai, to weigh in on the consequences of ISIS’s announcement.

Syria Deeply: What will be the immediate significance of the declaration?

Steven Heydemann: Juan Cole has made the point that there really is very little interest among Muslims in the establishment of a caliphate, and that this may have some appeal to people who are already inclined to be sympathetic to ISIS, but beyond that, we should expect not very much to change as a result.

The one group among whom this announcement might be seen as significant is among those who are already inclined to be sympathetic to ISIS, or who are looking for something like this to tip over the edge from passive support to active involvement, so I do think this will potentially generate increased interest among those alienated, somewhat marginal young people, especially young men, who find ISIS appealing.

Theodore Karasik: The significance is that the group is now developing its state structure and importantly did so on the first day of Ramadan. This gives them added credentials in terms of their religious discourse and message that will function as a recruitment took as well as attract more supporters across the region.

For those who are Sunni and buy the messages of ISIS, it’s a tremendous boost. For those against it, like Shiites, it’s ominous.

Aymenn al-Tamimi: In the long run, infighting will increase, though I still think ISIS has the advantage over its rivals of being better equipped and funded. The idea of a caliphate certainly does have popular appeal, and that shouldn’t be overlooked. The ideological basis for this narrative of why the caliphate needs to be revived is that the Muslim world has been in decline relative to the rest of the world, and that the decline is due to the fact that the Muslim world is not united under a caliphate and that it’s been contaminated by foreign ideas like nationalism, democracy and so on.

Many of the past systems, like Arab nationalism haven’t brought much success. So the narrative says, “We need to go back to the time we were glorious,” and a society only governed by Islamic law. Historically, that’s not true, of course. But it does have some popular appeal. And it will attract support from outside. Pro-ISIS trends already exist in Gaza and Libya, Tunisia and so on. But whether they’ll use it to take Baghdad, no.

Syria Deeply: What was behind the timing of the announcement?

Heydemann: They needed to move quickly to announce the formation of a state, because in the absence of any significant additional gains on the ground, it is one of the most significant steps they could take to signal their intentions and sustain their momentum in the political arena if not militarily. So I’m not surprised that they moved so quickly. ISIS is a movement that has a great deal of difficulty when it comes to sustaining control and stabilizing its authority, and this may be an effort to try and deal with the challenges it’s confronted in doing that in other settings in the past. But I’m not sure it’s going to be any more affected.

al-Tamimi: It was expected in that ISIS had been building up its messaging since September, a promise of a caliphate. Baghdadi, since very early on, has been [creating] an image of a caliph. Also you have these graphics, like the entire world under the banner of ISIS, which indicates that the goal was a global caliphate. It’s been building up.

Some people say they declared it too early, because they haven’t conquered Baghdad yet. But Raqqa’s the de facto capital of ISIS.

Syria Deeply: Was it too early? Could it backfire?

al-Tamimi: It could, never say never. They demanded allegiance from all Muslims. It is somewhat of a risk, but I think if this does ultimately spark the decline of ISIS, in the long run, it would be over a timescale of years, not in the near future.

Syria Deeply: How seriously will people take Baghdadi now?

Heydemann: No one who is inclined to look at Baghdadi as nothing more than a violent sectarian militia leader is going to be persuaded by this announcement to change their opinion. No one will accept this self-declaration of Baghdadi as a caliph with any seriousness.

Syria Deeply: What will see over the next few weeks?

Karasik: Clearly, ISIS has a governmental model that they have used successfully in Syria and are starting to use in Iraq. However, they are running into a problem with natural resources in order to help boost their state’s potential. They are therefore trying to grab as many physical assets as they can as they expand, because they’re going to want to develop their own economy. So we need to watch for additional seizure of assets to help them develop their state.

On top of that as we run through Ramadan, there’s a very significant day coming [on July 24] called the Night of Power, or Laylat al-Qadr, which is the most religious evening of the holy month. That is when we may see more announcements and activity by ISIS that could have significance.

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