Yesterday's declaration of a caliphate by the leading jihadi army in Iraq and Syria – and its demand that Muslims swear oaths of fealty to its leader – could prove the most disastrous piece of jihadi overreach since Al Qaeda in Iraq's routine use of torture and beheadings spurred a Sunni Arab backlash in 2006.
The formerly Al Qaeda-linked jihadis are generally reported as going from strength to strength in Iraq, taking and holding cities like Mosul and Tikrit from the central government. But the success of the uprising in Iraq in the past month has rested heavily on the backs of Sunni Arab tribes and former Baathists with formal military training. And the grandiose announcement – a telegraphed intent to impose a harsh and regressive vision of Islam on as much territory as possible – is unlikely to make them happy.
The almost comic extent of the ISIS caliphate claim was made clear by its latest name change to simply "Islamic State." Not an Islamic State in Iraq, as it once called itself, or an Islamic State for Iraq and the Levant, as it more recently styled itself. But "Islamic State," full stop. For everybody. An audio recording from the group's spokesman went on to say the "cleric Baghdadi was designated the caliph of the Muslims."
Jihadi leader Abu Bakr Baghdadi (a nom de guerre for Ibrahim Awwad Ibrahim Ali al-Badri al-Sammarai, an Iraqi from Samarra who's been fighting on the side of jihad groups based in Iraq since 2003) now says he's the boss of the world's 1.5 billion Muslims and wants to be called "Caliph Ibrahim." His and his followers' notion of a global caliphate is a fairly modern one that they nevertheless imagine has deep historical antecedents.
The last time their group got a whiff of success was in 2005, when the Sunni Arab tribes of Iraq's Anbar Province and a few other places were in open insurrection against the Shiite-dominated central government. But they turned their allies into enemies by forcing locals' young daughters to marry their foreign fighters, flogging people for offenses like smoking, and outlawing traditional religious and cultural practices. The jihadis' injection of alien beliefs into tribal Iraqi society led to the counter-uprising of Sunni Arab tribes known as the "Awakening."
The brutality of the ISIS forerunner was such that even Al Qaeda's Ayman al-Zawahiri repeatedly warned of the damage they were doing to their cause. That was one cause of the formal rupture between Al Qaeda and the main body of Iraqi jihadis in 2006.
Will they really wear out their welcome?
To be sure, not everyone agrees. Steven Cook took on this (and other) arguments, or as he called them "bad assumptions," in an interesting piece published earlier today. On the issue of the jihadis inevitably wearing out their welcome, he writes:
The first iteration of al Qaeda in Iraq engaged in such a repugnant range of behaviors that it sowed its own demise when the tribes of western Iraq rose up—with the help of money and American arms—against the terrorists. According to endless press reports, the Islamic State is so awful and violent that even al Qaeda central could not countenance the excesses of the group. (The real reason for the split is not Ayman al Zawahiri’s sudden revulsion at the violent methods of Abu Bakr al Baghdadi, but rather competition over who gets to lead the transnational jihadist movement.) As a result, the Islamic State is going to go the same way as its forebearer. There are two problems with this assumption. First, as Thanassis Cambanis makes clear in an interesting article in Sunday’s Boston Globe, the Islamic State actually has something to offer the Sunnis now under its flag—a semblance of citizenship that is impossible in Iraq and elsewhere in the region. Second, this is not 2006. As the Turks say, “You can’t bathe in the same bath water twice.” The “awakening” that eventually disposed of al Qaeda in Iraq and other groups that terrorized the country from 2004-2007 happened simultaneously with (or almost simultaneously with) the surge of American forces, which is not happening again.
I'm betting, however, that if Iraq's Sunni Arab tribesmen manage to consolidate their gains and perhaps secede from Iraq, they will not be interested in living under the rule of a bunch of semi-educated fighters eager to recreate what they imagine to have been the political and social conditions of the 7th and 8th centuries. The citizenship these tribesmen want is not the one the jihadis are offering – and in the end, the former Iraqi Army officers and soldiers who have been crucial to the uprising's success so far will fight for control.
One wild card in all this is that if fear of and hostility toward the Shiite-led government in Baghdad is high enough, average Sunni Arabs may be willing to put up with a lot. And in Iraq they have plenty to fear, with the Maliki government having routinely used torture and detention of Sunni Arabs as a tool of social control. With Shiite death squads now stalking the streets of Baghdad and other cities once more, tolerating the thuggish and chauvinistic jihadis may appeal if it means staying out from under Baghdad's thumb.
The key question here is: How much of the balance of insurgent power is in the jihadis' hands?
America's very short memory
One of the clearest things about the current situation is how little US political leaders have learned about Iraq over the past decade, with a goldfish-like institutional memory exposed by the awkward fumbling for solutions.
Obama has said that Iraq "must" have an inclusive government. John Kerry has done likewise in person with Mr. Maliki and, strangely, has ventured to the Gulf monarchies like Saudi Arabia to appeal to them to exert their influence over Maliki. (That's an influence they do not possess; Maliki despises the Sunni Gulf monarchs and the feeling is mutual).
But no matter how powerful this hope that some magic concoction of political forces will create a desire for "inclusion" and "reconciliation," it doesn't make it possible. Reports that the US has been reaching out to Ahmad Chalabi – repeatedly accused by US intelligence officials of being a Iranian intelligence asset (a charge he has denied) who is loathed by Iraq's Sunni Arabs for his role in creating and running the post-2003 de-Baathification program – shows how far the Obama administration is at sea, like the Bush administration before it, when it comes to Iraqi realities. Mr. Chalabi was also a long-time intelligence asset of the CIA, until his relationship with the US cooled in 2004.
Iraq is not a place where any significant political actor is seeking "reconciliation." The Maliki government has been chauvinistic and heavy-handed with Iraq's Sunni Arab minority – but there's zero reason to think that any of the other Shiite Islamist parties and leaders would behave much differently. The Kurds – who are "Iraqi" in name only – have taken advantage of the latest turmoil to expand their territory at the expense of the central government and to threaten an independence declaration. The Sunni Arabs – many of whom erroneously believe they're in a demographic majority – want to forcibly take control of as much of the country as they can.
On the international level, Saudi Arabia and the rest of the Gulf monarchies are interested in supporting the Sunni Arab uprising, as way to weaken Iran and their Shiite Iraqi partners. Iran, of course, is determined that Iraq's current concentration of power in Shiite Islamist hands persist.
Meanwhile, the jihadis formerly known as ISIS dream of a caliphate that will span the globe. They are unlikely to get it, but are looking more likely every day to contribute to the division of Iraq into ethnic and sectarian pieces.