The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), a Sunni extremist group, has declared the birth of a caliphate — an Islamic state that claims the allegiance of all Muslims — on territory that it controls in Iraq and Syria. The caliphate is unlikely to exist for long: It is surrounded by enemies that see it as a threat to their existence.
But ISIL’s advances into Iraq have eroded the fragile equilibrium that held that state together and may spur the Kurds to follow suit and declare their own long-sought state of Kurdistan.
Thus far, ISIL has seized hundreds of square kilometers of land that straddles the border of Iraq and Syria. In Syria, it controls territory in Deir Ezzor near the Iraq border, Raqa in the north and parts of Aleppo province.
In Iraq, it has seized the northern cities of Mosul and Tikrit, and ISIL forces continue to march southward toward Baghdad, although they are meeting increasing resistance. Its control of border towns means that ISIL effectively controls one swath of territory that spans both states.
Last week, the group declared it had established a caliphate, an Islamic state, a dream of Sunni Muslims throughout the world, including Osama bin Laden. (In fact, there have been several caliphates in history. The most recent was part of the Ottoman Empire and included parts of North Africa, the Persian Gulf, Eastern Europe, modern Greece and Iraq.) The declaration called on all Sunnis to rally to the new state and support the leader of ISIL, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, as the new caliph, or successor to Prophet Mohammed.
The declaration is as much a challenge to Ayman al-Zawahiri, the leader of al-Qaida, as it is to the government of Iraq, Shiite Muslims and the West.
Al-Baghdadi and ISIL were kicked out of al-Qaida for being too violent. The organization’s gains and the declaration of the caliphate are its way of asserting that ISIL, not al-Qaida, is the center of the global jihadist movement.
There is a real fear in the West that the territory under ISIL control will become a sanctuary for jihadis, much like Afghanistan was under the Taliban, and provide a place for recruitment, radicalization and training of terrorists.
Fortunately the state is not likely to survive. While ISIL’s ferocious assault has exposed the fault lines in the Iraqi state in the aftermath of the U.S. invasion — Iraqi troops put down their weapons and ran when confronted, and the Iraqi Parliament has been unable to reach a quorum even as ISIL advances — the government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has requested aid from all sources.
As U.S. President Barack Obama is skeptical about having the American military return to Iraq, the United States has been slow to offer little more than a token force. Russia, on the other hand, has dispatched fighter planes and pilots to battle the insurgents.
Iran, too, has pledged to do what it can to assist its co-religionists in Baghdad in the fight against the Sunni forces; reportedly military equipment has already arrived in Iraq. Syrian leader Bashar Assad has also promised materiel and support. Against that array of forces, ISIL is unlikely to survive, and if it does, it will not possess territory.
But if the caliphate dissolves, the new state of Kurdistan looks increasingly likely to emerge. There are nearly 4 million Kurds living in northern Iraq, who have never become part of the Iraqi state.
The ruling authority in Baghdad has talked to Kurdish leaders since the 1950s, but integration was never achieved. When Iraq President Saddam Hussein took power the relationship turned hostile, and his government resorted to ethnic cleansing in the late 1980s. During the Persian Gulf War, international troops and a U.S.-led no fly zone permitted the Kurds to form a regional government that was practically an independent state.
Unfortunately for Kurdish aspirations, other regional governments feared that an independent Kurdistan in Iraq would encourage their Kurdish populations to join ranks.
Turkey, in particular, was opposed, but other governments feared the chaos that would follow from a redrawing of regional borders — no matter how artificial they appeared. The ISIL advance has changed the dynamic.
Kurdish forces have repelled ISIL, while Kurdish militias have taken Kirkuk, an oil-producing city that Kurds claim and the Iraqi government considers beyond Kurdish borders.
The increasing viability of a Kurdish state — by no means assured, given its lack of access to port facilities and the growing burden of refugees fleeing ISIL — changes regional calculations.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has called for the establishment of a Kurdish state as part of a coalition of moderate forces in the region.
Even Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan is talking to Kurdish leaders. He hosted a group from northern Iraq and is trying to create a new legal framework for talks with the Kurdish groups in Turkey. Some believe he is trying to strengthen his hand and gain support for a run at the presidency later this year. If so, it is a gamble, but Erdogan has gambled in the past and won.
Regardless of that outcome, Iraq’s troubles make the dream of a Kurdish state even more tantalizing. Kurdish President Masoud Barzani has declared that “The time is here for the Kurdistan people to determine their future.” It may be time to redraw the maps.