How real is ISIS’ statehood bid in the Middle East?

ISIS has as good a claim to statehood as either the governments of Iraq or Syria

Dr. Azeem Ibrahim
Dr. Azeem Ibrahim
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What is there to say about the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria? To its supporters, it is the coming into being of a long overdue, legitimate, Sunni sovereign state, in a geographical area where a Sunni majority has been ruled over by Shias, Alawites and Baathists. To its detractors, it is but an upstart band of thugs with enough firepower to cause serious instability in an already fragile region – a terrorist group that is exploiting the current weakness of the states in Iraq and Syria in order to further an extremist agenda. And if anything sets them apart from any other militia of the Arab Spring, it is simply a higher degree of organization and more military success.

The far more frightening prospect is that in reality, even though we might find it difficult to think it, ISIS might be both those things at the same time. Now, this is not a piece about ISIS. This is a piece about the political realities of the Middle East: how to understand them, and what, if anything, can be done to stabilize the region.

The first step in this is to understand the nature of the state in the region, and the role it plays in the political lives of the people. What is a state? Normally, the minimum meaning of a state is a social/political set of institutions that, on the one hand, claims a monopoly over the legitimate use of force within a territory, and on the other, successfully exerts the most force within that territory, irrespective of questions of legitimacy. It’s also a nice extra when such a political reality is recognized by other states in the international community, and there are normal international treaties and interactions with other states in the United Nations to reflect this. And everyone is happy when this state is accepted by the local population, or as much of it as possible. This is especially so if it is legitimated by peaceful means every few years, by having elections and democratic means of discussing the nature and the future of the state.

ISIS is just a bunch of thugs with guns. But, they have as good a claim to statehood in the area as either the governments of Iraq or Syria

Dr. Azeem Ibrahim

The problem in Syria and Iraq, however, is that the respective Syrian or Iraqi governments represent states in a U.N. council meeting much more than they represent actual existing states in Mosul, in Tikrit, in Fallujah, or in ar-Raqqah. The problem is that an Iraqi Kurd is not, and does not feel, Iraqi, in the same way that a Frenchman might feel French. He is a Kurd, and that is all. He just happens to be in a place that on U.N. maps shows up behind a certain line, in a place labeled Iraq. The problem is that the maps of Syria and Iraq are lying about the political realities of these places. In so far as Iraq and Syria are states as we would understand them, they are so at most over half of the territories they claim on maps - if that.


For decades, in Iraq, a Kurd, or a Marsh Arab was not citizen in whom the government was interested. If one was not a Baathist, just as if now one is not Shiite, the government may try to impose its rule over them, but has very little claim to be doing so legitimately. In Syria, the majority Sunni population has been discriminated against systematically for decades.

But now, these states can no longer exert power over their claimed territory. And since they have forfeited their claim to legitimacy a long time ago, the political reality is that the state of Iraq does not exist in Tikrit, any more than the state of Syria exists in ar-Raqqah. Is ISIS then the sovereign state over these cities? Perhaps we would prefer to answer “no.” ISIS is, after all, just a bunch of thugs with guns. But as things stand, they have as good a claim to statehood in the area as either the governments of Iraq or Syria. Neither of these governments has behaved that differently to thugs with guns for a very long time. And so long as that remains the case, the people of this region will not be citizens: they will be members of their tribe, they will be fighters for their families, they will be devotees to their religion (whether Sunni, Shiite, Alawite, Christian and so on) and they will defend themselves and their political groups with guns and bloodshed.


Dr. Azeem Ibrahim is a Research Professor at the Strategic Studies Institute, US Army War College and Lecturer in International Security at the University of Chicago. He completed his PhD from the University of Cambridge and served as an International Security Fellow at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard and a World Fellow at Yale. Over the years he has met and advised numerous world leaders on policy development and was ranked as a Top 100 Global Thinker by the European Social Think Tank in 2010 and a Young Global Leader by the World Economic Forum. He tweets @AzeemIbrahim

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.
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