Media accounts of gruesome executions and beheadings carried out by ISIS fighters over the past week have put in the background another aspect of their strategy besides barbarism: the process of constructing a state.
Islamic State’s leadership announced that it intends to issue its own currency, coins denominated in gold, silver and copper. Anti-ISIS governments should take notice. Creating a currency represents another piece in a state-building strategy to institutionalize the so-called caliphate.
IS has already put into place certain aspects of a normal state. A recent New York Times article noted that it not only has a flag, it has also created courts (a religious judicial system based on sharia law) and proto-government ministries. In other words it is establishing a political government beyond its military-terrorist armed forces. Islamic State has even issued passports and license plates.
I noted in an earlier Huffpost column that when its leaders believe the moment is right Islamic State will surely announce a formal government comporting a typical array of ministers, including a foreign minister and diplomatic corps, all under the guidance of the supreme leader, the caliph, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. Islamic State has no defined boundaries as yet but other states have been proclaimed without having established frontiers.
The international anti-ISIS coalition led by the U.S. should therefore begin to think in larger terms, wider and deeper than a military struggle (plus a start-up internet campaign designed to combat the glorification of totalitarian jihad).
Really to matter, ISIS doesn’t necessarily need to control all the territory and population it now holds. Even a less expansive Islamic State, if it is permanent, will oblige outside countries to reckon with it. And if an established Islamic State continues to attract fighters and try to expand, neighboring states will be in a permanent state of war with it.
There are three scenarios for thinking about how to deal with ISIS/Islamic State.
The first is to destroy ISIS on the battlefield and dismantle Islamic State to prevent it from consolidating as a regime. The second, failing that, is to plan to destroy Islamic State once it is established—when it must defend territory, population and institutions, including a capital city and when it will be assailed by various forces, jihadi and otherwise, in addition to coalition governments. The third scenario, unfortunately, is that Islamic State becomes permanent (the “caliphate”). In this case the outside world, in particular neighboring countries such as Turkey, Iran and Saudi Arabia, has to accept it de jure or de facto and deal with it whether or not it is given diplomatic recognition.
In such a world the policies of neighbor states might not be what Americans would assume. Ankara, for example, thinking brutally in its own interest, might prefer a consolidated Islamic State on its border rather than some free-flowing uncontrollable Iraqi/Syrian Kurdish power that would inflame its own Kurdish minority to go to war for the dream of an integrated Kurdistan. Ankara’s first interest would be to maintain Turkey’s territorial integrity; dealing with Islamic State could come later. In addition, Islamic State victory would involve overthrow of the Assad regime in what is left of Syria. This is Turkey’s other primary interest.
How Tehran and Riyadh see their own interests evolving in the current Middle East chaos will depend on circumstances rather than unshakeable first principles. For example, if propping up Assad in Damascus becomes unsustainable, Iran will have to consider alternatives. One of these would be closer cooperation with the coalition in attacking Islamic State and new common interests in the region with Washington, Ankara and Riyadh.
Furthermore, Iran and Saudi Arabia would be influenced by large-scale terrorism perpetrated against them—penetration of their borders by ISIS-inspired Sunni and other jihadi groups. Protection of their own stability is, as in Turkey, their first priority. Another issue involving all the coalition governments is how the various jihadi groups will organize their own loyalties. Jihadis are confused themselves about which way the winds are blowing, who their best or least damaging allies might be.
It’s a maddening scene for policy-makers. Nevertheless, it’s time for governments, first of all the U.S., to think about post-ISIS geopolitics. What will happen if and when ISIS is defeated and Islamic State dismantled?
It may be useful to consider a large, even unprecedented international conference to re-examine the Middle East in general. One issue is who would convene the conference and what forum or legitimacy would it represent. A second is who would be invited—what states and what non-state actors. A third is the agenda, what subjects will be considered, from borders to regimes to regional institutions and connections to global institutions.
One thing is certain: it seems highly implausible that the goal of a geopolitical meeting of minds ought to be to put Humpty-Dumpty back together again.