There is a larger context that must be considered if we are to understand the struggle with the Islamic State for control of Ramadi. That context is geographical in part and involves the group’s control over Fallujah and Mosul, its designs on Anbar Province, and all of the Islamic State’s Syrian holdings. The larger issue does not concern only territory, however. It is of vital importance to prevent the Islamic State from establishing an actual, recognizable state to give substance to its declared religious-political caliphate. A state is a government, but a government is not necessarily a state. The Islamic State has established several city, town, and village governments, but these in combination do not constitute a state.
It is imperative to prevent Islamic State from establishing any kind of state. Even a state built initially on war and savagery would become in due course a regime – one that has, as a matter of realistic international diplomacy, a de facto legitimacy because it controls and governs significant territory and looks to be permanent. Gradually, the origin of the ISIS state would become a moot point, as is the case with any revolutionary government that becomes permanent.
As time passes, the psychology of international attitudes would change toward an ISIS state. Its existence, and the necessity of dealing with reality as it is, would become assumptions of international diplomacy. International public opinion would get accustomed to thinking of Islamic State as a proper state, even if it is not part of the so-called international community. (Imagine a certain number of years from now an Islamic State foreign minister taking a seat at an international negotiating table.)
In short, containing the Islamic State writ to local governments is vital, so that destroying it remains a matter of ousting its fighters from given areas, rather than invasion.
Let us imagine how an ISIS regime would be developed. First, the claim of having established a caliphate would be supplemented with a declaration of statehood. As a matter of becoming an established state, ISIS would create a permanent public government with the usual institutions of government (a Cabinet, government ministers, a permanent military, a bureaucracy to administer institutions and policies, a judicial system). In addition to establishing the institutions of a state that might, for example, apply for United Nations membership, ISIS leaders would add the specific, supplementary religious, political, and social dimensions that would wield authority over the entire regime: the caliph himself as a supreme leader, a Sharia council that shares authority with him, and others. The existing clandestine Islamic State caliphate structures are, in other words, a prefiguration of what it would look like as a permanent regime. Finally, to declare a state would appear to be a qualitative leap in Islamic State’s success, and this could inspire a new wave of recruits from abroad.
Developing an explicit plan and strategy to contain and destroy the Islamic State is necessary. Everyone knows it will not be easy – it would take years, as President Barack Obama, Secretary of State John Kerry, and our military leaders emphasize. But showing that our military action is not grounded in mere improvisation, which leaves the initiative to the adversary, will get the Islamic State’s attention. Putting ISIS on the defensive as often as possible will change the battlefield. Planning efforts, furthermore, should assume that grinding up ISIS will happen in stages, with gains and retreats. ISIS was ousted from Tikrit weeks ago and just took Ramadi this past weekend, for example.
Big regional powers, especially Turkey, must be persuaded that their own interest demands a foray into the fight, militarily as well as politically. The more threatening ISIS becomes to Turkish, Iranian, and Egyptian territory, the greater the pressure to act with military force. Turkey successfully avoided the fight to save Kobani from ISIS. But further down the road its calculation may change. Tehran is already active in Iraq and Syria, in part to keep the Islamic State away from its own borders. The Islamic State, in its long-game maps and ideological declarations, pinpoints the Islamic Republic of Iran as a target country. Saudi Arabia might find itself threatened as well – logically so, because its territory contains the holiest sites in Islam: Mecca and Medina. The Islamic State claims authority over global Islam as a whole, therefore its ultimate goal must be to overthrow the Saudi regime and rule in its stead.
Realistically, in spite of all the dire scenarios that can be conjured, the Islamic State is all but certain to fail and will be destroyed. But the Middle East is changed forever, geopolitically and in human terms. The fundamental issue is how much havoc will be wreaked along the way.