War Stories

ISIS’ Leader Just Declared Himself Caliph

Why that might actually mean that the militia is sputtering.

The remains of a burnt out Iraqi army vehicle are seen not far outside of Mosul earlier this month, after ISIS stormed through the city.

Photo by Safin Hamed/AFP/Getty Images

The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, or ISIS, the militia that has overrun much of northern and western Iraq in recent days, may be on the brink of sputtering out.

Exhibit A: This past Sunday, the first day of Ramadan, the leader of ISIS, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, declared himself the “caliph”—the holy leader—of a new Islamic state and ordered all Muslims, not just in the region but worldwide, to pay obeisance to him and to no other Muslim leader.

Some may take this as a sign of his movement’s growing strength and confidence. But if the history of grandiose caliph-wannabes is consulted (and Juan Cole has assembled the wild chronicle), it resembles more a sign of delusion and desperation.

Only a small fraction of the world’s 1.5 billion Muslims have the slightest interest in recreating the caliphate of the seventh century, and many of those who do have someone else in mind as caliph. Some of these dissidents live in the ISIS leader’s neighborhood, not least the followers of Ayman al-Zawahiri, the head of al-Qaida.

And so we are seeing the deepening of a fissure within Sunni radicalism—a split has been growing rancorous for some time.

The most obvious sign of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s pretentiousness is that the ground his men have overrun hardly constitutes a nation-state. He hasn’t set up a government, collected taxes, provided services, created institutions, or done any of the other things that real states routinely do all over the planet.

Another sign: Baghdadi has plundered certain Iraqi cities, but it can’t be said that he’s conquered them. By all accounts, ISIS troops marauding through Iraq number fewer than 10,000. This is not enough to storm Mosul, Tikrit, and Fallujah—and leave behind enough men in each place to control the terrain. American troops had this same problem during the early occupation: They would clear a town of bad guys and move on to the next town—at which point the bad guys would come back. Strategists referred to this as a failure to “clear and hold.” ISIS is clearing, but they’re not holding.

In its first few days, the ISIS onslaught met no resistance. The Iraqi army—in Mosul, an entire division of American-trained soldiers—simply fled, leaving behind their uniforms, weapons, and vehicles. But this wholesale surrender had little to do with the military prowess or spiritual appeal of ISIS. In a paper published today by Caerus Associates, Yasir Abbas, and Dan Trombly conclude—mainly from interviews with Iraqi soldiers and other insiders—that much of the Iraqi army had been crumbling for the past two years, as a result of corruption, lax maintenance, and the subsequent corrosion of morale.

Even so, once ISIS “cleared” Mosul and the other towns of Iraqi security forces, its armed men moved on. They left things in the hands of local Sunnis—mainly Baathists, officers from Saddam Hussein’s disbanded army, who consented to this alliance-of-convenience with ISIS because they shared its goal of overthrowing Nouri al-Maliki, Iraq’s Shiite prime minister. But most of these Baathists are secular; they don’t share their tactical partners’ devotion to sharia law, much less Baghdadi’s demand to obey him as the one and only Muslim leader. Deborah Amos recently reported on NPR that many Christians, including the archbishop of the Chaldean church, have returned to Mosul after initially fleeing to Kurdistan, in part because the ISIS militiamen who scared them away are for the most part gone.

Amos says that at least 15 separate groups now control Mosul: In ISIS areas, people can’t smoke; in other areas they can. For the moment, all of them are united in their opposition to Maliki’s sectarian rule. Once that changes, whether because ISIS and its allies take the capital or because a new more conciliatory government comes to power, these enormous disagreements will come to the fore—and it’s not at all clear that the caliph’s followers will triumph.

Meanwhile, on a strictly military level, it’s worth noting that the maps showing who’s winning where in Iraq have hardly changed since the initial ISIS thrust. In Tikrit, Saddam Hussein’s hometown, ISIS isn’t even the lead fighting force. And as ISIS and its allies darted southward toward  the Shiite-dominant capital of Baghdad, Iraq’s security forces started putting up a fight; they were defending their homes, their sectarian solidarity, their state—and they got serious. They were joined by Shiite militias and Iran’s Quds special forces. Meanwhile, in the Sunni strongholds of western Iraq, ISIS positions have been bombed by Syrian air forces. Russia is now offering Iraq advanced combat jets (whether any Iraqi pilots know how to fly them is another matter). And of course, 300 American “advisers” are setting up a “joint operations center” to collect and coordinate vast amounts of intelligence—from drone and satellite imagery, cellphone and email intercepts, and on-the-ground reconnaissance. All of this can prove very helpful to the anti-ISIS fight (which let’s hope does not include—certainly it doesn’t have to include—U.S. armed forces directly).

None of this is to argue that ISIS (which now calls itself simply IS, for Islamic State) poses no threat. Thanks in part to its rampage in Mosul, where it seized many weapons and robbed several banks, the group may be the most well-armed and well-funded Islamist militia in the world. But that doesn’t mean that it’s on the verge of forming a state, much less a global caliphate—nor that it can’t be defeated by anything but a fresh deployment of American troops and pilots.

The potential coalition against ISIS—the entities with a very strong interest in seeing its fighters crushed—include Iran, Syria, Russia, Qatar, Saudi Arabia (albeit ambivalently), Shiite Iraq, and even (once Maliki leaves office one way or the other) much of Sunni Iraq. If Baghdadi’s men cross into Jordan, the Israelis say they’ll enter the fight, too. The Middle East’s politics are getting very strange, but the strangeness isn’t likely to include a caliphate.