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International Politics

Outside the Box: Can the Islamic State Actually Win?


I read an interesting article in Al Jazeera yesterday titled “Has ISIL Won?”[1] Mr. Khan argues that ISIL has not yet won and the forces arrayed against them are formidable, but that the organization has secured significant victories and dominates much of Iraq and Syria. It also dominates the social media and propaganda war in a way that even Al Qaeda never achieved. Mr. Khan believes the keys to defeating the Islamic State are obvious in theory, but politically difficult for the West to implement in practice. The author’s conclusion is ambiguous: ISIL has not won, but remains undefeated; defeating ISIL is possible, but not by the strategies currently being employed.

That leads me to consider the opposite proposition: can the Islamic State actually win? What would “victory” look like?


The Islamic State has declared itself the Caliphate, the supreme political and religious organization of Islam and the one to which all Muslims owe fealty. The Caliphate can be claimed in one of three means[2]:

  1. By proclamation of the existing Caliph (which has historically led to the establishment of family dynasties in the role);
  2. By proclamation of a sufficiently large number of “decision makers,” i.e. the recognized religious and community leaders of the Islamic world. This is how the earliest Caliphs were elected, the direct successors of Mohammed;
  3. By right of military conquest. This is the least desirable method, but it nevertheless confers legitimacy. Many new dynasties have won the Caliphate by defeating the old entrenched powers, so there is plenty of historical precedence.

The last Caliph was the Ottoman Crown Prince Abdul Mejid II, who was elected Caliph by the Turkish National Assembly in 1922 until the Ottoman Caliphate was abolished on March 3rd, 1924 by Kemal Atatürk[3]. Others have tried to claim the title, including King Hussein bin Ali – of Lawrence of Arabia fame – but he was defeated and his kingdom annexed by Ibn Saud in 1925, which refuted his claim to the title. Thus, there is no one to simply confer the title of Caliph on Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi; nor was it particularly likely that Mr. al-Baghdadi was going to be elected by a majority of Islamic scholars and jurists. Thus he has opted for the third way, to win the Caliphate by the sword.

And so far he has succeeded; to think otherwise is politically expedient but foolish in practice. As British politician William Gladstone remarked during the American Civil War:

“We may be for or against the South. But there is no doubt that Jefferson Davis and other leaders of the South have made an Army; they are making, it appears, a Navy; and they have made — what is more than either — they have made a Nation…”[4]

In a similar vein, any objective observer must admit that the Islamic State has an Army and they have a territory with approximately 11 million inhabitants to whom they provide basic public services and from whom they collect taxes. That is the definition of a state, at its most basic level. More importantly, it is a state with an ideology – a very virulent ideology. The very extremism of the Islamic State theology and the fanaticism of its adepts is a key to understanding its staying power.

For months, the media has been full of news of how many casualties the forces of the Islamic State have suffered.  The CIA has estimated that there are between 30,000 and 50,000 soldiers serving under the black flag; an estimate that hasn’t changed radically despite the heavy casualties inflicted by the United States and coalition forces in their air campaign. Either the initial estimates were low, the body counts too high, or else the flow of recruits has been successful enough to replace the losses suffered.  Despite many sources claiming that the Islamic State is under extreme pressure and must be “stretched thin” they have managed to win important victories in Palmyra (Syria) and Ramadi (Iraq), two fronts more than 300 miles apart. And while the northeastern front against the Kurds has stabilized, ISIS still holds Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city. Thus, while the Islamic State is undoubtedly under stress, all of its adversaries are under similar or possibly worse stress. There is no guarantee that the ISIS fighters will break first. On the contrary, as Napoleon wrote on the most important condition of victory in war: “the moral is to the physical as three is to one.” With that time-proven dictum in mind, it is perfectly possible to believe that the most motivated and fanatical jihadists could outlast their more “rational” rivals.

The core legitimacy of ISIS’s claim on the Caliphate derives then from: 1. victory in battle; and 2. control of a territory where the ummah, the Muslim community can gather in “safety”[5] and live according to the dictates of Sharia. They have achieved this and defended it for almost a year. But that is not enough for victory. What would be enough?



The forces of al-Baghdadi today control many towns and villages, even a few important cities. None of them, not even Mosul – which was founded by the original Arab invaders of the Sassanid Empire as a garrison town in the seventh century – carries any real political or historic weight. Not even Baghdad carries the significance of Damascus in the Islamic, particularly Arab, imagination. Damascus: capital of the Umayyad Caliphate from 661 to 750 AD, one of the flowers of Islamic learning and culture throughout history, and the focus of the Arab Rising in the early 20th Century. The capture of Damascus by the Arab forces led by the Hashemites, along with their control of Mecca and Medina, was undoubtedly an important factor in causing Hussein bin Ali to proclaim himself Caliph after the title was dropped by the newly secular Turks.

The capture of the Syrian capital would be an incalculable propaganda coup for the al-Baghdadi. The sight of the black flag flying defiantly over the second capital of historic Islam could very well tip the balance in favor of the Islamic State. How many Muslims would be convinced that the Islamic State truly did have God’s favor? How many additional recruits would the Islamic State receive, both in their own territory and through the adhesion of new vilayets such as the dangerous franchises they already have in Libya, Sinai, Yemen and other regions?

The real danger comes from the possibility of ISIS victories causing a major doctrinal shift in Islam. The Islamic State’s theology is a radical form of Salafism. There is no Christian equivalent, though perhaps the most extreme form of Calvinism might approach the purist and nihilistic levels of ISIS belief. While almost all Muslim scholars reject so extreme an interpretation of Koranic teachings as deviant and mistaken, there is no guarantee that they will necessarily continue to feel that way. Victory in battle tends to change men’s minds. The “accepted” form of Islam that is closest to the Islamic State’s Salafism is the Wahhabism of Saudi Arabia[6]. Saudi Arabia: birthplace of Osama bin Laden and Al Qaeda.

Is it possible that the fall of Damascus might cause the Wahhabis to reconsider their opposition to the Islamic State? It would not be an unbelievable leap; Saudi Arabia feels increasingly besieged by her Shiite rivals in Iran, Syria, southern Iraq, and on the Arabian Peninsula itself. The Saudis also feel abandoned by their fickle American allies, who seem more intent on making a deal with the hated Persians than in supporting Arabian interests. An alliance between these two extreme forms of Sunni Islam – with or without the acquiescence of the House of Saud – would fundamentally alter the geopolitical reality of the world. ISIS would control the core of Islam, including Mecca and Medina, and the largest oil reserves in the world. The small Arab states would quickly join or be conquered: Jordan, Kuwait, the Emirates and Oman.


That would be that, as they say. If the Islamic State “goes viral” across the Sunni Arab world, there would be no military solution. What Western nation, or combination of Western nations, would be willing to invade and occupy so vast a territory? Imagine the American experience in Iraq increased by several orders of magnitude. The people of the West would have no stomach for it. That would be the nightmare scenario: the Islamic State triumphant not as a military force, but as the dominant theology in the Sunni Arab world. We’ve already seen the transnational appeal the genocidal extremism of al-Baghdadi’s butchers and their slick propaganda. It has gained converts in at least five continents and not all of them Arabs. Is it too much of an exaggeration to say that ISIS is the fastest growing cult in the world today?

So how likely is the fall of Damascus to Islamic State fighters? It is not very likely at the moment, but after four years of civil war, nothing can be ruled out in Syria. There is a very delicate and changing equilibrium between the rival factions in that conflict, with the Islamic State being only one of them. Damascus itself is (or once was) a highly cosmopolitan city of over 1.7 million people with significant ethnic and religious minorities. However, the city is actually in the middle of a large Sunni pocket with some important Christian and Druze communities on the peripheries. It is not the Shiite heartland in Syria. There are other reasons to worry: the main one being that Damascus is held by the forces of Bashar al-Assad whose Alawite government is anathema to both the United States and Saudi Arabia. His principal backers are Russia and Iran; but both of these allies have other worries. Russian support might dry up if the economic situation or the crisis in Ukraine worsens. Iranian support might be conditional on the situation in Iraq as well as the negotiations with the Americans. Assad might run out of friends and options very quickly.

syriaethnic damascusenvirons

Furthermore, the Alawite homeland is not centered on Damascus, but on the Mediterranean Coast between Latakia and Tartus. Assad’s other Shiite ally, Hezbollah, is also not constituted on the Syrian capital, but on the other side of the anti-Lebanon Mountains, in the Bekaa Valley and South Lebanon. In other words, if the situation deteriorated significantly, Damascus is not where “hearth and home” is for either group. Their forces might decide to abandon the capital and concentrate for a defense of their heartlands, conveniently located behind rugged, defensible terrain. It is therefore not inconceivable that Damascus could fall as quickly as Mosul, preceded by a collapse in opposition morale and a generalized retreat to their homelands. If this did happen, it would happen far too quickly for US policy to adapt with an adequate response.


What should be the US policy response? I’ve argued before that it might be time to swallow our pride and distaste and deal with Assad[7]. However much of a butcher he undoubtedly is, he cannot compare to the sheer evil of the al-Baghdadi crowd. More importantly, Assad doesn’t have any widespread appeal: his victory wouldn’t send massive shockwaves through the Arab world or cause a fundamental realignment of power across the Middle East. It is a case of better the devil you know.

We live in a world that is becoming increasingly radicalized and not just in the Middle East. I have described elsewhere[8] that this is a generalized trend, caused by environmental and demographic stress on our civilization. We may be living through a long cycle, the antithesis of the Age of Reason… the Age of anti-Reason, if you will. As such, we can expect the appeal of apocalyptic, millenarian movements to increase as conditions worsen. Such radical doctrines will certainly seem to fit the times better than more moderate outlooks, especially for the marginalized, outcast and desperate millions of the world.

If all of this speculation seems farfetched, remember that history is full of examples of kingdoms and empires collapsing suddenly and new powers rising seemingly from nothing. It took less than a generation for the Byzantine and Sassanid Empires to crumble before the rising Arab tide in the seventh century; we could be at such a crossroads again.

Sources and Notes

[1] Imran Khan, “Has ISIL Won,” Al Jazeera English, 10 June 2015

[2] Shaykh Muhammed Saalih al-Munajjid, “How the caliph of the Muslims is appointed,” Islam Question and Answer, search on 11 June 2015

[3] In fact, Abdul Mejid II might not even count as a true Caliph, as the Turkish National Assembly was not an Islamic assembly and therefore had no right to grant the title Caliph to anyone. That would make Mehmet VI the last Caliph.

[4] William Ewart Gladstone, Speech on the American Civil War, Town Hall, Newcastle upon Tyne, 7 October 1862

[5] Certainly not my definition of safety, but there are many Sunni tribes that still feel themselves better off under ISIS rule than that of the Shia-backed governments of Iraq or Syria.

[6] David D. Kirkpatrick, “ISIS’ Harsh Brand of Islam Is Rooted in Austere Saudi Creed”, The New York Times, 24 September 2014

[7] Fernando Betancor, “Outside the Box: Is it Time to Deal with Assad?” Common Sense,  19 August 2014

[8] Fernando Betancor, “The Lemmings,” Common Sense, 18 May 2015

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