Is the ISIS Caliphate Collapsing?

Image: An Iraqi soldier with a weapon. Photo by Jayel Aheram, CC BY 2.0.

The Islamic State is losing on the battlefield and in the war of ideas.

The Islamic State (IS) has lost another major city—the strategic city of Manbij in northeastern Syria to a coalition of U.S.-backed Kurdish and Arab fighters. Variously called ISIS, ISIL or simply the caliphate, the Islamic State has been on a string of military defeats for the past year. Late last June, it sustained a humiliating military defeat in the Iraqi city of Fallujah, after being driven from Tikrit, Ramadi and Baiji months earlier, while Syrian government troops liberated the ancient city of Palmyra from its grip at the beginning of the year. IS’s successive defeats in Iraq alone shrank its territorial control to 14 percent by early May, a steep decline from 40 percent of Iraqi territories it seized in mid-2014. The loss of Manbij, after Palmyra, has also significantly reduced its territorial stretch in Syria. On top of that, the caliphate has become economically fragile after losing roughly half of its oil finances, forcing reductions in the recruitment of foreign fighters, from nearly two thousand a month a year ago to just two hundred a month currently. These are serious signs of an impending collapse of the Islamic State’s caliphate.

Just two years ago, nobody had seriously questioned IS’s viability; the overwhelming global concern was how to contain or degrade it, with President Obama declaring a perpetual war against it in September 2014. The anti-IS war efforts of the U.S.-led and Russian-backed coalitions have not routed IS so far, but they are dealing a massive blow to its much publicized goals and promises—uniting all Sunni Muslims from Spain in Europe to Indonesia in East Asia, elimination of U.S. meddling and Western influences from Muslim lands, restoration of Islamic power under a single caliphate to reclaim global leadership, and so on. Al Qaeda, the Islamic State’s parent organization, once had similar pipedreams, which over time got lost in the quicksands of the Arabian deserts. For a multiplicity of reasons, the Islamic State promises to do no better than Al Qaeda.

The Caliphate Runs into Difficulties

The Islamic State is the second of the two caliphates the Sunni Arabs have declared following the abolition of the Ottoman Empire in 1924. Sharif Hussein bin Ali of Mecca, King of present-day Saudi Arabia’s Hejaz province from 1916 to 1924 and a man with a profound sense of betrayal by the British after WWI, declared the first post-Ottoman caliphate in March 1924. His caliphate survived less than two years, being finally crushed by his rival King Abd al-Aziz ibn Saud, the founder of Saudi Arabia, in January 1926. Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi proclaimed the second caliphate, or the Islamic State, on June 29, 2014 after conquering vast swathes across the Iraq–Syria borders.

Al-Baghdadi, the self-styled caliph, made a stunning speech on the day the Islamic State was declared. He divided the whole world into two mutually opposed camps—the camp of Islam and faith, and the camp of disbelief and hypocrisy, thus adding a new religious dichotomy to the already existing secular categories of capitalist vs. non-capitalist, North vs. South or developed vs. developing world. He put fellow Sunni Muslims, who would support his caliphate, in the camp of faith; the Jews, the Christians, the Shia Muslims and peoples of other non-Islamic faith traditions were branded disbelievers and hypocrites, whom the Islamic State must fight to survive. What his religious typology meant in practice was that almost everyone, every power on earth, was to be an enemy of his new caliphate, not by default but by his choice. Shia Iran soon perceived the Islamic State as an existential threat; the United States saw it as a credible rising threat to its traditional economic and strategic interests in the Middle East; and Sunni Saudi Arabia identified it as a menace out to bring down the al-Saud establishment. Naturally, the revulsion was great—leading to a closing of ranks between former rivals and coordinated military actions to destroy the Islamic State, as vividly testified by the Iran–United States “frenemy” relationship.