In its messaging to its multiple audiences, the "Islamic State" in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) presents itself as not merely the realisation of a new political order or the negation of the Westphalian nation-state system in its post-1918 Middle Eastern manifestation, but a radical paradigm shift in the notion of statehood — one that obliterates all boundaries and creates a global Islamic government, with the current presence in Eastern Syria and Northwestern Iraq as its initial seed.
From the Pacific shores of the United States in the West to Japan in the East, through the unexpected and seemingly anachronistic special mention of Rome, the map of the putative dominion is ambitious and dynamic. It reifies one common tagline used since 2006 by the previous incarnations of the "Islamic State": baqiyah wa-tatamaddad — "Lasting and expanding".
In contrast to the thus stated faith in a destiny of permanence, the United States led coalition, created to degrade and defeat ISIS, has set a multi-pronged approach designed to deny ISIS the advantages it has recently gained, with the hope that its rise, and the level of threat it constitutes, will prove to be ephemeral. Apparently erratic maneuvers and tactics — over-reaching in engaging multiple fronts with external enemies; allocating considerable efforts to the eradication of groups not constituting an immediate threat to its hegemony; and alienating large segments of the population through the imposition of draconian laws governing social, cultural, and religious practices — may suggest a short life span for ISIS. However, less spectacular, and potentially more devastating actions implemented by ISIS may mitigate the effect of its excesses, raising the possibility that ISIS may indeed be a lasting affliction.
The social and economic composition of localities under ISIS control has been dramatically altered. Before the rise of ISIS, both Iraq and Syria had witnessed severe localised communitarian homogenisation as a result of security concerns and increasing factionalism. The ISIS takeover, however, amplified the process to a near-complete cleansing, through the massacre or expulsion of non-Sunni inhabitants. It further introduced deep transformations in the remaining Sunni population.
In recent decades, Syria had displayed a notable degree of national integration, with provincial urban centers hosting migration from their rural hinterland as well as civil servant, military, and, to a lesser degree, private sector relocation from across the nation. ISIS brought the new socio-economic strata to their effective end, while causing capital flight and brain drain, when possible. Through its applied model of governance, it also encouraged a process of re-tribalisation. With ISIS acting outside of any universal norms, the nominal safety of individuals is best sought through open affiliation with tribes that have pledged allegiance to the Islamic State.
Tribal leadership, while gaining in prominence, is itself faced with the need to act as an enforcer of ISIS authority, or otherwise face abrupt elimination. ISIS has also imposed a new and centralised economic framework, through which many activities are prohibited while most vital functions are monopolised by ISIS itself. Through its reliance on Muhajirun (immigrant supporters) for both military and civilian activities, ISIS has ushered a new elite that seeks integration through the appropriation of public and private assets, and through pressure on the tribal leadership for alliances sealed with marriage.
The institutional framework of the state in areas under ISIS control has been irreversibly replaced. Sunnis constitute the majority of the population in Syria and an important minority in Iraq. In both locales, however, Sunnis were severely under-represented in the security forces and civil service. In Iraq, this situation, true for about a decade, was in part in retaliation against their over-representation in the former regime's apparatus, and in part as a preventive measure against insurgent infiltration. In Syria, the regime tolerated Sunni participation as a function of its trust in the loyalty of Sunnis engaged.
Despite its claim of a "secular" order, the regime accepted, nurtured, and utilised a communitarian framework in its control and management of its subject population. In contrast, the "Islamic State", having eliminated and excluded non-Sunnis, has assigned an all Sunni cadre to the existing and newly introduced state structures. In many localities, services are delivered competently with the claim of sustainability and permanence. Irrespective of its idelogical orientation, the new cadre fosters a momentum in favor of the communitarian cleansing undertaken by ISIS.
The educational approach adopted by ISIS enhances its pursuit of longevity. The media enterprises undertaken by ISIS, displaying a high degree of efficacy and professionalism, are symptomatic of the less publicised measures implemented by ISIS to achieve a totalitarian control of the underlying society. Educational curricula have been subjected to a deep revision at all levels, eliminating disciplines and departments at the university, introducing extensive indoctrination components with a particular focus on early schooling, and imposing unforgiving compliance requirements monitored by multiple tracks of rule enforcement authorities. Extra-curricular activities include the ubiquitous "calling events" (majalis da'awiyyah) as well as the mentoring of the youth by qualified ISIS personnel.
The measures adopted by ISIS at the socio-economic, institutional, and educational levels have been in effect in some localities for months; in others, for years. They gain in strength and impact with the passge of time. The protracted approach that the US-led coalition has decided to pursue is well suited for ISIS's purpose in consolidating its stranglehold on captive societies. As harsh and repulsive as these measures are, they do provide the population with a working model of a functioning state. The coalition is not positioned to offer alternatives, and can thus only seek to interdict the consolidation of ISIS power by denying its Syrian and Iraqi subjects the remedial level of law and order offered by the institutions of the "Islamic State".
Despite warnings from within and without, the US Administration set itself, through its prolonged inaction on the Syrian dossier, to face the situation that its best current effort may be too little, too late. The reversal and defeat of ISIS, and the eventual prevention of further cataclysmic collapse will require from Washington, as the world's sole superpower, an elevation of its current level of effort by an order of magnitude, transcending the focus on containment. This is an endeavor that requires resources, vision, and leadership. Until such requirements are met, the "Islamic State" may or may not continue to expand, but will most probably be a lasting presence in the region.
Hassan Mneimneh is executive director of the Washington-based Iraq Foundation. This article was first published in the Middle East Alternatives.