The war in Syria has now become fully internationalized, after its expected regionalization, notably favoured by the failure to stabilize Iraq after its state was destroyed by the 2003 US-led Iraq war. The two, initially unrelated wars have morphed into a war against one of the fighting actors on the Syrian battlefield, the Islamic State, originally born from the Iraqi tragedy (then named al-Qaeda in Iraq, Bruce Riedel, Al Monitor, 14 July 2014).

In mid-June 2014, the Iraqi government asked for help from the U.S., which endeavoured to mobilize the international community, to fight its foe after having been unable to stop its advance (Mushreq Abbas, Al Monitor, 13 June 2014). On 3 January 2014, the fighters of the then called Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) or Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) had declared an Islamic State in Fallujah (VOA, 4 January 2014). One recalls that “Al-Sham stands for Bilad al-Sham, i.e. The Levant (today’s Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Palestine, Israel, and potentially the Hatay Province of Turkey)”, which already indicated expansionist intention (see Lavoix, Syria, State of Play part 3). By mid-June they had taken many major Iraqi cities, including Mosul (9 June), Tikrit (11 June), Tal Afar (15 June) and border crossings with Syria (Wikipedia Timeline).

On 29 June, ISIS declared it established a new Caliphate, with its leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi as Caliph Ibrahim, and changed its name for the Islamic State (BBC News, 30 June 2014; Riedel, Ibid.;for details on the Caliphate, see Lavoix, scenario 3.1 War in Syria, May 2013).

Yet, as the international society of states progressively coordinated its effort Obama, Islamic State, U.S. Central Commandto fight this threat, despite differences notably over actions in Syria, the Islamic State was transformed into a terrorist group, that would be neither Islamic nor a state (e.g. U.S. President Obama, France President Holland etc., see below).

Are we thus faced with a relatively habitual situation when an international coalition or a country fights a terrorist group or with a war against a new state? In the latter case, is this “state” normal, i.e. does it more or less correspond to the ideal-type of the modern state to be included – or not – within the still existing current international society of states? Or is it a new type of polity that furthermore questions the international system?

It is absolutely crucial to try answering those questions because proper policy, strategies, and tactical actions can only emerge from the right analysis. Furthermore, the dynamics of actions and reactions taking place during the war will alter the course of events and thus change the answers we may give to our original questions. The evolution of the situation will thus need to be constantly monitored. To ease this task, we created the new Caliphate War Sigils, part of the series of daily scans and monitoring tools the Red (Team) Analysis Society provides. You can subscribe (free) to it directly here.

Fighting a terrorist group

The various declarations of the international players, from the U.S., starting with President Obama statement on 10 September, Islamic State, U.S. National Security Councilto Russia, France, the UN and the International Conference on Peace and Security in Iraq, show a shared willingness to label the Islamic State as a terrorist group and to fight it as such. U.S. President Obama statement best exemplifies this trend (see the bottom of the post for other examples):

“Now let’s make two things clear: ISIL is not “Islamic.” No religion condones the killing of innocents.  And the vast majority of ISIL’s victims have been Muslim. And ISIL is certainly not a state. It was formerly al Qaeda’s affiliate in Iraq, and has taken advantage of sectarian strife and Syria’s civil war to gain territory on both sides of the Iraq-Syrian border. It is recognized by no government, nor by the people it subjugates. ISIL is a terrorist organization, pure and simple. And it has no vision other than the slaughter of all who stand in its way.” (Statement by the [U.S.] President on ISIL, 10 September 2014)

France even went further in the will to deny any status other than that of terrorist to the new Number One enemy, by asking media to adopt the Arabic acronym of “Daesh” – potentially derogatory  – instead of any other name (Wassim Nasr, France 24, 18 September 2014; read also Pieter vanOstaeyen, On the Origin of the ‘Name’ DAESH – The Islamic State in Iraq and as-Shām“,  18 February 2014, pietervanostaeyen).

Russia, answering to the 23 September 2014 U.S.-Arab states (Bahrain, Jordan,Qatar, Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates) strikes on the Islamic State in Syria, also favoured as label “the terrorist group Islamic State” stressing that “the struggle with terrorism in the Middle East and North Africa requires concerted action by the whole world community under the auspices of the United Nations. Attempts to attain one’s own geopolitical aims by violating the sovereignty of countries in the region merely fuel tensions and destabilize the situation further” (Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov,  Itar Tass, 23 September 2014).

This willingness to see and designate the Islamic State as a terrorist group may translate a decision, by the international actors, not to grant the enemy any recognition and thus international legitimacy, even in a negative way. The danger, however, is that by labelling the Islamic State as a terrorist group, then one may also start believing one’s statement. As a result, the actions taken may not consider all possible options or, worse, become inadequate. It will thus be very important to monitor not only the evolution of discourse of international actors but also the related strategies and actions.

Furthermore, following Connolly (The Terms of Political Discourse, 1983) and his version of Gallie’s “essentially contested concepts” (1956) adapted to politics, could it be that the very contest surrounding the name to give to the Islamic State indicates that something even more important is at stake here? In that case, the label given of terrorist could also very well indicate an inability to “think the unthinkable” (Valantin, War, Zombies and Strategy, September 2014). To find out, we need to understand further what is the Islamic State, notably to “evaluate” its statehood.

The Islamic State

Let us start first with specifying what is a modern state. We shall then compare this ideal-type to the Islamic State.

The ideal-type of the modern state

Domestically, there is no universally accepted simple definition for the modern state (see bibliography). However we may start from the fact that it is a specific form of polity (a polity being a politically organised unit, Merriam Webster), where political authorities, to ensure at best their mission – which is to provide security to those who are ruled – use on the one hand a legitimate monopoly of violence, and on the other a relatively centralised and efficient administration, an extraction of revenues or resources, “and other means of management” (Weber 1919, Moore 1978, Brewer, 1989). In exchange, for the security they receive, the ruled recognize the political authorities as legitimate and contribute to their survival (including as authorities).

Internationally, things are much simpler and a (modern) state is a political entity, indeed a crucial political actor, which has a legal personality defined according to the Montevideo Convention on Rights and Duties of States (1933): “a state must possess a permanent population, a defined territory and a government capable of maintaining effective control over its territory and of conducting international relations with other states” (art 1). As a result, internationally, a state is characterized by its territoriality, sovereignty and independence.  It is also most often recognized as such by other states; this recognition corresponds to the international part of legitimacy. However, according to The Montevideo Convention, Article 3, “the political existence of the state is independent of the recognition by other states”.

The “domestic statehood” of the Islamic State

Domestically, the Islamic State, through the Caliph, rules over the population inhabiting the territory it has conquered and seeks to extend this rule to “the entire Umma, or Muslim community” (O’Bagy, September 2012:17). According to Reza Pankhurst, political scientist and historian specializing in the Middle East and Islamic movements, and using the treatise al-Ahkam al-Sultaniyya (the rules of governance) – one of the major classical references for Islamic political theory, “The Caliph’s responsibilities include implementing the hudood (punishments explicitly proscribed in Islam for acts such as theft, rebellion, public acts of extra-marital intercourse), collecting and distributing the taxes according to the Sharia prescriptions, and to protect and expand the borders of the Islamic State.” (“Understanding Calls to a Caliphate,” 22 August 2011, Foreign Policy Journal).

Thus if the Islamic State follows its own rules, as seems to be happening on the ground, as shown by Y. Carmon, Y. Yehoshua, and A. Leone, who underline that, doctrine-wise, “unlike Al-Qaeda, IS prioritizes state-building”, then it does very much resemble a state as previously defined (“Understanding Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi And The Phenomenon Of The Islamic Caliphate State, MEMRI, 14 September 2014).

On the ground, for example, the Islamic State gathers and collects resources as detailed by Mona Alami (“The Islamic State and the Cost of Governing“, Sada, 4 September 2014), rules and governs creating a specific type of administration as is progressively documented through accounts from the ground (“How Did Raqqa Fall To The Islamic State of Iraq & ash-Sham?“, Syria Untold, January 2014)”; Zaman al-Wasl, “How Islamic State Administers Territory in Eastern Syria“, The Syrian Observer, 24 Sep 2014), and from documents seized (Ruth Sherlock, “Inside the leadership of Islamic State: how the new ‘caliphate’ is run“, 9 July 2014, The Telegraph). The violence, brutality and horror of its rule characterizes its governance but does not question there is a rule or governance. The Islamic State has a more or less strong monopoly over the means of violence, according to places, as explained by Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi in his “Brief Note on Fighting in Fallujah and the Periphery” (18 September 2014), through its CIA-estimated 20.000 to 31.500 fighters in both Iraq and Syria (Ken Dilanian, Associated Press, 11 September 2014).

We shall need to continuously monitor the success or failure of the Islamic State in its endeavour at state-building, and then “state-keeping”, as no state is ever a given, but, on the contrary, can always fragilize or collapse (e.g. Yugoslavia, Somalia) or strengthen (e.g. Russia today compared with the 1990s).

The “international statehood” of the Islamic State

Internationally, the Islamic State has a territory. Considering the topography of Iraq and Syria and the ongoing war, maps showing controlled cities and roads are more realistic than those showing stretches of territories, often empty.

Islamic State, map, Caliphate
Iraqi and Syrian Towns and Cities seized by the Islamic State and its allies by The Long War Journal – updated 24 Sept 2014 – Red = Islamic State (formerly ISIS) and allied groups, control or heavily contested Yellow = Recent clashes Blue = Status uncertain Green = Kurdish Forces – (note: the map does not show the various actors fighting IS in Syria) – Click on map to see the latest update on Google Maps

The Islamic State rules over this territory, as seen, as well as over a (relatively) permanent population: those inhabitants who did not run away and were not killed, added to its own troops and to those who join from various countries. According to latest estimates, 15.000 foreigners including 2000 Westerners would fight in Syria, an unknown number of them having joined the Islamic State (AFP, 12 September 2014). Its rule is achieved through a form of government, as seen, which maintains a rather effective control over the territory, whatever the means of this control, from coercion to co-optation (Al-Tamimi, Ibid.).  Should this control not be effective, then the Islamic State would not be able to continue expanding, considering the number of groups opposing it in both Syria and Iraq (e.g. War in Syria).

It would thus seem that the Islamic state has many characteristics of a state, both domestically and internationally, notably if we limit ourselves to article 1 of the Montevideo convention. It does not have international recognition, as indeed no other state recognizes it as such, but, on the contrary it is labelled as a terrorist group. This does not deny its statehood, as seen, but may make its survival fundamentally problematic.

Yet, there are also indications that the Islamic State’s statehood may be different, that it may not be modern on the one hand and that it may change the international system on the other, as we shall now see.

Not a terrorist group, not a modern-state, but a Caliphate

Domestically, the Islamic State displays a major obvious difference compared with the modern state: the introduction of a preponderant religious component, which may question the modernity (Conversations with Anthony Giddens: Making Sense of Modernity 1998; Giddens, The Consequences of Modernity, 1990). As a result, and deserving further in-depth study and research, the security of the ruled, if a specific Salafi spiritual security is seen as foremost, might be understood in terms that would be utterly alien to the current prevalent secular perspective. This would reinforce the possibility that the reality of the Islamic State is “unthinkable” for international actors.

For example, President Obama seems to be unable to think that a religion can “condone the killing of innocents”. First, this shows that the President team knows little about religions from Moloch, to the Celtic druids (Bruce Lincoln, Death, War, and Sacrifice: Studies in Ideology & Practice, 1991) through Kali, to name only a few famous examples. Then, it shows an inability to think in terms of sacrifice of self  and of the other for the collective good and for the good of one immortal soul, as for example Babak Rahimi argues exist in contemporary Islamist thought (“Dying a Martyr’s Death: The Political Culture of Self-Sacrifice in Contemporary Islamists“, 2004). The current hyper-narcissistic feature of Western society, exemplified by the Facebook of selfies may contribute to make other societies unthinkable.

Yet, it is all the more necessary to start thinking what security in a Caliphate may entail, as it is also concerned with the legitimacy of the state, and thus, ultimately, with its duration. These perceptions of security will need to be actively monitored.

Internationally, if the Islamic State satisfies the criteria laid in Article 1 of the Montevideo convention, it follows neither Article 3 “the exercise of these [the state’s] rights has no other limitation than the exercise of the rights of other states according to international law”, nor Article 10 “the primary interest of states is the conservation of peace…”.

The Islamic State territory has been conquered so far from Syria and Iraq, and has constantly evolving borders considering the ongoing war. The aim of the Caliph is to rule over all Muslims and to “expand the borders of the Islamic State.” (Pankhurst, Ibid.), as was expressed by al-Baghdadi when he stated:

“Those who can immigrate to the Islamic State should immigrate, as immigration to the house of Islam is a duty … Rush O Muslims to your state. It is your state. Syria is not for Syrians and Iraq is not for Iraqis. The land is for the Muslims, all Muslims….”This is my advice to you. If you hold to it you will conquer Rome and own the world, if Allah wills.” (transcript from al-Baghdadi audio recording in Damien McElory, “Rome will be conquered next, says leader of ‘Islamic State'”. The Telegraph, 1 July 2014) .

Thus, the new “state” created is intrinsically expansionist, which, in terms of international law and of the international society of states, creates a fundamental problem, as the rights of other states to be is denied.

Even more fundamentally upsetting, it does not seem that the Caliphate either recognizes the international society of states, or is interested in its norms, rules, and aims.

Furthermore, actions in return to fight the Caliphate also start threatening the current international society and its norms, as shown by U.S. State Secretary Kerry when he states:

“We have been very clear from the beginning we will not allow geography or borders to prevent us from being able to take action against ISIL, and we will not allow them to have a safe haven where they think they can have sanctuary against accountability. We will hold them responsible for their grotesque atrocities, and we will not allow these terrorists to find a safe haven anywhere. That is President Obama’s resolve.” (John Kerry, Remarks at a stakeout with Iraqi President Fuad Masum… U.S. Department of State, 23 Septembe 2014)

International actors are thus challenged by a complex conundrum.

The current situation that must be monitored can be summarized as follows: a polity, the Caliphate, which looks like a new form of state, seems to be fought by the international actors as a terrorist group, conceptualized as such at best to deny it an international recognition and a status it does not seek, sometimes in a way that also imperils the current international system.

The risk, if the real measure of the challenge, in all its dimension and in its reality is not appraised, is not only to see a long war, but also to lose many battles before the right strategy and actions are found, while the current international system may start collapsing therefore contributing to multiply dangers and threats. Hedging strategies allowing to cope with those risks will need to be developed accordingly by all other actors, from the corporate world to civil society and citizens.


“… All of these measures are necessary in order to successfully combat Daech (ISIL) and terrorist groups, which represent a threat to all Iraqis.
3. The conference participants asserted that Daech (ISIL) is a threat not only to Iraq but also to the entire international community…
4. All participants underscored the urgent need to remove Daech (ISIL) from the regions in which it has established itself in Iraq….
5. The conference participants also reaffirmed their commitment to the relevant resolutions of the United Nations Security Council on the fight against terrorism and its sources of recruitment and financing, in particular Resolution 2170. They will make sure that this resolution is correctly implemented and will take the necessary measures to ensure it has all the intended effects. They firmly believe that resolute action is necessary to eradicate Daech (ISIL), particularly measures to prevent radicalization, coordination between all security services and stricter border control. They welcomed the prospect of working on an action plan to combat terrorist financing…” (International Conference on Peace and Security in Iraq, Paris, September 15, 2014)

“That terrorist group has not only beheaded journalists and humanitarian workers but also perpetrated massacres and atrocities against civilians. That terrorist movement has attacked the weakest: women and children. That terrorist movement has also attacked religious minorities, which it has hunted down in order to eliminate a number of communities. That terrorist movement has been deployed over a whole territory, in Iraq and Syria. That terrorist movement holds borders in contempt and even intends to found a state. Such is the threat: it’s global, so it requires a global response.” (Iraq – International Conference on Peace and Security – Opening speech by François Hollande, President of the Republic).

Featured image:The guided-missile destroyer USS Arleigh Burke launches aTomahawk cruise missile in the Persian Gulf, Sept. 23, 2014, to conduct strikes against targets in the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, or ISIL. The destroyer is deployed in the U.S. 5th Fleet area of responsibility supporting maritime security operations and theater security cooperation efforts. U.S. Navy photo byPhoto by:  |  VIRIN: 781033-L-UUG23-862.jpg Public Domain.

Published by Dr Helene Lavoix (MSc PhD Lond)

Dr Helene Lavoix, PhD Lond (International Relations), is the President/CEO of The Red Team Analysis Society. She is specialised in strategic foresight and warning for international relations, national and international security issues. Her current focus is on the war in Ukraine, international order and the rise of China, the overstepping of planetary boundaries and international relations, the methodology of SF&W, radicalisation as well as new tech and security.