On June 29th, a spokesman for Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi announced the restoration of the 7th century Islamic Caliphate and officially changed the organization’s title to reflect its status as the new leader of the global Muslim community. Having already captured swathes of terrain that effectively broke the colonial boundaries separating Iraq from Syria, Baghdadi seized an opportunity to further evolve his cross-border insurgent offensive into a proper Islamic State. Despite unprecedented military successes attained in Iraq’s northern Nineveh and Salah ad-Din provinces over a three-week period, the announcement seemed premature.
Two months ago, the Islamic State was fresh off the capture of Iraq’s second-largest city, Mosul, and rapidly claiming western border crossings near Rutba and al-Qaim. It laid siege to the Bayji Oil Refinery and was on the verge of seizing Tikrit, the birthplace of Saddam Hussein. What initially appeared to be a lightning general offensive against Iraq’s major cities and critical infrastructure soon revealed itself as a guerrilla campaign to establish dominance across Iraq’s Sunni-dominated population centers. Most experts projected the Islamic State to complete its rout of Iraq’s beleaguered Security Forces (ISF) in the so-called ‘Sunni Heartland’ before declaring the establishment of a proto-state. By all accounts, the group would completely secure the majority of contested Sunni provinces – specifically al-Anbar, Nineveh, Salah ad-Din and Diyala – before consolidating forces and turning attention toward state-building. Then, an emergent Shi’a opposition re-entered the conflict.
Bolstered by Shi’a militias, Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) operatives, and a growing coalition of international sponsors, Iraqi Security Forces’ counteroffensive achieved moderate success in the provincial capitals of Tikrit, Salah ad-Din and Baquba, Diyala. Meanwhile in Mosul, the Islamic State struggled to convert military success into governance. Abu Othman, a 68-year-old resident who used a pseudonym for fear of reprisals for speaking out, told the Washington Post, “People are suffering. […] These people are fighters. They are not capable of running a state.” For the nascent Islamic State, even a temporary loss in operational momentum could have profound impacts on the long-term viability, much less realization, of the Caliphate in Iraq.
A national Sunni minority, a regional Sunni majority
Declaring itself a Caliphate had far-reaching and irreversible implications for Baghdadi’s group. Although a regional movement from its inception, the June 29th announcement meant that micro-tactical battlefield victories were no longer sufficient to sustain the broad, transnational momentum required to fuel the State’s pursuit of its ultimate purpose: uniting Sunni Muslims from Egypt to Anatolia in the overthrow of modern Shi’a and secular Muslim political regimes.
Despite the June 22nd ISIS-claimed suicide bombing of a Shi’a neighborhood in Beirut, Lebanon and recent reports of pro-Islamic State demonstrations in the restive southern Jordan city of Ma’an, the State has yet to incite coordinated regional violence or, more importantly, attract Sunni professionals and leaders from outside the Iraq-Syria border region. In a 19-minute audiotape released on July 1st, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi called on scholars, judges, doctors, engineers, administrators, military personnel and other experts to bring their knowledge to support the fledgling polity, Stratfor reported.
More recently, Baghdadi has chosen digital media to advance his message, publishing battlefield campaign updates and religious commentary in his Dabiq magazine. Selling the Caliphate is proving much harder than declaring its existence.
Struggling to govern in Mosul and feeling the weight of a numerically superior counteroffensive on the battlefield, the Islamic State seeks to exploit sectarian fault lines for operational gain. On June 30, unidentified gunmen launched six mortar rounds targeting the Askari shrine in Samarra, triggering the deployment of 1,000 to 2,000 members of a Shi’a militia called ‘the Peace Brigades’, the Institute for the Study of War reported.
Fleeting attacks against targets of opportunity in Baghdad’s Shi’a neighborhoods is an economy-of-force effort intended to divert Security Forces’ attention from Tikrit, Baquba and cities across al-Anbar. This maneuver makes short-term tactical sense in central Iraq. However, it will likely fail to attract enough like-minded Sunnis from across the Levantine Caliphate to make a decisive difference in the current status of operations. The State cannot exist so long as the Shi’a-led Government of Iraq remains intact and effective in directing counter-offensives. Pressure to make a committed, large-scale attack is growing.
Loss of momentum means loss of the State?
The symbolic importance of military operations during Ramadan was not lost on the Islamic State, or its predecessor. On July 21, 2012, al-Baghdadi announced the start of a 12-month campaign he called “Breaking the Walls”. Between July 2012 and July 2013, ISIS executed 20 waves of simultaneous vehicle-borne explosive attacks (that is eight VBIED attacks in a single day), eight major prison attacks and marked territorial consolidation within regions formerly controlled by al-Qaeda, the Institute for the Study of War says. Following last year’s prison break, anti-government protests erupted in Basra – a Shi’a stronghold generally aligned with ex-Prime Minister Maliki – while many political leaders called for the PM’s resignation; the mission had profound impacts on both the physical security of Baghdad and Iraqis’ perceptions of their government’s competency.
Despite a strong desire from Baghdadi and many of his senior leaders, the group failed to execute an attack of similar proportions during Ramadan 2014 and thus missed a critical opportunity to propagandize the weaknesses of the Maliki regime. The lull in tactical momentum in Baghdad is only compounded by the relatively nonviolent transition of power from former PM Maliki to Haider al-Abadi, and the recent institution of a more centrist, cross-sectarian leadership cadre. The coming weeks will pose new setbacks as many Sunni tribal leaders, freed from the oppressive reign of Maliki, turn against the extremists in al-Anbar, and western-backed Kurdish peshmerga slowly regain key terrain in the north.
Perhaps al-Baghdadi realized the Islamic State was doomed to fail the moment he committed to building the Caliphate rather than merely replacing al-Qaeda as the leader of the ‘Global Jihad’. Julian Barnes-Dacey, a senior policy fellow with the European Council on Foreign Relations, said Baghdadi made a “bold call in proclaiming this caliphate and speaking out so vigorously [now]. He perceives this as his moment, having been able to seize the unprecedented amount of territory. It’s a bold, all-in strategy wherein he is trying to present himself as the vanguard of this new Islamic awakening.” As a growing, international coalition of air and ground forces mounts a balanced counteroffensive against Baghdadi’s Iraqi extremists, the Islamic State is increasingly desperate to provoke western nations via social media, conflagrate sectarian rage and strike a symbolic blow to the Government of Iraq. A large-scale assault on Baghdad or seizure of the Haditha Dam remains a possibility in the group’s bid to wrest momentum from government forces. Time, however, is already running short.