Coinciding with the beginning of Ramadan, the Islamic extremist group waging brutal warfare across Iraq declared a victory on Sunday, claiming it had succeeded in its goal of establishing a new Islamic caliphate that ignores the region’s modern borders.
The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, or ISIL, says it is now called only the “Islamic State” to represent its new official territory spanning the Iraq-Syria border. It is calling on Muslims around the world to state their allegiance to the group, which was born from the anti-U. S. insurgency in Iraq and whose brutal tactics have prompted even al-Qaida leaders to distance themselves.
Iraq has descended into chaos and violence in recent weeks as the Sunni extremists continue their march across the country, bolstering their own ranks through rhetoric or by force. The group – led by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi – has seized oil fields and robbed banks, all in defiance of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s largely Shiite government.
An ISIL spokesman declared al-Baghdadi to be the leader of the new caliphate, according to The Associated Press. But such a bold statement could threaten the fragile alliance of militant Sunni factions that has caused havoc in Iraq.
"The legality of all emirates, groups, states and organizations becomes null by the expansion of the caliph's authority and the arrival of its troops to their areas," ISIL spokesman Abu Mohammed al-Adnani said. "Listen to your caliph and obey him. Support your state, which grows every day."
ISIL’s vision draws upon a seventh-century caliphate that ruled over much of the region, becoming a touchstone for many modern Islamic extremists.
President Barack Obama has deployed roughly 180 of 300 proposed special operations forces to Iraq to help establish security in and around Baghdad, and to liaise with the crumbling Iraqi security forces to determine how better to bolster their ranks.
The Pentagon confirmed on Friday that armed aerial drones now fly over Baghdad. They serve predominantly in a reconnaissance role, spokesman Navy Rear Adm. John Kirby said, and onboard missiles are primarily for force protection.
“We get paid to plan and prepare,” Kirby said, adding that almost all U.S. military drones can be armed.
Obama also called last week for the U.S. military to start openly training and equipping the moderate opposition in Syria, which for three years has waged a bloody campaign against the brutal tactics of President Bashar Assad. Congress would have to approve the request, which would include as much as $500 million in support as part of a new billion-dollar overseas counterterrorism fund.
The Syrian rebels' ranks have been steadily diluted by an increasing number of Islamic extremists exploiting the active war zone as a haven to train, get fighting experience and launch attacks on neighboring Iraq. Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, had advocated for arming the opposition in 2012. In April 2013, he told Congress the U.S. no longer "could clearly identify the right people" among the rebel fighters, adding the situation had become too convoluted to ensure weapons wouldn’t fall into the wrong hands.
The Supreme Military Council, considered the main organization representing the moderate Free Syrian Army, has been plagued with accusations of corruption and mismanagement and effectively dissolved within the last week.
More than 160,000 people have died since fighting broke out in Syria in March 2011. Obama had consistently refrained from ordering any direct action there – aside from covert operations to supply the rebel forces – for fear of being drawn back into a protracted Middle East conflict.
As for how the U.S. military will be able to overcome various obstacles in achieving Obama’s new plans in Syria, there are more questions than answers.
“We’re still working through the details of exactly how money would be apportioned through a train-and-equip mission,” Kirby said.
“We’re always concerned about the wrong stuff ending up in the wrong hands,” he added. “But that doesn't mean that you stop the effort to try to enable and build the capacity of partners in a very tough part of the world. You don't just turn it off because there's a risk that some of it may fall into the wrong hands.”
Experts say the timing of the latest U.S. train-and-equip announcement shows the political and security calculus in the Middle East is shifting dramatically.
“It’s a situation where now, they’re worried about ISIL and militants potentially taking over Iraq,” says Stephen Biddle, a fellow with the Council on Foreign Relations and former adviser to Army Gens. Stanley McChrystal and David Petraeus. “They’re willing to risk a bit more error in order to get at [ISIL] in the field.”
“We’re increasingly viewing Syria and Iraq as a joint theater” with ISIL as the greatest threat, he says.
The Syrian people should not expect victory, others say, or even that this latest announcement signals the U.S. is interested in helping them achieve their goal of toppling the Assad regime.
“We missed the boat,” says Aram Nerguizian, a Middle East expert with the Washington-based think tank the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
Instead of domestic support, Obama’s new plan in Syria is squarely aimed at fighting the ISIL threat and attempting to quell the instability plaguing the region. Former allies such as Egypt are now roiling in their own internal political turmoil, while other major players such as Lebanon and Jordan are themselves worried about the Syria-Iraq powder keg causing even greater damage at home.
“It’s about making difficult, pragmatic choices that are less to do with democracy and more to do with preserving what little remains of a regional security architecture that is facing extinction in terms of stability,” Nerguizian says.