Can the Islamic State become a legitimate state?

Can the Islamic State become a legitimate state?

The Islamic State (IS) has made swift gains in Iraq and Syria, has established a self-claimed Caliphate, and has asserted it is abolishing borders. But can it achieve its goals and create a single Islamic state encompassing most of the MENA region?

The Islamic State (IS – formerly the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant/ISIL) has been stunning the public with its swift advance. Once an offshoot of Al Qaeda, it has become a threat to many countries in the region, with brutal tactics and vicious warriors. It even spurned the mediation efforts of Al Qaeda, reportedly killing its envoy sent personally by Ayman Az Zawahiri.

Finally, declaring a Caliphate on June 29, the IS seems to have taken one of the final steps towards its ultimate goal: Creating a state that will not be contained by existing boundaries and will bring together all Muslims under a single banner.

Whether this move is appropriate or acceptable according to Islamic rules is the subject of another — and much longer — discussion. The question is whether the IS’s advance towards the creation of a single state, and thus a single economy, is feasible.

The IS’s modus operandi is very different from other jihadist organizations, not only in its brutality but also in its efficient and pragmatic economic approach in the territories it controls. The IS fighters have seized an important percentage of Syria’s oil wells, they have sold crude from the wells in Iraq, they have gained control of dams in Syria and Iraq, and they apparently even sold electricity to the Syrian government.

The Islamic State is also far more organized on social issues than other jihadist entities. They have a consumer protection office in the Syrian city of Raqqah, they have restored water services and started to sell cheap petrol and food in Mosul and they have provided various social services in Fallujah.

Is it sufficient?

Nonetheless, creating a single state to cover an ambitious area like the MENA region will take a lot more in economic, political and military terms.

Creating a viable economic structure in the modern world cannot be achieved only by being able to operate some facilities, providing social aid or smuggling goods. The economic and financial essentials of being a state, such as ensuring sustainable large-scale production of goods and services, creating a money market, maintaining a stable and manageable budget, etc. are apparently beyond the capabilities of the present cadres of the IS.

Politically, there is a need for consenting partners both within and outside a country. The IS is operating in a large swathe of land at the moment, but it would be quite safe to conclude that it has a shortage of willing partners both at home and abroad, which is a real political shortcoming and a huge obstacle against creating a fully operational modern state and a functional economy.

And the IS has not been seriously confronted by a powerful military force – not even by the armies of the two countries in which they are operating. In Syria, only 5% of the battles in June 2014 were between the IS and the government. Likewise in Iraq, they did not meet much resistance in their latest offensives. They will likely sustain heavy losses once they face a powerful adversary instead of poorly trained, under-equipped, and unwilling armies and opposition groups. It is possible to wreak havoc with fearless foreign fighters and war-spoil weapons for a certain amount of time, but quite impossible to build and maintain a state with them.

What to expect

The creation of a state — and a functioning economy — without borders is unlikely at the moment, at least not with IS’ methods. But this does not mean that the efforts of the IS towards its creation will not cause problems. The advances of the IS, and the extensive and lengthy operations it will take to stop it, will leave deep economic, social, and military scars on the region.

About Author

Orkun Selcuk

Orkun is a Middle East expert and a consultant on political risk. He served as a strategic analyst for the Turkish Prime Ministry for eight years. Prior to that, he worked for nine years as a corporate banker for Garanti and Akbank, two of Turkey’s most prominent banks.