The defeat of ISIS.  Photo: Flickr Commons
The defeat of ISIS. Photo: Flickr Commons

It is an undeniable fact that the emergence of ISIS, the so-called “Islamic State” in the Middle East, constitutes an unprecedented phenomenon in the history of international relations. It is the first time that a terrorist fundamentalist organization has managed to inspire so many would-be terrorists and conquer such large portions of land.

At the same time, the threat that ISIS represented for the regional-state system provoked an unprecedented anti-hegemonic coalition against it by regional and international actors that finally prevailed over the jihadist organization.

It is worth noting that while ISIS controlled large regions in western Iraq and northern Syria, it now controls only 2% of this land. The vision for the establishment of a pan-Islamic caliphate is over. However, we must be very cautious, because its extreme ideology remains a threat for regional and international security.

The origins of ISIS

The predecessor of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) first appeared in the Middle East in 1999 as Jama’at, a jihadist organization under the Jordanian Abu Musab al-Zarqawi that in 2004 pledged allegiance to al-Qaeda. The insurgency in Iraq after the US invasion of 2003 radicalized further the organization that fought against the Western forces.

The jihadists exploited the general chaos in Iraq and Syria and expanded their hold. The withdrawal of American troops from Iraq in 2011 left a power vacuum that was filled in by extremist organizations, among them ISIL, aka ISIS (Islamic State of Iraq and Syria). In June 2014 ISIL proclaimed the Islamic State with a very ambitious agenda: To establish a pan-Islamic state governed by the Koran, sharia law and the hadith.

The ideology

Why is ISIS so hostile to Western values and Western civilization? According to its Salafist ideology, the division of the world into sovereign ethnic states is a Western creation. It believes that only God is sovereign and hence the Western state system must be destroyed and replaced by a pan-Islamic caliphate.

The followers of Islamic State espouse Salafi jihadism. This type of jihadi adopts violent force to impose their ideology on adherents of other religions, the infidels – koufr in Arabic

We must recall that in mid-2014, “Islamic State” had under its yoke 10 million of people on which it imposed taxes. It also retained vast stockpiles of arms and ammunition. At the same time, it controlled all aspects of life, from daily matters to education. As regards the latter, it developed a new curriculum that replaced “infidel” education. School administrators were informed that classes in physics and chemistry would be eliminated, while Islamic teachings would be promoted.

The followers of Islamic State espouse Salafi jihadism. This type of jihadi adopts violent force to impose their ideology on adherents of other religions, the infidels – koufr in Arabic. They confront international relations in Manichaeistic terms: They believe there is the “Dar al-Islam” (House of Islam) and the “Dar al-Harb” (House of War).

Anti-hegemonic coalition against ISIS

The emergence of the “Islamic State” in the Middle East provoked major redistributions of power in the region as many countries were forced to set aside their differences in the face of a greater threat. Ironically, the Americans under president Barack Obama were forced to fight the same threat that Bashar al-Assad was facing as a violation of Syrian sovereignty. Everyone can recall that in September 2013, the US was planning to initiate an armed intervention in Syria, which was avoided at the last minute in favor of an international agreement with Damascus for the destruction of Syria’s chemical weapons.

Moreover, the advance of the jihadis of ISIS throughout Iraq and Syria provided a modus vivendi for covert cooperation between Tehran and Washington in 2015. This would have been inconceivable some months earlier when many voices in the US Congress were supporting military action against Iran in order to prevent Tehran from acquiring nuclear weapons. This situation may have helped lead to the conclusion of the outline agreement on the Iranian nuclear program of April 2, 2015.

Turkey – accused by many of supporting ISIS in the context of its agenda to overthrow Assad – was forced to change policy when ISIS committed terrorist attacks on its soil. After that it participated in the US coalition.

Islamic State actions provoked further power shifts in Iraq and Syria. Kurds tried once again – unsuccessfully – to promote their national aspirations for self-determination. The momentum created by the general instability convinced Masoud Barzani, president of Iraqi Kurdistan, that it was time (September 25, 2017) to hold a referendum for independence from Baghdad. However, Baghdad’s retaliatory and coercive actions suspended the positive result, and Barzani stepped down in November 2017.

For their part, the Syrian Kurds in January 2014 set up a regional administration in the area based on the Swiss model.

Alarmed by all these developments, Ankara intervened in northern Syria in August 2016 with “Operation Euphrates Shield.” In January this year, the Turkish army intervened again in Syria in order to block a broader Kurdish plan to join the Kurdish cantons in northern Syria. And the bloodshed continues …

Great power politics and ISIS

The jihadists’ presence in the Middle East created a general state of chaos in Iraq and Syria that finally ran in Assad’s favor. Russia intervened in Syria in 2015, saving Assad from total disaster. For its part, the US-led coalition that had intervened in September 2014 to support the Syrian opposition also weakened Islamic State. While the Americans and the Russians were supporting different sides in the Syrian Civil War, they were concurrently fighting against the same jihadist threat.

Hezbollah, a Shiite non-state actor based in Lebanon, got involved in the war, supporting Assad and trying to save the Shia axis against its Sunni foes. Israel, which in 2006 had fought a three-week war with Hezbollah, interfered dozens of times in Syria in order to destroy weapons bound for the militant organization. Generally speaking, there were many times that the involvement of various actors with conflicting agendas in Syria and Iraq pushed things to the edge of a general escalation. However, that is another issue.

Finally, the liberation of Mosul in Iraq, the financial capital of Islamic State, in July 2017 and the fall of Raqqa, the self-declared capital of ISIS in Syria, in October of the same year marked the end of the caliphate.


ISIS’s emergence, presence, actions and course in the Middle East marked a very important moment in the history of international relations. Islamic State constitutes a remarkable paradigm that will be taught in university departments of international politics across the world.

This formidable threat to regional and global security and to human values as well paved the way for the establishment of a coalition against regional Islamist hegemony that sent its vision for the establishment of a caliphate into the dustbin of history. However, the organization has not disappeared completely. It still poses a threat through its affiliated groups all over the world, and its message of hate may inspire other would-be terrorists in the future. The international community has a moral duty to prevent this.

Dr Nicos Panayiotides is the head of the Geostrategic Observatory of the Middle East (GEOPAME), journalist and assistant professor of political studies at American College in Nicosia. He is also Research Associate at the Center for Oriental Studies (Panteion University). His academic interests focus on the Cyprus problem, Middle East politics and the Arab-Israeli conflict. He is author of several scientific publications in academic journals and four books on the Cyprus and Palestinian problems.

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