New caliphate faces an inevitable collapse
Despite the alarm raised by Sunday's declaration of an Islamic caliphate, it has no chance of long-term survival, let alone significant expansion beyond its current boundaries. The Islamic State (formerly of Iraq and the Levant), stretches from northern Syria to eastern Iraq. Its shortened name is meant to signal that its ambitions are not limited to the territories of its previous title.
However, there is not much more places it can grow - even within Syria and Iraq - due to limited manpower and resources, as well as the formidable enemies it would face in the process. Already covering large swathes of territory, further enlargement would risk classic imperial overstretch.
It cannot expand north into Turkey, or east into Iran, because it would stand no chance against either army. Furthermore, NATO - a political and military alliance of 28 countries - has said it "will not hesitate" to protect Turkey against such a threat.
Encroaching on Iraq's southern neighbours Saudi Arabia and Kuwait would draw in the economic powers of the Gulf Cooperation Council (including the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Oman and Bahrain), as well as the military protection of the US and Britain. A threat to the sizeable Shiite minorities in Saudi Arabia or Kuwait could also draw in Iran. Riyadh has ordered "all necessary measures" against "terrorist organisations".
Militants have taken control of the only legal crossing between Iraq and Jordan. However, Amman has sent reinforcement of tanks and armoured vehicles, and put troops on a state of alert along the border, to stop any encroachment.
Jordan's king has the backing of the US, and Israel has said the international community should support Amman against "Islamic extremism", and make sure it is "able to defend itself". Israel would likely intervene directly to stop its neighbour becoming a base and springboard for militants. In any case, they have not directly threatened Israel from Syria - nor would they - given its military might.
IS has claimed responsibility for a suicide attack in Lebanon, and threatened "the Party of Satan" (Hezbollah) and "its agent, the Lebanese army", with "hundreds" more. However, expanding the caliphate into Lebanon would be resisted by the army and the much more powerful Hezbollah, which would be aided directly by its allies in Damascus and Tehran.
There would also be widespread public opposition from Lebanon's multi-confessional society. Political and sectarian divisions in the country may well be put aside in the face of a looming militant theocracy.
Obstacles in Syria and Iraq
The Islamic State would be hard-pressed to expand further in Syria. Nine rebel groups - including the powerful Islamic Front - and the top body of Syrian Islamic scholars in exile, have issued a statement rejecting the caliphate and urging Muslims to do so.
IS's war with various Syrian opposition groups - including al-Qaeda's affiliate, the Nusra Front - has resulted in 7,000 fatalities since January. Those groups are stepping up their campaign against ISIL, and Washington has asked lawmakers for $500 mn to train and equip vetted Syrian rebels.
In addition, capturing more territory in Syria would eventually lead to full-fledged fighting with the forces of Bashar al-Assad, as well as those of his allies Hezbollah and Iran. So far, ISIL has focused far more on fighting Syrian rebels and consolidating captured territory than taking on the Assad regime. However, the latter did recently bomb ISIL targets along the border with Iraq, to the gratitude of Assad's ally, Prime Minister Nori al-Maliki.
Further enlarging the Islamic State on Iraqi soil would face perhaps even bigger obstacles. While the US is at odds with Russia, China and Iran over Syria, they are all backing Iraq's government and army militarily, financially and politically. They would certainly ramp up their assistance and involvement if the Islamic State made greater gains.
In addition, Maliki has offered to arm civilians willing to fight the Sunni militants. He is also being bolstered by various Shiite militias, as well as a call by the country's top Shiite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, for Iraqis to join the security forces. Powerful Shiite cleric Moqtada Sadr, although an opponent of Maliki, has threatened to "shake the ground" against the militants.
The result of all this external and internal support is that the lightning militant advance in Iraq has slowed, and the army is fighting back. Any attempt by the Islamic State to advance into Shiite heartlands in southern, eastern and central Iraq - including the capital - would face certain defeat.
Neither could the caliphate expand into Iraqi Kurdistan, given the strength of Kurdish forces (the peshmerga). They have been mobilised in what has been described as "the biggest deployment of peshmerga in recent history". Fighting has already taken place, but it is unlikely that the Islamic State would want a full-blown showdown with the peshmerga, not least because this could draw in Kurdish fighters from neighbouring Syria, Turkey and Iran.
The Islamic State will not even be able to consolidate its hold on its present territory. Besides being under military pressure from so many states and groups, ISIL has committed numerous atrocities against people under its rule, including Sunnis, whose sect of Islam it claims to champion.
Recent history alone shows that jihadist groups have utterly failed to match their battlefield prowess with effective governance. They have shown no understanding of winning hearts and minds - let alone a desire to do so - and this has consistently proved to be their undoing. Just a few examples are Ansar Dine in Mali, al-Shabab in Somalia and al-Qaeda in Iraq.
The latter lost its strength and influence because it so violated Iraq's Sunni Arabs - the very community from which it drew support - that they rose up against it. The same will happen with ISIL, whose bloodlust has caused even Al Qaeda to disavow it. There are already such stirrings within the caliphate.
Indeed, the militants' swift territorial gains in Iraq were not just down to IS, but to various groups - such as secular Baathists, who have reportedly been instrumental militarily - that do not share its ideology, and would resist living under it.
These groups have fought alongside IS not because they want a caliphate, but because they have had enough of the marginalisation of the Sunni Arab community in Iraq. Saudi Arabia has pledged to use its influence within that community to encourage it to join a new, more inclusive Iraqi government to better combat IS.
Prominent Salafist leaders have condemned the Islamic State. Widening dissent from Islamist and jihadist leaders and groups will hinder a call by the caliph, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, for Muslims worldwide to take up arms and rally to his cause. So too will a clampdown by countries regionally and internationally on those who wish to heed his call.
Given the array of enemies and obstacles it faces - internally and externally - the demise of the Islamic State is a matter of when, not if. This is largely of its own doing.
- Sharif Nashashibi is an award-winning journalist and analyst on Arab affairs. He is a regular contributor to Al Arabiya News, Al Jazeera English, The National, and The Middle East magazine. In 2008, he received an award from the International Media Council "for both facilitating and producing consistently balanced reporting" on the Middle East.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.
Photo credit: Islamic State fighters celebrating an apparent military victory in Iraq (AFP)