Will We See Two Islamic Emirates in Syria Soon?

Al-Qaeda’s operational shift towards Syria underlines the dangers created by crumbling states in the Levant.

If recent persistent press reports prove to be accurate, we are likely to see Al-Qaeda slowly transfer its core leaders from Pakistan and elsewhere to Syria, where they reportedly plan to set in motion plans to create an alternate headquarters. This could be the first step towards ultimately declaring an “emirate,” building on the control of territory and resources of its Syrian affiliate Jabhat Al-Nusra.

If this were to happen, it would mean that two leading Islamist groups, Al-Qaeda/Al-Nusra and the Islamic State (ISIS) would be established in Syria and parts of Iraq. If they both survived the massive local and international military assaults against them, this new reality would be a historic change in the modern map of the Arab World. It is much too early to talk about the Arab World with two Islamic entities—states, emirates, or caliphates, call them what you will—but the simple fact that one already has declared itself and the other may be in the early stages of coming into being is a bellwether of both the troubled, unstable conditions in our region and possible alternatives that could emerge.

These are important signs of what happens when once strong, centralized states like Iraq or Syria start to fray at the edges or corrode and collapse from within. When central governments cannot provide for their people’s material and political representation needs, and the institutions of state that provide order fail to function, societies tend to experience brief periods of chaos before new forms of order take over. The Arab World and other parts of the Middle East in this respect enjoy a rich array of layers of identity and social orders that quickly kick in to provide the basic human needs that central governments had previously handled. These include religion, tribal identity, and ethno-nationalist identities such as we see among the Kurds of northern Iraq and Syria. Such pre-state identities, rather than chaos, are the alternative to the strong Iraqi, Syria, and Libyan governments that once ruled.

ISIS and Al-Nusra now may put this assumption to the test in a way that has never happened before. It is fascinating to follow the two very different approaches that ISIS and Al-Nusra have used to plant themselves in Syria and Iraq, and to see which, if either, succeeds. ISIS has taken control and declared its caliphate by the sword, while Al-Nusra has used its military prowess mostly to fight the Syrian government and gradually gain the confidence of the people in the areas it is strongest. Both of them have had unhappy previous experiences in recently lawless lands like Iraq, Yemen, Libya, Sinai, and Somalia, where they sometimes moved too quickly to establish “Islamic” governments and rules that alienated local communities.

Military and political assaults against ISIS and Al-Nusra in Syria-Iraq are now complemented by attacks in Yemen and Libya. These two Islamic entities will have a very hard time taking firm root there, unless things get so bad that the local populations turn to them for the basics of life that ordinary citizens always prioritize—security, food, health care, water and electricity, and income.

Al-Qaeda and its affiliate Al-Nusra have sought to earn such popular assent slowly and methodically. Whether they have decided now to create a sovereign emirate due mainly to their precarious situation in Pakistan-Afghanistan or to the propitious conditions for their statehood in Syria will only be known in due course. The presence of many senior Al-Qaeda officials in Syria will clearly strengthen the group’s technical capabilities while also enhancing its appeal to Islamists across the region who see it as the vintage brand of Jihadi movements that is not tarnished by ISIS’ brutality.

The entire history of contemporary Jihadi movements since the 1970s has been deeply entrenched in Arab societies, with a significant episode in Afghanistan for some years. The drivers of popular discontent that have provided the leadership, recruits, and social-political support for movements like Al-Qaeda and ISIS since their inception have always been squarely anchored in Arab societies.

If these groups do survive the fierce attacks that will be mounted against them, and establish small sovereign states in Syria-Iraq, this would significantly enhance their recruiting, financing, and operational capabilities in Arab societies, which would be bad news for everyone—except perhaps for those people whose lives have become so miserable and hopeless that they see in Al-Qaeda and ISIS a beacon of hope that nobody else in the world can understand. So maybe it is about time that we do start understanding this matter more honestly, and addressing the root causes of mass discontent that make Al-Qaeda and ISIS appealing to such a large number of people in the Arab World particularly.

Rami G. Khouri is published twice weekly in the Daily Star. He was founding director and now senior policy fellow of the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs at the American University of Beirut. On Twitter: @ramikhouri.

Copyright ©2016 Rami G. Khouri — distributed by Agence Global