THE BLOG
10/22/2014 03:44 pm ET Updated Dec 22, 2014

The "Islamic State": A Different Ball Game

The removal of Saddam Hussein in April 2003 marked the end of Sunni political dominance in Iraq and was a watershed moment in the history of the region. A new reality was created, the understanding of which is critical in evaluating the emergence and success of the Islamic State, otherwise known as ISIS.

Since mid-June, ISIS forces have succeeded in conquering vast desert territories stretching from Aleppo in Syria to Baghdad in Iraq. In the process, the boundaries between Iraq and Syria have been rendered irrelevant. More broadly, they have taken advantage of the current milieu ushered in by the events of the "Arab Spring." As the Arab street capitalized on the modern tools of social media, many analysts believed that radicalism would be marginalized. Unfortunately, the opposite occurred: the demise of dictators from Libya to Iraq and the loosening or removal of their iron grips has left the region with a number of fragmented states in which organizations like the Islamic State have been able to come to the fore. In particular, ISIS was able to capitalize on the respective weaknesses of the ruling regimes in Syria and Iraq. Therefore, it is not surprising that the Islamic State was able to make such large and impressive gains, especially combined with its unprecedented ability to raise revenue.

The ISIS campaign has been notable in its brutality, displayed in recent weeks with the horrific beheadings of four American and British citizens. Yet, these were but several examples of the chilling destruction and violence they wrought throughout the region. They have targeted religious minorities it deems as infidels and who refuse to accept its puritanical Islamist creed. The world has witnessed the executions and expulsions of Christian communities in Iraq and Syria, the attempted extermination of Iraq's Yazidi minority, and the enslavement and rape of women, as well as mass executions of Syrian and Iraqi soldiers. Yet, while violence and intimidation are key ISIS tools, it would be a grave mistake to dismiss them as merely a group of violent jihadists.

Such a view does not hold up to scrutiny when one considers their state-like operandi. It is this hybridity that makes ISIS unlike any of its jihadist predecessors or contemporaries as the group expends much effort on state-building and bureaucratic initiatives. Moreover, their territory is becoming a very dangerous training ground for would-be terrorists. This new reality is nothing but a recipe for chronic regional instability and a grave threat to international security. It is not a traditional army, per se, but instead a disciplined, small, efficient, strategic, and ruthless organization. This, together with its ability to forge alliances and practice reciprocity with a variety of Sunni tribal, insurgent, and Ba'thist groups, has enabled it to gain at the expense of other forces. Taken together, the items discussed above make terminating ISIS and its political ideology, a difficult, if not impossible prospect.

In light of the above, it is necessary to ensure that the phenomenon known as the Islamic State is not analyzed merely through a military or counter-terrorism lens. Instead, it should be seen within the context of the prevailing spirit of the region and through its own pronouncements. The transnational nature of the ISIS recruitment base means that Europe and North America will eventually witness acts of sabotage and terror within their own communities. Therefore, timing is imperative. The longer international leaders wait, the harder it will become to deal with this problem. A message must be sent to ISIS that the Free World is willing to take part in a prolonged and painful process, and will remain engaged for the long-term. It appears that President Obama has finally realized the necessity of action, yet the particularistic interests of each party challenge his current coalition-building efforts.

Moreover, any strategy that attempts to force the twentieth century paradigm of a unitary Iraqi state ignores the current reality, demonstrating the tectonic changes experienced by the region. The coalition must work with, not against the grain. Existing divisions must be considered as a fait accompli. Therefore, Sunni tribes must be won over in order to establish a presence on the ground, while the Kurds should be properly equipped both militarily and otherwise, and encouraged to establish an independent state. In doing so, the West will show their understanding of the complex historical drama that has engulfed the region and the urgent need to intervene. If ISIS is not defeated or at least marginalized, Jordan and Lebanon could be next. But unfortunately, the West hasn't arrived at this realization yet. And they only will after another 9/11, but by then it will unfortunately be too little, too late.

Prof. Uzi Rabi is the Director of the Moshe Dayan Center for Middle Eastern and African Studies at Tel Aviv University.