Islamic State militants have capitalized on post-Arab Spring uncertainty.

Arab Spring, Islamic State Summer: How Unrest Helped The Jihadi Blitz

Militants from the Islamic State (IS), also known as ISIS, have shook Middle East power dynamics to the core, enabled by the shaky post-Arab Spring world.

In a swift blitzkrieg maneuver, the Islamic State has all but erased the Syria-Iraq border, drawn up by French and British colonialists in the 1916 Sykes-Picot agreement.

Their surprising success – which is not guaranteed to be permanent – is symbolic of the rapidly changing Middle East, which is seeing an overturn of the stable but autocratic regimes built on arbitrary colonial borders.

Arab Spring…

Only three years ago, a very different movement was spreading rapidly throughout the region: Arab Spring protesters were revolting from Algeria to Oman, demanding freedom and democracy.

It’s hard to overestimate the scope of these movements, which created serious challenges for many of the region’s stagnant autocracies:

The Arab Spring destabilized the political environment in the Middle East, which the Islamic State is now exploiting.

Map courtesy of Wikipedia.

Some, like Iraqi academic Kanan Makia, have argued that the roots of these ousters go back to the 2003 US defeat of Saddam Hussein, which toppled not only the long-reigning dictator but the pan-Arab ideal that underpinned authoritarian regimes in the region.

As entrenched regimes fell one by one eight years later, the status quo seemed to have been shattered in an unprecedented upheaval, promising a brighter future.

… Islamic State Summer

Fast-forward to 2014, of course, and the situation isn’t quite as clear.

Libya is rid of Gaddafi but gripped by violence; Egypt saw the military overthrow its first democratically elected president; in Iraq, the government of President Maliki continues its mismanagement and sectarian politics. Even in Tunisia, the birthplace of the Arab Spring, the government is now under siege by militants.

Of course, Syria is the worst-case scenario, where rebels have been locked in a struggle with the brutal regime since 2011.

It’s this civil war that enabled the rise of the Islamic State, which arrived in the country from Iraq that same year, changing its name from “The Islamic State of Iraq” to “The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria.”

From strongholds it captured in Syria it has been able to project power, fighting other rebel groups and even breaking with al-Qaeda, which the Islamic State was a splinter group of until early 2013.

A strategic approach to resources have also allowed it to become the world’s wealthiest jihadist group.

Is the Islamic State the new reality?

Sensing an opportunity in early June 2014, the group was able to swoop in and capture large parts of Iraq.

The parts now under Islamic State control are heavily Sunni, while the current regime is Shiite.

Current President Maliki has been accused of favoring Shiites, a minority in Iraq, as revenge for their abuse during Saddam Hussein’s Sunni rule.

By exploiting these sectarian tensions, the Islamic State has been able to ally with Sunni militias and consequently rout the poorly organized Iraqi Army.

The organization is now not only rewriting the borders between the two countries, but the very fabric of society.

In areas occupied by the The Islamic State, militants are enforcing a strict version of shariah law, which includes a ban on alcohol and cigarettes, football, and rules requiring women to wear shawls.

Corporal punishment awaits those who break the rules, such as thieves getting their hands chopped off. The IS is also notorious for beheading and crucifying its enemies, including moderate rebels.

However, alongside this brutality, it’s also establishing social services, schools, courts, police, and even a Consumer Protection Agency. This slideshow shows what life is like in ISIS-occupied towns.

Their goal is likely to take advantage of the frailty of the current regimes and quickly establish itself as the de facto state. Whether its ends will justify its means to more moderate fellow Sunnis, however, will remain to be seen.

Perhaps the most risky move taken by the IS, however, was its declaration of a new Islamic caliphate. Essentially, the declaration tells all muslims that “either you’re with the IS, or you’re against it” – a move likely to alienate more moderate believers.

Initial reactions was tepid among Muslim authorities on Twitter.  But it seems other militant groups were inspired – in Nigeria, the Islamists of Boko Haram declared an Islamic state of their own.

Time will tell if the group will be able to hold on to its gains, and whether the caliphate will be widely respected or quickly forgotten.

But it seems clear that in the post-Arab Spring Middle East, it’s easier than ever for a group like the Islamic State to rapidly build momentum.

Updated. Originally published 7.7.2014 

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Ole Skaar