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Δρ. Νίκος Παναγιωτίδης: Επικεφαλής ΓΕΩΠΑΜΕ


The emergence of the Islamic State (ISIS), a fundamentalist-terrorist organization that tends to reshape the Middle East state system, has shocked the international community and all humanity. The jihadists in Iraq and Syria that proclaimed a caliphate in June 2014 in the areas they have captured are posing a major threat to the regional state system as it was shaped with the secret Sykes–Picot agreements between France and Britain in 1916.
The main argument in this paper is that the actions of the jihadists of ISIS will provoke important redistributions of power in the Middle East, resulting in major changes not only as regards the strategies of the main actors in the Middle East, but also for the Great Powers. The analysis in this paper lies in the realist school of thought in international politics. Therefore, it seeks to explain to what extent the emergence of ISIS provoked redefinition of threats and interests in the Middle East so that states and non-state actors were forced to cooperate in the light of a greater evil. In this article we also examine competing regional strategies of the Great Powers in the Middle East that we believe contributed to the ascent of ISIS. For example, the strategic inaction or cooperation of the Great Powers in Syria, because of the divergent interests of Russia and U.S., resulted in the empowerment of the jihadists.
However, political realism alone cannot totally explain the emergence of ISIS, since other fields of the social sciences, such as the psychology, beliefs, and ideology of ISIS members are interconnected with the whole issue. This paper explores these important issues in order to shed light on the rise of Islamic fundamentalism in the Middle East. Before getting to our main analysis, though, we must detect the origins of the Islamic State.


The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS) is a descendant of a Sunni organization, the “Al Qaida of Iraq” that was created in 2004 by Abu Musab Al Zarqawi, a Jordanian terrorist who had been trained in Afghanistan.
Zarqawi opposed the American presence in Iraq and initiated many terrorist attacks against the American troops, the Shi’a and the Sunnis as well, until his death in 2006. But what is the main core of Islamic State’s fundamentalist ideology? The fundamentalists espouse the Salafist ideology. In other words, they are followers of the Salafiyyah movement that flourished in the early twentieth century.
The word Salaffiyah is an Arabic word meaning ancestor. The Salafiyyah movement is an Islamic reform movement that calls for a return to the purified and uncontaminated principles that existed at the time of the Prophet.(1) There are Salafists in many Arab countries, in Egypt, in Saudi Arabia, in Jordan, and elsewhere.
The followers of the Islamic State espouse salafi jihadism. This type of jidahism adopts violent force to impose their ideology on adherents of other religions, the infidels, koufr in Arabic. They confront international relations in manichaistic terms; they believe there is the “Dar al Islam” (House of Islam) and the “Dar al Harb” (House of War). As Middle East authority Fred Halliday observes, “One of the most common claims of Islamist movements is that they reject the division of the Muslim world into different states and peoples: the state in its modern form is an alien, western creation, and all Muslims share a common identity as members of the Umma or community of believers.”(2)
According to Islamists, the Quran does not accept either division between the believers, or the fragmentation between nation-states. They maintain that these divisions are a creation of the infidel West.
More analytically, Islamists believe that the sovereignty of the land belongs to God and not to the state. The jihad¬ists of ISIS regard all those who do not adopt their ideology as koufr (infidels) who belong in the house of war, (Dar al Harb). Accordingly, they believe that they are entitled to make holy war, jihad, in order to place them in the zone of Islam (Dar al Islam).
Those who resist their beliefs face the risk of being killed. The Islamic State has established institutions in the regions it controls. More specifically, it has created local police stations and imposes taxes on non-Muslims. Moreover, in eastern Syria, it has shut all schools in order to revise their curriculum. It has announced it plans to develop a new curriculum to replace the current “infidel” education. According to Reuters,(3) the school administrators were informed that physics and chemistry will be eliminated, while Islamic teachings will be promoted.


The territory that the Islamic State has seized is as large as Great Britain. No other modern terrorist organization has managed to conquer such a large portion of land. Moreover, ISIS is differentiated from other jihadist organizations, such as Al-Qaida, regarding the means used to fight. In contrast with other terrorist organizations, ISIS has adopted conventional
Islamists do not accept either division between the believers, or the fragmentation between nation-states. They maintain that these divisions are a creation of the infidel West.
ISIS has adopted conventional warfare in its struggle with its enemies. The jihadists of the Islamic State have managed to achieve something that was unbelievable some years ago, posing thus a major threat for the regional state system and the world peace as well.
ISIS is a non-state actor with many state features: It controls large portions of land and it exerts power over a large amount of people who they have no other option except to recognize ISIS authority as legitimate. Like a totalitarian state, the jihadists of the Islamic State maintain a government over their subjects that imposes taxes and that interferes in all aspects of social life, including education.
We live in the era of globalization and continuous economic interde¬pendence between nation-states under American leadership. This includes global flows of capital and services, and the migration of people with different beliefs from one country to another. Thousands of people move from the Middle East to Europe and U.S., and vice versa. Fundamentalists resent this globalization, and they see it as an American instrument of hegemony in the Middle East. Consequently, this globalization process fuels extremism in the Middle East. ISIS, as a non-state actor—or at least a quasi-state that doesn’t recognize any other state, does not feel bound to any convention of international law or the law of war.
In other words, it is committed to spread its supranational ideology at any cost to the regional system of the Middle East or the international system elsewhere. This disregard for international order is causing deepening strategic instability in the volatile Middle East region. Consequently, the West not only encounters a formidable threat to the Middle East state system, but also to Western interests all over the world.
More than 6,000 European citizens have moved to the Middle East in order to join the jihadist fight. These people pose a major threat to European countries because when they return to their countries they may conduct terrorist attacks. Global security is at risk. The Islamic State’s actions have led to the creation of a coalition of countries under the leadership of U.S. that fight against it. But the most remarkable thing is that ISIS has provoked major realignments in the strategies and independent actions of many regional actors and great powers.



The attention of the international community has been focused on the Islamic State’s actions, making the brutal Syrian Civil war that has continued for more than three and a half years and has cost the lives of 200,000 people a secondary concern. Ironically, ISIS seems to justify, at least at a rhetorical level, Syrian President Bashar Al Assad’s arguments that all these years he has been fighting against terrorists, and the international com¬munity should see him as the lesser evil in the strategic landscape of Syria.
Until recently, no one could imagine that the U.S., a fierce opponent of the Syrian regime, would focus on the destruction of the same threat, the Islamic State. Everyone can recall that in September 2013, the USA was planning to initiate an armed intervention in Syria that was avoided in the last minute in favor of an international agreement with Damascus for the destruction of the chemical weapons of Syria.


Even the case of Iran demonstrates that the Islamic State provokes major redistributions of power in the Middle East. Iran has been considered a U.S. enemy in the Middle East and Israel’s archenemy since 1979, when an Islamic Revolution in Iran shocked the local and regional balance of power. A theocratic regime came to power that is considered hostile for U.S., Israel, and Western interests in general.
However, the advance of the jihadists of ISIS throughout Iraq and Syria has provided a modus vivendi for covert cooperation between Tehran and USA. Iranian troops have crossed the borders of Iraq and are fighting against the Islamists in the Diyiala province of Northern Iran.4 This would have been unconceivable some months ago when many voices in the U.S. Congress were supporting a military action against Iran in order to prevent Tehran from acquiring nuclear weapons. The outline agreement on the Iranian nuclear program of April 2, 2015, between Tehran and the six great powers, seems to further support the argument that a major redistribution of power is occurring in the Middle East.


The slaughter of the Kurdish population in Kobani in northern Syria has upgraded once again Turkey’s geopolitical position and underlined her strategic utility for the West. After many days of negotiations and ambivalence, Ankara allowed the Kurdish Fighters of Regional Kurdistan (Peshmerga) to pass through Turkish territory and enter into Northern Syria (Kobani) in order to help their fellow Kurds. The story of Kobani became part of the strategic game against ISIS for the whole region.
The Kurds in Northeast Syria have exploited the strategic instability in Syria in order to promote their national dreams for further autonomy and independence. More specifically, on January 2014 they set up a regional administration in the area based on the Swiss model.5 Their actions frighten Ankara, which considers Kurdish plans in Syria as a bad model for the Kurds living in southeast Turkey. Turkey is suffering from the “Serves Syndrome,” fearing that similar actions from her Kurdish popula¬tion may lead to the secession of Turkish Kurdistan. The intensification of air strikes last February by the US-led coalition has helped the Kurds to defeat the jihadists in Kobani. However, the international coalition is far from completely prevailing over the Islamic State for various reasons that are examined in this paper.


At first sight the jihadist instability in Syria and Iraq appears to serve the interests of the Jewish state of Israel because it weakens its foes.(6) And, it keeps Bashar al Assad’s regime engaged in a catastrophic war of attrition with the rebels. But this is a simplistic analysis of the current strategic landscape in the region. There are many other players in the complex Middle East.
The radical islamists of ISIS include Jordan in their plans for regional hegemony in the Near East. Jordan is a close U.S. ally in the region and a friend to Israel. Since Israel has borders with Jordan, it is logical, from a strategic point of view, that the Jewish state will identify a substantial threat to the Hashemite Kingdom as a threat to itself. Israeli diplomats already have told their American counterparts that Israel would be prepared to take military action to save Jordan, its neigh¬bor to the East.(7)


Lebanon constitutes another paradigm of how the Islamic State’s emergence in the Middle East transforms the whole regional system. Israel and Lebanon have no diplomatic relations, since they remain technically in a state of war. Israel invaded Lebanon two times: in 1978 and in 1982. The second time the Israel army remained in a borderland buffer in Lebanon’s territory until 2000, when the then-Israeli Prime Minister Ehoud Barak withdrew the Israelis troops from the country.(8) In addition to this, in July 2006 Israel fought with Hezbollah (the Second Lebanon War) for 34 days.
However, the Islamic State’s dangerous assault in the region constitutes a common threat for both states. It is not accidental that the Israeli military is exploring the possibility of cooperating with the Lebanese military (9) in order to counter the Sunni Islamist militants.


The Islamic State’s actions in the Middle East raised concerns worldwide that a regional threat underestimated at the beginning could pose an immi¬nent threat for global security. Many Europeans who went to the Middle East raised the flag of the global jihad. All these would-be terrorists could conduct terrorist attacks when they return to their countries. Terrorist attacks in the name of Islamic State have already conducted in Canada and Australia and Belgium.
The terrorist attacks at Charlie Hebdo, a satirical magazine in Paris, and at a Jewish supermarket at a suburb of the French capital shocked the international community and showed how vulnerable European countries are to phenomena of transnational terrorism. Islamic terrorism constitutes an asymmetrical threat for the European societies and their values. The jihadists of ISIS and their supporters consider the European countries as a field for the continuation of the war that they conduct in Syria and Iraq.
An international coalition under the USA started an air campaign against the jihadists in order to eliminate the threat. However, the effort to create a coalition faces many problems, such as distrust between the Arab members and the West and the unwillingness of European countries to actively support the divergent interests between Russia and the West as regards the civil war and Syria.(10)
Is the air campaign enough to destroy the Islamic state or are further ground operations needed? According to military strategists, only ground troops can thoroughly eliminate such a threat as the Islamic state, which occupies ground. The Iraqi army and the Kurdish fighters have prevailed in some fights with ISIS, but are far from totally prevailing over the Islamists.
Consequently, the choice of ground operations is looming on the horizon once again. Defeating ISIS is not an easy situation. The fighters of ISIS are not insurgents. They use conventional forms of war, fighting in large units.(11) Furthermore, they use modern weaponry because they have the financial capability to buy modern weapons and have seized many weapons in areas of conquest.
The dilemmas for the U.S. and their partners are many. Any intervention and ground involvement in Iraq will underscore, once again, for the Islamic world, the stereotypes of the role of the West and, particularly European pow¬ers, for the creation of many “artificial conflicts” in the Near East and the wider Middle East that serve Western purposes. Moreover, it will inflame conspiracy theories that the U.S. wants to promote the strategic instability in the region in order to advance egoistic self-interests, such the exploita¬tion of Middle East oil, to weaken the Islamic world, to help Israel, etc. Even worse, reintroduction of ground troops in Iraq will put the U.S. and its allies in the position to again face the unmanageable problems that followed after its intervention in Iraq in 2003. Specifically, the U.S. may face the possibility of being forced to undertake the role of arbiter between the various factions of Iraq, while everyone will be reluctant to participate in such a development.


The current international system is characterized by intense strategic instability that is reflecting on the regional subsystems of the world, and vice versa. The strategic instability in the regional systems of power detonates the instability in the international system.(12) In other words, in terms of international relations the instability in the international system and the regional systems are communicating vessels. For example, the crises in Ukraine and the Syrian civil war are byproducts of the structural changes that have occurred in the current international system. The rise of China as a global power, the more vivid presence of Russian leadership in inter¬national affairs, and the fatigue of the U.S. after many wars in the Middle East are creating the conditions for strategic instability in the world. But how is this situation described in terms of international politics?
As political scientist Robert Gilpin has demonstrated, growing instabil¬ity in international relations occurs when the leading power of the system is being questioned by other great powers of the system. More specifically, he concludes, “The differential rates of growth and decline and rising states in the system produce a decisive redistribution of power and result in disequilibrium in the system”.(13)
The latest developments in the Middle East show that, on the one hand, American hegemonic policies in the region are not accepted by other great powers and, on the other hand, the U.S. cannot support its own strategic goals in the region. Although the U.S. remains a state with a superpower status in military terms, it is appearing to lose strategic influ¬ence and economic might. Put differently, the U.S. cannot support the increased costs of maintaining her political supremacy all over the world. This is the reason that the Obama administration has ordered the closure of fifteen American military bases and facilities in various European coun¬tries.(14) The decision will result in savings of $500 million in year and is part of the American President’s policy to reduce defense spending by nearly $1 trillion over a decade.
The U.S. Administration is focused on “pivoting” to Asia in order to consider the ascent of Chinese might.(15) China, the second largest economy in the world, has been growing steadily for many years at a rate of nearly 10 percent per year. There are fears that, if this pattern continues, that before 2050 China will surpass the U.S. and become the largest economy in the word. According to John Mearsheimer, Great Powers fear each other, and the Chinese-American equation is no exception to this.(16) In particular, security competition between great powers is a central component of international relations.
There are American concerns that in the future China may express her will to translate its economic surpluses in military might and thus undermine American supremacy and security. Provided that there are differences between China and the USA over Taiwan and other regional areas, there are also many strategic concerns about China’s future plans for hegemony in the Southeast Asia.


American foreign policy regarding the Syrian civil war has been questioned by both Russia and China, two great powers that have competing interests in the region with U.S. Russia, especially, has shown her antithesis to American policy in Syria by multiple vetoes in the UN Security Council that favor the regime of Bashar al Assad.
Russia and Syria have deep economic relations since Moscow has invested billions of dollars in Syria in infrastruc¬ture, energy and tourism. But Russia’s primary interest in Syria is geo-strategic. Moscow is determined to preserve her only naval base in the Mediterranean, located in the Syrian town of Tartus. If Bashar al Assad remains in power, the naval base will be preserved also. If the rebels oust him, the stakes for Moscow in terms of its strategic interests there will be too high. Russia does not seem ready to allow such a development to occur. In other words, Pax Americana is not an acceptable option for Russia as a power model in the Middle East.
The Obama Administration has been criticized for its grand strategy in the area. The strategic plan was that the U.S. would cooperate with the moderate Islamic movements in Egypt, Turkey, and elsewhere in order to transform the region into a “democratic zone” of peace. However, quite the contrary has been achieved. Egypt faced a prolonged internal instabil¬ity until the army ousted the Islamist President Mohamed Morsi. In Libya there is growing military confrontation between various factions that are competing for money and power after the ouster of Muammar Gaddafi. And, as regards Turkey, Tayip Erdogan does not seem to be a trusted ally since he has damaged Turkey’s good relations with Israel. Turkey’s neo-Ottoman vision and hegemonic model for the area, the “Davutoglu Doctrine” as it has been called, is opposed to American and Jewish interests in the region.
Furthermore, the Arab-Israel peace process has been halted as the region has once again become a major source of instability and a primary threat to regional and global security. Many analysts of foreign policy blame the American government for its policies in the Middle East.(17)
In trying to oust Bashar al Assad from power, the American government underestimated the jihadist threat for the regional and global security.18 It supported the Syrian opposition’s attempt to overthrow the Syrian government and neglected to evaluate correctly the risks that arise from jihadist terrorism in an unstable Syria. The Syrian opposition is far from being homogenous. The prolongation of the conflict in Syria has allowed terrorists such as the jihadists of the Islamic State to establish themselves in Syria and in neighboring Iraq as well. They have been strengthened to such an extent that they have established a caliphate in the area. Thousands of young people from various countries have been trained there and indoctrinated in the name of Islam. They may later become terrorists who will attack U.S. and European countries.
In sum, the structural features of the current international system mani¬fest intense strategic instability in the Middle East. The Islamic State’s pres¬ence and actions in the region is an inherent characteristic of this instability.


The emergence of the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq tends to reshape the Middle East map in a way that was unpredictable only a short time ago. No other terrorist organization in the history of modern international rela¬tions has managed to consolidate such large portions of land into a unitary whole under its territorial control.
The U.S. intervention in Iraq in 2003 and the withdrawal of American troops from the country in 2011 created a power vacuum that favored the creation of the murderous regime known as the Islamic State. Furthermore, the situation in the Middle East was aggravated due to the inability of the West to intervene in Syria to maintain the local balance of power in a way that would eliminate or minimize radical Islamic extremism.
The radical dogmatic ideology of ISIS constitutes a major threat to the international community since it is able to indoctrinate many people to be prepared to conduct terrorist attacks in Europe or America. Many unem¬ployed, young citizens, marginalized in their communities and countries, are told they will overcome their problems if they join the ranks of ISIS. Disappointed in the international economic system, they seek adventure and meaning in their lives and become the gullible targets of ISIS recruiters, and then are trapped in the terrorist system.
The attacks at Charlie Hebdo, and other locations in the West, have demonstrated that ISIS can move the epicenter of its terrorist campaign to the heart of Europe, inflicting major political damage on European gov¬ernments. Additionally, day by day we detect ISIS gaining more regional influence in the Middle East. Many fundamental terrorist organizations from Sinai (Egypt) to Maghreb (Libya) have already proclaimed their allegiance to the Islamic State. A large zone of strategic instability threatens Great Power interests.
Will the ISIS presence in the Near East be permanent? Perhaps not, but nobody can give a straightforward answer to this question, particularly when there is no clear answer to when or how the threat can be totally eliminated. Although ISIS has lost some territory in Iraq, it still represents a formidable threat for the regional state system. Will the confrontation of jihadists with the West take the form of a wider clash between civilizations(19) as Samuel Huntington has maintained? Only time will show.
What is certain, however, is that the presence of this jihadist organization in the region has provoked major redistributions of power that rearranges the interests and the strategies of the main regional actors and the great powers as well. For example, Jordan and Saudi Arabia have initiated air strikes on their own in response to direct national threats.
At the same time, at the international level, the “New Cold War” between Russia and the West seems to reflect onto the Middle East in a way similar to the “Arab Cold War” (20) in the 1960s, when the region reflected the bipolar international system in the Cold War era.
As we have shown in this paper, the common threat of the Islamic State has forced many regional and international actors to cooperate in order to defeat it. Non-state actors such as the Kurds in northern Iraq and the Kurds in Kobani (northern Syria) are cooperating with the West in order to intercept the threat. In addition, the jihadist threat has forced Iran, an American foe, to coordinate its actions with the West in combatting this common jihadist threat.
Finally, despite American and Russian differences over the Ukranian Crisis and the Syrian Civil War, that U.S. and Russia can join hands against the Islamic State. Both states share a common interest in eliminating international terrorism. Moscow fears that the strategic instability in the region may fuel more instability in Caucasus. And, China, a rising great power, may also oppose such terrorism as is threatens domestic instability by influencing Uyghur nationalism in the Xinjiang region.

1. William L. Cleveland and Martin Bunton, A History of the Modern Middle East (Philadelphia:Westview Press, 2009), p. 580.
2. Fred Halliday, The Middle East in International Relations: Power, Politics and Ideology (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2005), p. 240.
3. Reuters, Nov. 7, 2014.
4. Al Jazzera, Dec. 7, 2014.
5. Erika Solomon “Special Report: Amid Syria’s violence, Kurds carve out autonomy,” Reuters, January 22, 2014.
6. Efraim Inbar, “Israel Challenges in the Eastern Meditterranean,” Middle East Quarterly, Fall 2014.
7. I24NEWS, June 28, 2014.
8. Petel l. Hahn, Crisis and Crossfire: The United States and the Middle East Since 1945 (Washington: Potomac Books Inc., 2005), pp. 79-80.
9. Reuters, Dec. 10, 2014.
10. Elliot Friedland “5 reasons why the US Coalition against Isis is an empty Shell,” The Clarion Project, September 18, 2014, available from, http://www. 23
11. For this issue, see Brian M. Downing, “Ground troops in Iraq, yet again,” Atimes, Nov. 26, 2014.
12. For the application of systemic theories in international politics, see Kenneth W. Waltz, Theory of International Politics (California: Addison-Wesley Publishing Company, 1979), pp. 88-101.
13. Robert Gilpin, War and Change in World Politics (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1983), p. 185.
14. Reuters, Nov. 8, 2014.
15. “China’s Rise, America’s Fall,” The American Conservative, April 17, 2010, available from chinas-rise-americas-fall/.
16. John J. Mearsheimer, The Tragedy of Great Powers Politics (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2001), pp. 43-45.
17. Walter Russel Mead, “The Failed Grand Strategy in the Middle East,” The Wall Street Journal, Aug. 24, 2013.
18. Al Jaazeera America, September 29, 2014,
19. Samuel P. Huntington, “The Clash of Civilizations?” in International Politics: Enduring Concepts and Contemporary Issues, ed. Robert J. Art and Robert Jervis (New York: Pearson Longman, 2007), pp. 391-406
20. Raymond Hinnebush, The International Politics of the Middle East (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2004), 162. 24

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