Caliphate's aim is to destroy Israel

By Tim Marshall, July 18, 2014
King Abdullah of Jordan

King Abdullah of Jordan

Until recently, much Western analysis regarded the hurricanes blowing through the Arab world as safeguarding Israel. The idea was that its enemies were a bit busy to be bothered with the "Zionist entity".

This was a short-term view, and now that the Gaza conflict has again flared, shortly after the Islamic State (IS) published its blue print for the region, we see a roadmap towards a potential future war on multiple fronts for Israel. IS was formerly known as ISIS, the final S is for the word Al Shams (The Levant), which incorporates Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, Israel and the Palestinian territories. Now in control of swathes of territory in Syria and Iraq, the group grew out of al-Qaeda in Iraq and has goals similar to those in its previous incarnation: to drive the Americans from Iraq; to declare the caliphate; to spread the caliphate into neighbouring regions; and to use the extended caliphate to destroy Israel.

Think of IS as Apple to al-Qaeda's IBM. When al-Qaeda lost Osama Bin Laden, it lost the opportunity to regain ground when it missed the Arab uprisings. The new poster boy for would-be jihadist is the IS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi who, despite the fact - or perhaps because of it - that he is borderline psychotic, is now the biggest, baddest, richest, jihadist in the game. Since 9/11, Bin Laden only talked the talk, via DVD, but IS controls territory. Granted, it cannot move east or north as it is blocked by the Iranians, the Kurds and the Turks. Instead, it seeks to move south and south west towards Saudi Arabia and Jordan.

Both of these countries have reinforced their borders as IS fighters approached. This is mostly to try to prevent the jihadis' movement. The group will not attempt a conventional attack across the deserts, it learned the hard way in Fallujah that it suffers significant losses when it fights in numbers.

Instead, it will seek to undermine the two kingdoms from within, drawing on support from Sunni tribal leaders, and in the case of Jordan, Palestinians who bear no allegiance to the Hashemite Kingdom. International Salafi jihadists have no truck with the nation state.

In the event of success or even the creation of mayhem in Jordan and Saudi Arabia, IS would then begin to attack Israel. The Jewish state would then be back where it was in previous decades - facing regular incursions from multiple directions.

We wait to see if IS can maintain its caliphate. It has adopted the American military strategy of "clear, hold, and build". It has succeeded partially by co-opting Sunni tribal leaders keen to gain a temporary ally against Shia dominated Baghdad. But the sheikhs have their own plans and these may not include control by the new, self-styled caliph. Already al Baghdadi has felt the need to execute several tribal leaders in Iraq's Diyala province for failing to swear loyalty to him.

IS may also have overstretched and will be susceptible to the problems international jihadi groups have when coming up against locals who share some of their aims, but who will not be governed by foreigners.

The thing to watch for is if IS can consolidate in Diyala, Salah al din, Nineva, and Anbar provinces. If so, we will then see its first stirrings in Jordan, and possibly Saudi Arabia, with bombings and assassinations of local officials.

Even if IS does not go on to control the region, the foundations of the nation state Middle East are being undermined. As long as that threat remains, Israel will not begin to countenance a deal with the Palestinians which gives away control of the Jordan valley, and the spectre of war on multiple fronts will remain a real possibility.

Tim Marshall is diplomatic editor of Sky News

Last updated: 11:45am, July 18 2014