Since its meteoric rise to global infamy by mid-2014, the group that now calls itself the “Islamic State” (or, Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, also known as ISIS) has occupied a central place in the minds of policymakers and analysts, establishing itself as international public enemy number one.2 In so many ways, ISIS has also constituted a source of embarrassment for the security community.3 First, very few, if any at all, of the same experts who are quite literally obsessed with the group today foresaw the rise of ISIS to prominence in Iraq and Syria until it actually happened. Second, despite all the intellectual energy devoted to understanding “what ISIS really is” (or, what it really wants), not to mention the accumulation of considerable data on the group, we still do not understand the organization significantly more than we did in mid-2014. Consequently, there is little agreement in the security community over the true nature of ISIS and the proper strategy to effectively “degrade and destroy” the organization.4
What the ISIS Crisis Means for the Future of the Middle East
Despite all the intellectual energy devoted to understanding “what ISIS really is,” the group remains unpredictable and inexplicable for two main reasons. First, the existing frameworks are not appropriate for a holistic assessment of the organization, prompting analysts to mistake ISIS’ tactics or propaganda for its political objectives. Second, an almost exclusive emphasis on ISIS per se distracts from the symbiotic and complex relationship between ISIS and the bigger regional crisis. This article draws attention to three interrelated dynamics. First, ISIS is best seen as a “process,” not as a static “thing” that can be easily identified. Second, ISIS’ successes and failures cannot be divorced from the multi-dimensional crisis in the region. Third, it is necessary to consider the groups’ impacts on the greater Middle East with respect to two interrelated dimensions: sectarian tensions and existing ethnic relations.
An image grab taken from a propaganda video released on March 17, 2014 by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL)’s al-Furqan Media allegedly shows ISIL fighters raising their weapons as they stand on a vehicle mounted with the trademark Jihadists
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