On June 29th, the terror army known as ISIS changed its name. It declared itself a caliphate and changed its name to the Islamic State. This was a shortening of the group’s prior name which was listed in most news reports as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria. Perhaps it was only natural for journalists to report the name of the group as being the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria given that nearly all of the group’s activities were contained in those countries.
But the group’s name is not and never was the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria. The Arabic name is al-Dawlah al-Islāmīyah fī al-ʻIrāq wa-al-Shām. This is directly translated as the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham.
Iraq is well known because it has been a feature map of the Middle East since the end of World War. Al-Sham is far more obscure to westerners, but it is better known to informed Arabs. Al-Sham is an Arab name for the region around Damascus and includes what westerners refer to the Levant, the eastern coast of the Mediterranean Sea. After the Muslim conquest of Syria, the province of Bilad al-Sham was established, which stretched from the eastern edge of the Sinai Peninsula in the south, up the coast through what is today Israel and Lebanon to the area of the ancient city of Antioch in modern day Turkey. The province stretched inland to encompass much of what is today Syria and Jordan. Bilad al-Sham became the seat of power of the Muslim Caliphate after Muawiyah established himself as the first ruler of the Umayyad Dynasty in 661.
This is why the name matters. In calling themselves the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham, ISIS was marking out for itself a future territory whose western border would touch Egypt and whose eastern border would touch Iran. It would stretch from Asia Minor in the north to the edge of the Nejd in the south, and would place the whole heart of the Middle East under the control of a single theocratic terror state. ISIS’ name was something in between a promise and a threat.
Hardly anyone paid any attention to ISIS over the last few years, but they are paying attention now. ISIS has effective control over the Sunni heartland of Iraq and Syria. In the west they are trying to push towards Damascus. In the east, towards Baghdad. Major obstacles stand in their way of achieving their stunningly ambitious goal of grasping control of territory that is currently home to 75 million people, and ISIS may fail yet. But they have exceeded most people’s expectations so far. It may be time to take their ambitions at face value and treat them seriously.
ISIS has already set its sights on its next target: The Kingdom of Jordan. Two days before ISIS declared themselves a caliphate young men began raising the black banner in Maan, a city of about 50,000 just east of Petra. The protestors began chanting “Down with [King] Abdullah!” The Jordanian government is not in danger of being invaded by ISIS forces and the King retains vastly greater popular support than the Assad regime did. Jordan is not riven with sectarian divisions as Iraq and Syria are. The Jordanian government is, however, deeply concerned that homegrown ISIS supporters cold wreak the kind of havoc inside the Kingdom that they have in neighboring Iraq and Syria. The concerns in Amman are serious enough that there have been rumblings about whether Israel would feel compelled to intervene to keep the Jordanian monarchy in place.
The Kingdom’s resources have already been strained by having 700,000 Syrian refugees living in the country. If ISIS were able to gain a foothold in the country the regional crisis could spiral out of control. While not a liberal democracy, Jordan is a modern, western-oriented country by regional standards. It has been a pillar of stability for decades and has contributed mightily to the peace process. Their security forces are competent and will not collapse under pressure as Iraq’s 2nd Division did last month in the fight around Mosul but even the most stable government would feel under strain when buffeted by the sort of headwinds facing Jordan.
The same day ISIS supporters took to the streets of Maan the group took credit for a hotel bombing in Beirut, Lebanon. ISIS taunted the Lebanese government by pledging there would be more attacks. Lebanon’s chronically weak government has had to absorb 900,000 refugees from the Syrian civil war and is less well positioned to withstand a terrorist campaign. Lebanon’s only good fortune is that its population is an ethnic mélange. Only about a quarter of its people are Sunni Muslims, leaving ISIS without much of a natural constituency.
Nonetheless, the fact that ISIS has now targeted Lebanon for attacks and seeks a foothold in Jordan further proves that ISIS has ambitions beyond Iraq and Syria. Defeating ISIS requires that we begin by understanding who they are what they want. This group means what it says when it declares its intent to unite Iraq of al-Sham under the rule of a new caliphate. They have made their intentions clear and have made more progress towards their goals than nearly anyone thought possible just a short time ago.
John Ford is a Captain in the United States Army’s Judge Advocate General (JAG) Corps and a graduate of Chapman University’s Fowler School of Law.