Was the Islamic State a Real State?
The self-proclaimed Islamic State, known to the international press under the ISIS moniker, became a true center of power in the Middle East in the period 2014-2017. Its success came with a background of instability generated by the Arab Spring, but is also due to the support from actors such as Turkey or a part of the Gulf states, as well as an unnatural alliance between Sunni jihadists in Iraq and the secular army of the Baath regime, marginalized after the downfall of Saddam Hussein’s regime.
The main purpose of ISIS was to remodel the borders of the Middle East, which is why its narrative always contested the Sykes-Picot Accord, militating, as a result of its “takfiri” ideology, for the consolidation of a Sunni state entity. Following is self-proclaimed caliphate, the vast territory conquered by ISIS knew both a rudimentary and a complex governance, based on the degree of military and economic control over regions in Syria and Iraq.
Due to this, ISI leaves a heated debated in academia, as to whether it may be considered a state entity. There is no academic consensus over the definition of a state, although researchers usually fall back on Max Webber’s 1918 definition, “a human community that (successfully) claims the monopoly of the legitimate use of physical force within a given territory”. He considered that the state is a bureaucratically administered construct with a series of monopolies, which would brand ISIS as a state actor. How appropriate is this for 21st century geopolitical dynamics? Are Abkhazia, South Ossetia or the separatist regions in Eastern Ukraine state actors? What about Al-Shabab, which controls a vast territory in Somalia?
The use of international law becomes necessary, even though the interests of Great Powers prevent a consensus from being reached. The Montevideo Convention of 1933 established the main criteria for a state entity: population, territory, government and the capacity to interact with other states.
The population may vary from just 1,000 in the Vatican to the over 1 billion of China and India. As for territory, the maximum extent of ISIS holdings was larger than the United Kingdom and the precedent created by Russia when it annexed Crimea shows once again that territorial dynamics, even when contested and produced through armed conflict, do not affect the functionality and existence of a state. Moreover, it is not mandatory for a government entity to control the entire territory of a state entity. Failed states, such as Somalia and Yemen, with a vacuum of government authority, show this.
Collecting taxes, coercion capacity and a judicial system are the main aspects legitimizing government in international law, criteria which ISIS also met. Moreover, though it seems amazing, the tax revenue of ISIS was higher than its oil revenues. It also had social policies, such as subsidies for staple foods, free public transport, the financing of homeless shelters, infirmaries, schools and kindergartens.
The capacity to interact with other states, translating into international recognition, is the only criterion of the Montevideo Convention which ISIS does not fulfil. Despite the clandestine support it received, including through a market open to its oil, ISIS was not recognized by any other state actors, moreso since its support was the result of momentary interest. ISIS is, therefore, a proto-state, an entity on the road between non-state to state, undifferentiated conceptually from the Afghan Taliban or Al-Shabab. Despite this, the conceptual clarification and development of the state will remain a challenge for the academic world, where new conceptualizations, such as de facto states, are being developed. A de facto state is different from a proto-state like ISIS through limited international recognition. For instance, we have Abkhazia and South Ossetia, which are recognized and supported by their patron state, the Russian Federation and one of Moscow’s allies on the international stage, Nicolas Maduro’s Venezuela.