ISIS now controls wide swaths of Iraq and Syria. Its leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, seems out to establish an Islamic empire. Are the borders in the Middle East about to be redrawn?
The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria appears to fear little. In the past, this army of radical Islamists were primarily fighting moderate rebel groups in Syria, but in recent days they have waged their first brutal campaigns against the Syrian army.
According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, ISIS fighters recently provoked bloody battles in the northern Syrian province of Raqqa, during which at least 85 of dictator Bashar al-Assad's soldiers were killed. The fate of around 200 further military personnel remains unclear, while 28 Islamists are also thought to have died. It seems clear that ISIS are willing to pay that price to expand their influence.
A tailor-made state
"The group's goal is to establish their cross-boundary zone, beginning in Syria and Iraq," said Falko Walde of the Friedrich Naumann Foundation in Amman, Jordan. And that's only an intermediary step, he added - ISIS wants to reach other states in the region, including Jordan, Lebanon, Israel, the Palestinian Territories, and even Cyprus and parts of southern Turkey.
"The group wants to create a state rooted in its conceptions of politics and society," Walde said.
In recent months, the Islamists have already taken control of significant parts of Syria and Iraq, imposing draconian laws - including arbitrary executions - wherever they rule. In the Iraqi city of Mosul, women face severe penalties if they fail to wear a full veil in public.
The group's leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, announced the establishment of a caliphate in Mosul at the end of June. Al-Baghdadi, who was born in Iraq, views himself as a successor to the prophet Mohammad, claims to rule over all Muslims and has taken up the old idea of an Islamic empire.
Islamists like him don't accept the current borders between Iraq, Jordan, Syria, and Lebanon on the grounds that Western powers drew them up during and after World War I. They see the dismantling of the Ottoman Empire - long the decisive governing entity in Asia Minor and the Middle East - in the early 20th century as the main reason for the alleged weakness of Muslims today. In other words, Islamists believe a new Islamic empire is the way toward a better future.
Meanwhile, the Syrian army is trying to fend off ISIS. After a week of fighting, they retook a gas field that the Islamists conquered in mid-July. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights says ISIS killed around 300 Assad supporters taking the land.
ISIS are just one of many rebel groups trying to undermine Assad's government, and yet the Syrian president remains in power three years after the civil war broke out.
In neighboring Iraq, the government is facing a crisis. Shiite Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki provoked the country's Sunni minority with corruption and partisanship.
"There are many secular Iraqis who feel excluded by the prime minister's approach, which is rooted heavily in religion," said Volker Perthes, director of Berlin think tank the German Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP), in an interview with the radio station Deutschlandfunk. "And there are many Sunnis, particularly in rural areas and cities other than the capital, who feel marginalized by Maliki's government."
The disunity in Iraqi society has proven beneficial for ISIS, and adding to the unrest is the fact that northern Iraqi Kurds are seeking to establish their own state. They no longer want to be part of Iraq or part of an Islamic empire. Instead, they're fighting for political, cultural, and economic independence.
Both developments - the Kurds' desire to separate from Iraq and ISIS' brutal fight to establish a caliphate in the region - are raising questions about whether the current borders can be maintained. It seems clear that the already weakened governments in Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon will find it difficult to preserve their states' integrity.