The Geopolitical Impact of ISIS: Actors, Factors, and Balances of Power in the Middle East

Isis fighters, pictured on a militant website verified by AP.

Source: The Guardian

The ISIS Threat

Generally speaking, the emergence of ISIS has posed a significant security threat to regional and international states alike; a threat which challenges the stability and territorial integrity of regional states as well as Western regional interests. As known from International Relations and particularly Realism literature, (mutual) security threats are one of the most important factors in the formation of different kinds of alliances. As such, it is without surprise that we see unlike partnerships to emerge, such as the ones mentioned below.

Iraqi Kurdistan

The advancements of ISIS in Iraq led to what is now an ongoing process to further the autonomy of Kurdistan. And even though the Kurds of Iraq said that they will give united Iraq a chance, it is very likely that this process will continue, given that the new government (of Shiite, PM Abadi) seems to be failing in uniting the different ethnic and religious groups. In this light it is possible for an altered map of Iraq and, by extension, changed balances of power to occur.

To this also testifies Qasim Soleimani’s recent visit to Baghdad, Iraq (the former commander of the Iranian Qods Force, a division of the Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, which conducts special operations outside Iran and is also tied to Hezbollah), most likely to help in the creation of a Shiite front against IS; evidently a development that could fuel sectarianism rather than unity.

Iran and the Shiite Front

The creation of a Shiite front – as opposed to a united Sunni-Shia-Kurdish front in Iraq – would entail the prolongation of sectarianism and violence not only in Iraq but potentially elsewhere in the region as well. However, it must be noted that Iran (as well as Russia) had only a lukewarm or half-hearted reaction to the recent airstrikes against ISIS in Syria (and Iraq) by the West and a number of Arab countries (i.e Jordan, Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, and Qatar). At the same time, there seems to be increasing interest for warmer ties between Iran and Saudi Arabia from the two otherwise rival countries. This suggests a two-front strategy by Iran which aims at dealing with the ISIS threat through all available means by exploiting the need other regional actors have to do the same.


After Iraq, Syria also became a theater for West-led military operations (airstrikes) against the Islamic State and al-Qaeda affiliated groups (e.g. Al Nusra). Importantly, the Bashar al-Assad regime seems to be silently accepting this intervention while the Syrian army itself targets the same ISIS positions as the international coalition. As such, an unofficial and paradoxical partnership has been formed between the Syrian regime and the West-led international anti-ISIS coalition. This development betters the survival prospects of the Syrian regime and sustains the regional geopolitical influence of Iran while, to some extent, it vindicates both of these countries in terms of their narrative which maintained that they have been fighting against terrorists in Syria and that Assad’s overthrow would entail the rise of extreme Islamists to power. However, this does not mean that a regime change in Syria is out of the question, nor that the country’s partition into smaller constituent states is no longer possible, especially if one takes into account the Iraqi Kurdistan precedent and the self-declared Syrian Kurdistan.


The common threat of ISIS has also brought Western countries – and specifically, the US – and Iran closer together, despite the fact that the latter was not included in the international anti-ISIS coalition. This is also reflected in Iran’s willingness to work and negotiate with the West with regard to its nuclear program without having the intention of cutting off communication channels should an agreement is not reached in late November, 2014. In other words, Tehran displays an increasing interest in better relations with the West. Of course, this is not unrelated to the developments with ISIS: Iran’s geographical proximity to the threat of the Islamic State and of other kinds of Sunni extremism renders it vulnerable and prone to indirectly relying on Western operations for its own benefit. This vulnerability coupled with the recent regime change in Iran might lead to a gradual shift towards a less anti-Western stance – if not towards a mild pro-Western one. In this context, it is even possible to see Iran making concessions – if limited ones – on its nuclear program.


The enhanced role that Turkey decided to play against ISIS may cause problems within its borders as jihadists might try to retaliate by conducting terrorist attacks in the country. Moreover, the international intervention underway in Syria and Iraq might push ISIS back and into Turkey thus triggering clashes between the jihadists and Syrian and Kurdish refugees currently in Turkish refugee camps. Further, the continuing mass influx of refugees could intensify the humanitarian and security problems in Turkey as well as in other countries of the region, such as Lebanon and Jordan. Lastly, the Turkish decision to engage ISIS more decisively will play a role in bridging the gap that has developed lately between the US and Turkey.

Islamic Caliphates

One of the most important implications of the rise of ISIS will be the spread of this kind of ideology and the possibility of a rising trend of newly-established Caliphates; not only in the region but possibly in the West and Asia as well. That is because an ideology cannot be bombarded. Even if ISIS is defeated militarily, similar groups are bound to re-emerge if appropriate policies are not adopted to address sectarian problems and social inequalities.

Overall, the emergence of ISIS signals a changing and more decentralized international system as well as shifting regional and international balances of power as global powers fall back, regional powers rise and non-state actors emerge. Lastly, while the fight against ISIS and Islamic extremism is far from over, it is certain that it will take a long time for the Middle East – especially Syria and Iraq – to recover. At the same time, these developments will have a decisive role in shaping the territorial and political future of the whole region, as well as the policies of international actors, for many years to come.

Editor’s Note:

*This article is based on comments of the author during a roundtable discussion on ISIS and the Middle East at the University of Cyprus, Nicosia, Cyprus, on September 24th, 2014.

The article was first published on The Globalized World Post.


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