The Islamic State's (IS) familiar slogan, baqiyya wa tatamaddad ("remaining and expanding"), points to an aggressive, expansionist outlook whereby the self-proclaimed Caliphate, demanding allegiance from all Muslims, should first encompass the entire Muslim world and eventually subsume the whole world under its dominion. Such an ideal has in fact been circulated among members and supporters since the group's founding, when it called itself the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI). In those days, its ambitions were etched clearly on its flag, with graphics of the globe under the group's banner. As ISI expanded into Syria, it renamed itself the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria/the Levant (ISIS/ISIL).
Today, as IS, there is an assumption that the group will seek continual expansion whatever the cost. But, in reality, there are certain constraints and calculations in IS's overall approach to the region beyond Iraq and Syria, its current bases of operation and control. The question of regional approach is perhaps most relevant because, as ISIS, Lebanon, Jordan, and Israel/Palestine, in addition to Syria, were (and still are) also in its sights.
In this context, the greatest concern is IS's strategy in Jordan and Lebanon, two countries that were mentioned in the group's recruitment video released by its Al Hayat Media Center as places where IS fighters will go if ordered to do so by their leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. Both Lebanon and Jordan are known to contain domestic pro-IS elements.
In Lebanon, such sentiment appears to be based primarily in the northern city of Tripoli, a long-standing hotspot of Sunni radicalism. IS's military capabilities of expanding into the country, however, remain limited for the time being. Its main entry point is through the Damascus province. Here, the group's presence is much smaller than in the north and east of Syria, where IS has focused on building up and consolidating territorial control. In fact, in the Damascus province, the IS presence is rather detached from the organisation elsewhere. This is because IS fighters still co-operate with rebels from a variety of factions, including Jabhat al-Nusra (JAN) and Jaysh al-Islam, with whom the incursion into Arsal in Lebanon was undoubtedly co-ordinated. Thus, for Lebanon, problems relating to IS are tied to the broader issue of Hezbollah's involvement in the Syrian civil war and rebels crossing over the porous border areas in Qalamoun.
In Jordan, recent months have seen occasional and small pro-IS demonstrations in the southern locality of Ma'an. The Jordanian daily, Al Ghad, recently reported that the majority of those belonging to the country's Salafi-Jihadi movement have shifted alliances from JAN to IS. This suggests that support is growing, albeit slowly. The group still maintains an interest in extorting toll fees from vehicles with goods entering into Anbar province, whose far western localities of Al-Qa'im (on the border with Syria), Rutba (locality near the Jordanian and Syrian borders), Rawa, and Anah are solely under its control. The other main entry route to expand militarily into Jordan would be via the southern Syrian provinces of Deraa and Suwayda, neither of which contains a known IS presence: in fact, since the Al-Nusra-ISIS dispute, both areas are believed to retain a presence that is solely loyal to the former.
Turning to the north, there has been much debate about IS-Turkey relations. Despite longstanding concerns in Turkish policy circles over alleged IS plots and threats to launch an attack on Turkish soil, there is no evidence of either. Purported statements were circulated last year in Turkish media under ISIS's name, but they have all turned out to be unskilled forgeries. Some controversy has also surrounded a supposed ISIS video from March this year threatening an attack if Turkish troops did not withdraw from the site of the tomb of Suleyman Shah on the grounds that it was within ISIS territory. But the video is of dubious authenticity, and there was no follow up on the apparent threat.
At present, it is evident that IS understands that any kind of deliberate attack on Turkish territory is not in its interest as it risks pushing Turkey into a direct military intervention in Syria, which would open up too many military fronts for the group. Furthermore, one must remember that one factor behind IS's success has been its ability to thrive off local Sunni discontent with the central governments of Iraq and Syria amid a hyper-sectarian atmosphere; in Turkey, there is no such environment to exploit.
Moreover, so long as the border does not remain completely shut off, IS still depends on Turkish territory for smuggling routes leading to the black market. Here, it purchases goods (e.g. basic commodities, including food and drink) to engage in outreach to locals within its territory in Syria, and it sells Syrian oil that it extracts from fields in the east of the country that are also under its control. This remains the case even as Turkey has been taking greater measures to stop the inflow of potential foreign fighter recruits for IS into Syria; it has provided support to rival rebel groups – particularly Free Syrian Army (FSA)-banner brands like the Syrian Revolutionaries Front – to oppose IS.
There are two areas in the wider region where IS-linked activity poses a security threat and that IS intends to target. The first of these is the Israel-Palestine area: ideologically, the notion of the conquest of Jerusalem (Bayt al-Maqdis/al-Quds) bears importance in IS rhetoric. One billboard in Hasakah province (back when it was just ISIS) read: "We fight in Iraq and Al-Sham and our eyes are on Bayt al-Maqdis" (a slogan also used by JAN).
To see where the real threat lies, one must turn south to the Gaza-Sinai area. This is where an identifiable IS network exists in the form of Jamaat Ansar al-Dawla al-Islamiya fi Bayt al-Maqdis, which distributes propaganda material for IS in Gaza. This IS network has acted as a feeder group for IS's Gazan contingent of fighters in the Iraq-Syria arena. This is in addition to recent evidence of contacts between IS and the more well known group active in the area, Jamaat Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis, which has not formally pledged allegiance to IS. Salafi-jihadi networks in opposition to the Hamas government in Gaza have been expanding their influence for some time, and, in five to 10 years, may have the capacity to overthrow it, posing an even greater security threat to Israel and Egypt.
The second area of concern is Saudi Arabia, whose government has been a key backer of Free Syrian Army banner forces opposed to IS, including Harakat Hazm in the north, the Southern Front in the south, and the Syrian Revolutionaries Front. On account of this, it is not uncommon for IS circles to refer to Saudi Arabia as the "kingdom of taghut" (idolatry or oppression). Though Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) has not pledged allegiance to IS, IS-sympathetic elements exist in AQAP. There are IS supporters in Saudi Arabia more generally as reflected in the disproportionate number of Saudi fighters in the group's ranks.
Reports suggest that IS may be trying to set up terrorist cells within Saudi Arabia, and there are strategic reasons why IS would find Saudi Arabia a convenient target. First, IS knows full well that Saudi Arabia would not intervene directly in Iraq or Syria with troops.* And second, there are opportunities in Saudi Arabia – in the form of oil smuggling or the like – for IS to exploit in order to sustain its economy. Saudi Arabia, therefore, is assuredly a prime target for IS as a backer of enemy forces.
Last but not least, it is worth looking at IS and its perception of Iran, which it derides as the "Safavid" power in the region that is sustaining the central "Safavid" government in Baghdad. Even so, there is nothing to suggest that IS, unlike al-Qaeda, has any networks or assets in Iran to strike at Tehran. Thus, expansion into Iran is off-limits for the near future at least.
In short, in assessing IS and its regional strategy, one needs to look at each country on a case-by-case basis. Were IS to take over the entirety of Iraq and Syria, then all neighbouring countries would face the prospect of invasion; but this outcome seems extremely improbable. IS's main priorities are still to expand within Iraq and Syria and consolidate military and economic power therein at the expense of pro-government forces and insurgent rivals in both countries. A much more legitimate concern now is the potential for IS supporters – not formally tied to the group – within Western countries and those Arab states that are assisting the US in its airstrikes on IS positions to heed IS spokesman Mohammad al-Adnani's call to target Americans and other Western citizens by any means necessary.
Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi is a graduate from Brasenose College, Oxford University, and a fellow at the Middle East Forum.
*- NB: This piece was written before the airstrikes began in Syria and since then Saudi Arabia has carried out some airstrikes on IS in Syria [originally I predicted Saudi would not carry out its own airstrikes], though the majority of airraids are still the work of the U.S. with the Arab states in a supporting role. Even so, ground intervention remains off-the-table and I believe that will remain the case.