William Shakespeare famously wrote in Romeo and Juliet, "A rose by any other name would smell as sweet." War-torn Syria and Iraq are about as far from Shakespeare’s England as one might imagine, but even there it’s worth trying to understand the significance of one particular name.
That is, the name of the Al-Qaeda-linked group trying to overthrow President Bashar Assad and establish an Islamic state both in Syria and Iraq. Is the group named “the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria”? Or the “Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant”? ISIS or ISIL? Like other media, at TheBlaze we too have been split on the issue. Even this writer has used both in various stories.
We asked Syria-watchers what they thought. And contrary to Juliet’s assertion that names don’t matter, it turns out the jihadi group’s name in Arabic reveals a lot about its ambitions.
Residents of Fallujah have been fleeing their homes as Iraqi troops gather in anticipation of an offensive to retake the city from Islamist militants who captured it last week, an event that sparked dismayed reactions from U.S. military personnel who served there.
On Friday, the Al-Qaeda affiliate declared an “Islamic province” in Fallujah, the second largest city in the Anbar province where about one-third of American personnel killed in Iraq perished.
But beyond Iraq and Syria, what are the ultimate goals for the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria?
Joshua Landis is director of the University of Oklahoma’s Center for Middle East Studies and edits the blog Syria Comment. He explains that the last word in the group’s name “Sham” is significant.
“Sham is the common Arabic word for Syria, but it refers to an older meaning of Syria before Colonial powers drew the modern borders of what is now called, ‘Suriya.’ Today, we refer to the older ‘Sham’ designation as Greater Syria,” he says. “Greater Syria commonly refers to what is today Syria, Lebanon, Palestine and Jordan.”
Landis believes “it is absolutely correct” to call the group ISIS, “but the final S refers to Greater Syria.”
“This confusion is the reason Westerners, who are unfamiliar with the geographical boundaries of the term ‘Sham’ or Greater Syria have chosen to use the term Levant, because the Levant is the common old European term for the ‘Eastern’ Middle East - or land of the ‘rising sun.’”
Jonathan Schanzer, Vice President of Research for the Foundation for Defense of Democracies voted for using the reference "Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant," telling TheBlaze, “ISIL makes the most sense, since al-Sham is not an English word. The Levant, however arcane, does the job.”
Schanzer says that the Al-Qaeda affiliate’s chosen name “is a clear indication of the group’s global aspirations, which we now see in its attacks in Lebanon and its logistical operations in Iraq. It makes one wonder how long we have until its reach is seen in Jordan, Israel and the Palestinian territories.”
“The name reveals that the intentions of this organization are not focused on Syria alone, but rather that activity in Syria is intended as a beginning to further conquests elsewhere,” explains Jonathan Spyer, a senior research fellow at the Global Research in International Affairs Center and at the Middle East Forum.
Spyer further tells TheBlaze:
'Al-Sham' refers to Bilad al-Sham which was the name given to the area comprising today's Israel, Jordan, Lebanon and Syria during the period of rule by the Arab caliphs - the Rashidun, Umayyads and Abassids. Today, many Arabs and Islamists still use this term, which is meant to denote that Arab and Islamic rule is the natural and just state for the entirety of this area and that the subsequent Ottoman, western and of course Israeli borders are entirely un-natural and should cease to exist.
While the group is fighting fiercely in both Iraq and Syria, another hint of its greater ambitions appeared last week when it carried out a suicide bombing against a Hezbollah target in Lebanon’s capital.
The Islamic State claimed responsibility and warned of further attacks, saying it had “breached the borders and penetrated the security system of the Party of Satan in Lebanon" in reference to Hezbollah ("Party of God" in Arabic) which has sent thousands of its own Shiite militants to Syria to fight the Sunni rebels.
If confirmed to have been carried out by the Islamic State, this would be the first attack by the Sunni jihadi group in Beirut according to Reuters.
Joshua Landis of Syria Comment says that the Islamic State “has its eyes on the rest of Greater Syria” which includes Lebanon “but is focused on Iraq and Syria and the immediate ambition.”
As the fighting continues in Fallujah, Time magazine spoke to military personnel who served in Iraq who are now asking if their comrades died in vain.
It referred to a Twitter posting from James Garamone, a reporter for the American Forces Press Service who wrote, “Sick about Fallujah. I remember walking through the city when people started returning and believing that now they have a chance.”
TheBlaze has previously reported on the Al-Qaeda-linked militants’ ambitions beyond their current geographical base, including fighters in Aleppo, Syria, saying last year that their next goals are to invade Israel, Turkey, Iran, Iraq and – most intriguingly – Spain. They referred to Spain as Andalusia, the once heartland of Muslim rule in Spain and expressed a desire to reestablish an Islamic Caliphate there once again.
In another revealing interview, British volunteers told a television interviewer that after Syria, they aim to take the battle to the United States and Britain.
“I say to United States that your time will come and we will bleed you to death and, inshallah [Allah willing], will raise the flag in the White House,” a 26-year-old Briton told Vice News in November.
Our experts were split as to which designation is most apt, Islamic State of Iraq and Syria vs. Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, but emphasized how important it is to understand the geographical dimensions to which its “Syria” refers.
With ISIS/ISIL’s fighters suggesting Britain is on their horizon, maybe Shakespeare’s country isn’t so far removed from the world of jihad after all.