In Parts I, II, and III I discussed why it was possible to predict the rise of the Islamic State a decade ago. Can we use the theory of “metaethnic frontiers” — the basis for the 2005 prediction about the potential of ISIS — to peek into the future? Clearly what happens next in Syria and Iraq (and beyond) will depend on what approach the West pursues in the region. So let’s use Cliodynamics to illuminate possible consequences, including unintended ones, resulting from three different strategies — two extremes and a middle course.
The first option would require an all-out effort by the Western powers to destroy the Caliphate. Second, the “middle route”, would rely on airpower to contain, degrade and ultimately (perhaps) destroy the Islamic State. The third strategy would call for a complete disengagement and withdrawal from the region.
I will use historical examples to illustrate the long-term consequences of each outcome, but first a note of caution. The historical record is rich enough to find a specific example to support almost any imaginable policy recommendation. History does, in fact, teach us lessons, but it teaches them through data, not anecdotes. And so, underlying my specific examples, is a quantitative theory that aggregates broad historical trends. If the theory is correct, it should be compatible with all the historical evidence.
So, what to do? As I argued, the key environmental condition explaining the rise of ISIS was the establishment of a metaethnic frontier that resulted from the allied occupation of Iraq from 2003 to 2011.
Continued bombardment from the air by the Western powers will perpetuate this frontier. As a historical analogy, it would be like living on a steppe frontier, being constantly raided by horse nomads. It will preserve the evolutionary regime, intense war pressure, that has been selecting for the most ruthless and cohesive groups such as ISIS. Almost certainly such successful groups will adhere to some form of militant Islam since, as I pointed out in 2005, “that is the traditional way in which Islamic societies have responded to challenges from other civilizations.” In other words, pursuing the “middle route” will, in the long run, strengthen the jihadist groups and may even create conditions for their expansion outside Syria and Iraq — for example, into Jordan.
What about all-out war? Back in 2001 the conservative columnist Ann Coulter suggested that “we should invade their countries, kill their leaders and convert them to Christianity.”
It is clear that, given political will, the U.S. and its allies have the necessary preponderance of military power to defeat ISIS and occupy the territory it currently controls.
Even if Western leaders do not commit to using a massive infantry force of their own troops, the same goal can be accomplished by putting together an effective coalition of all forces currently fighting ISIS. In this case, the “boots on the ground” would be those of the Kurds, the Iraqi Shiite militia and the Syrian army (whether the Assad regime is part of formal coalition or not, it still has to fight ISIS to survive). But, supposing such a military victory is achieved, what comes next? Should we follow Ann Coulter’s advice to “convert them to Christianity”?
In technical terms what she proposed is called “ethnocide” — destruction of a defeated group’s culture, its language or religion (or both), and replacement it with the culture of the victors. In a certain way, Coulter has history on her side. There are innumerable historical (and prehistorical) examples of successful ethnocides. Take the Spanish Reconquista, the centuries-long crusade by Christian states against the Moors in the Iberian peninsula. As a result of population expulsions, a few massacres and forced conversion to Christianity, the Islamic society of Al-Andaluz ceased to exist by early 17th century. Another well-known example of ethnocide was the Albigensian Crusade.
The burning of the Heretics in 1210. Illustration from the illuminated manuscript Grandes Chroniques de France. Jean Fouquet (1455-1460), Bibliothèque nationale de France, Paris
Ethnocide is also the policy that the Islamic State is ruthlessly pursuing in the territories that it controls. So essentially this would involve outdoing the Islamic State in brutality.
Fortunately, we live in a different world, and no responsible Western leader would advocate a policy of ethnocide directed at Sunni Arabs in Mesopotamia.
What this means, however, is that the long-term consequences of decisively defeating ISIS will not be very different from the middle-route policy of using the air power against it. Given the demonstrated inability of state-building by the U.S. in Iraq and elsewhere (for example, Afghanistan), destroying the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria will merely create conditions for its replacement by another jihadist group, perhaps an even more capable one. Also, we shouldn’t forget that the Islamic State has “metastasized” far beyond the territory it actually holds. In other words, taking this territory from ISIS will not mean its end as an organization.
To be continued in Part V.