The New Caliphate: Part IV. Three Strategies that the West Can Follow



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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.”


Danish Bishop Absalon destroys the idol of Slavic god Svantevit at Arkona in a painting by Laurits Tuxen. Source

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.


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Nathan Taylor

I’ve been following these posts with interest. Nice work! My hope is that in your discussion of the strategy of withdrawal, you discuss both a complete withdrawal as well as a policy of containment. The containment model of course being a 1947 Kennan style (before he partially changed his mind later on) policy of containment against the Soviets, as in the cold war. This cold war occasionally went hot, but ultimately was a waiting game for collapse from within. The other reason the model might fit is despite their differences both the Soviets and ISIS are totalitarian systems, prone to fanaticism, but ultimately fragile to collapse in response to reality. Not sure if this fits, but I’ve been struck by the parallel, so hoping you will address it, and give your thoughts on why it might or might not be a fit.

Nathan Taylor

Look forward to your future post covering evolving away from despotism as applied to ISIS. Thanks.

Also still interested in containment as a response to ISIS, versus complete withdrawal, versus other (more complex/nuanced) types of engagement other commentators have mentioned. My (rather obvious) prior here is containment is a vastly underrated foreign policy approach to despotic regimes. But perhaps that’s mistaken. Or mistaken in the particular case of ISIS.


I’m not convinced that ISIS is an example of a “natural” empire arising along a metaethnic frontier, considering that the group was funded and armed by Western powers and their client states in the Middle East. The rise of ISIS was an artificially engineered event with a specific geopolitical aim: the overthrow of the Assad regime. The group is also pretty inconsequential in the grand scheme of things in the wider region, in terms of population, industrial capacity, and legitimacy. It would never survive without arms and supplies from its regional allies. I don’t think this is the Caliphate that we’re looking for.


ISIS already existed in Iraq. In fact, their first stronghold was Anbar. The “Sunni Awakening” almost extinguished them but the chaos in Syria gave them a place to thrive.

Edward Turner

The ISIS that pre-existed in Iraq was not the same organization in personnel as the one that succeeded in capturing territory in Iraq and Syria.

ISIS or daesh recruited its top commanders and fighters from ex-soldiers or guerillas in Chechnya (in Russia) and elsewhere, and many other fighters from outside Syria, including civilians from Europe.

To use a sports analogy, this is like a football team in Division 3 getting an influx of new players and coaching staff from a Champions League club – people with training, education, discipline, skill sets.

These new players took over.

Without this influx would ISIS have been able to organize such an effective army? Doubt it.

Without foreign assistance would ISIS have been able to organize their propaganda system (remember that some of the beheading videos were fakes made in TV studio). Doubt it.

The influx to assist ISIS represented a foreign migration to Syria – where they came to fight. Meanwhile, native ethnic Syrians fled Syria, in their millions, to escape the fighting.

The ethnic people in question running away and the disorder – arguably created by outsiders attempting to overthrow Assad – sucking-in vortex-like multiple-ethnicities from around the world united in a cause (or mercenary ambition) was not predicted by metaethnic frontier theory.

The metaethnic frontier theory makes sense in terms of the location and the high degree of cultural fusion among its members but in terms of personnel it is not so much a classic example.

ISIS has been greatly influenced if not controlled by outsiders from ethnic frontiers far beyond Syria’s borders. They have sought in daesh their political vehicle. Native Syrians and Iraqis on the frontier, on the other hand, have largely fled, been the victims and / or cannon fodder of foreign commanders.


But surely the key fact is that the vast majority of Islamic State’s military have always been Syrians and Iraqis?


I’m not sure how that matters?

ISIS in Iraq was from all over as well, and a group like that would need constant replenishment, so you’d see pretty dramatic turnover.

Chris Kavanagh

I think there is an issue with assuming that the military defeat of ISIS will result in the same kind of power vacuum that allowed the group to coalesce in the first place. For a start, you mention that it may be non-Western regional forces that defeat ISIS and indeed Palmyra was just reportedly retaken by Assad’s forces with the support of Russia. Whether this victory is consequential or not it serves as an illustration of how far Assad’s power has been restabilized by the involvement of Russia. This is terrible for the people of Syria, who have arguably suffered much more at the hands of Assad than anything ISIS have achieved but it means that in Syria there remains an aggressive state that is ready and willing to reabsorb territories, when they are militarily capable and find it politically expedient to do so. To the West of ISIS then lies a re-energised Syrian state, to the North lies the Kurds who are increasingly consolidating an independent territory, and to the East and the South is the Iraqi state proving more formidable (and similarly horrific for the civilian population of the region) due to the presence of Iranian backed Shia militias.

Certainly a Western led coalition would find it distasteful to prop up Assad’s regime but that is the inevitable outcome of any defeat of ISIS and there seems to be a growing consensus (even amongst leaders who until very recently were advocating direct military action against Assad) that he now will be a part of any long term solution in the region. Western leaders will require that there must (officially) be a path to his eventual removal but I think most know that such an outcome is very unlikely while he retains support from Russia.

I’m not arguing that any of this represents a happy situation for Syrians (or Iraqis), in that any defeat of ISIS entails the consolidation of the brutal and oppressive Syrian regime but the presence of that regime, I think, makes the context significantly different from that of the US occupation in Iraq.

As per ISIS living on even if its territory is taken; it certainly will as its ideology and mystique has now spread far beyond its claimed territory. But ISIS itself is also ultimately a particularly brutal manifestation of extremist terrorist ideologies that long pre-exist it. And, it remains the case that a central aspect of ISIS’ appeal is its claim to be an actual ‘state’ that controls a specific territory. Being the ‘caliph’ of a secret underground terrorist movement will certainly prove less effective in propaganda terms than being the ‘caliph’ of a territory that you can request people to come and join.


I wouldn’t characterize the Iraqi state as “formidable”. The Iraqi army that turned tail and ran at the first sign of ISIS also had backing from the Iranians.

Chris Kavanagh

Sure, that’s why I qualified the statement as ‘more’ formidable but I agree that the Iraqi state is not exactly a bastion of stability. Furthermore, many of the Iranian backed militias do not differ substantially from ISIS in terms of their commitment to Islamic fundamentalism or their consideration for human rights. So in a certain sense I agree with Peter that the destruction of ISIS will inevitably invite the growth of other extremist groups but I still think the surrounding political context means that the extent of the power vacuum is reduced. It’s easy to predict continued doom and gloom for the region though, and such predictions will inevitably prove correct whether ISIS remains or falls.


Neat little article about the Alawite casualty rate and what it means:

Basically, the author believes that the Alawites will fight to the last man given that they have little alternative.

Chris Kavanagh

They were close to the precipice, Assad had lost a lot of internal support and his removal and the collapse of the state has at many stages appeared like a foregone conclusion. But Russia’s increasing military support, combined with the support from Iranian backed Shiite militias, has significantly altered his fortunes- he is beginning to look like a ‘strong’ man again. Additionally, his forces victories are also being celebrated by the Western media, regardless of the horror that his forces entail for the ‘rescued’ populations, reflecting the increasing lack of political will of Western nations to directly oppose him.


There are limits to how much even an extreme surge of passionarity can achieve in the modern technological era, especially considering the low level of human capital Islamic State has at its disposal. This is a state that cannot even maintain let alone manufacture advanced weaponry.

A permanent and ultimately low-cost bombing campaign can keep its military potential permanently suppressed while also – ironically by the same principle of metaethnic frontiers – consolidating the unity of its bordering states – Iraq, Western Syria, and incipient Kurdistan.

The problem with full reconquest is that Syria will be saddled with tens of billions of dollars in rebuilding costs while resolving none of the cultural incompatibilities that led to its fissuring in the first place. Always loyal Tartus residents, who have already paid huge amounts of blood for the sake of the Syrian state, will resent this. Nor will Raqqans appreciate it. And 10-20 years down the line, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Israel, and/or the US can help provoke a second attempt to topple the Syrian government using their Islamist proxies.

My proposal is therefore a mixture of #1 and #2.

(1) Population exchange between Palmyra and Deir ez-Zor. The loyalists come to Palmyra, which is currently conveniently depopulatated, while any Islamic State sympathizers are transferred to their desired homeland. Since the area around Palmyra is surrounded by many leagues of empty desert, the presence of air power and a more loyal local population will make it virtually impregnable to recapture.

(2) Constant low level bombardments of any incipient military buildups or suspicious goings on in the Islamic State. This will provide free live exercise for any air force that cares to do this, and any human rights PR nonsense will be negated by Islamic State’s helpful habits of cutting off the heads of journalists who stray into their domains.

Edward Turner

The composition of daesh had a huge foreign element. One of them was the “Minister of War”. You can hardly get a more important and influential role than that. They went to Syria. They can go somewhere else just as easily.

Of course it might be said that Chechnya is on the edge of the Russian or Western empire, so that Syria and Chechnya are essentially the same place.


Anatoly, but why do you think that ISIS will conveniently stay in the territory they currently hold?

Terrorists will of course shift from place to place as local opportunities wax and wane and interested parties maintain the great global jihadist circulation.

I for one am looking from the perspective of Syria.

If I was a patriotic Syrian, I would not care much if those jihadists were to create problems for other people. If anything seeing the the Saudis’ pets turn on their former masters would merely elicit not entirely unjustified Schadenfreude. Islamic States creating problems around Sirte or even Riyadh would mean less jihadists arriving to try to kill and enslave me.

Trying to reconquer and then absorb Islamic State territories will impose huge costs and make my country ripe for future destabilization by the Saudis/Americans/etc in another decades’ or two time (Wikileaks has revealed that the US was planning to overthrow Assad as early as 2006).

So lets wall them off instead, invite Russians (and why not the Chinese too?) to create military bases, and pay for them in bombing practice instead of cash.


But I’m not a Syrian, I’m a Westerner, and from my perspective, ISIS spreading elsewhere instead of being just in Syria is a problem.


I don’t see why Syria has to cater to the wishes of people whose freely elected leaders have done so much to wreck their country.


Syrians may not wish to cater, but Syrians do not hold much of the power. Even in their own country.

What Western leaders, Russia, Iran, and other players with power do is more important.


Walls can’t be built in deserts? That must be news to Israel.

You can argue it will be expensive, but it will certainly be a lot less expensive than rebuilding Islamic State occupied territories and buying off their disgruntled denizens who had for the most part welcomed them in.

Though in reality you won’t even need much in the way of walls. Fortify the hell out of a few strategic outposts like al-Ithriyah, and as-Sukhanah and Deir Hafir once they’ve been recaptured, and rely on airpower to destroy any major contingents of troops that manage to muster in Islamic State and set out on the warpath.


Israel is tiny, in case you’ve noticed.

Walls have to be built and occupied.
Rebuilding ISIS-held territory would probably be cheaper.

Also, how do you send out airpower to wipe out ISIS fighters in small groups crossing the desert (who can then reassemble)?


Partition of Syria makes perfect sense.


Partitioning is difficult, however.

Lots of mixed areas. The main cities in the Alawite homeland are full of Sunnis, for instance.


Population swaps, which is a must, otherwise they will get more of the same. “Latakia” + = a home for Syria’s religious minorities – Alawites, Christians, Druze, Shiites, Armenians etc, who together with Kurds comprised half or more of Syria’s pre-war population; Kurds; Sunnites.


Druze are also in a tiny indefensible enclave south of Damascus.

Loren Petrich

akarlin: “There are limits to how much even an extreme surge of passionarity can achieve in the modern technological era, especially considering the low level of human capital Islamic State has at its disposal. This is a state that cannot even maintain let alone manufacture advanced weaponry.”

But ISIS has an alternative: buying its weapons. It can do that with the money that it gets from selling oil and antiquities.


Isn’t much too early to say that ISIS is a success? They lost territory, in proportion to their number their casualties are enormous, their military capacity has been significantly degraded.

Edward Turner

Well, when ISIS is defeated, certain elements within the CIA will certainly be desperately looking around for another Jihadist Caliphate to sponsor. It’s all some of them have done for the last 50 years. That and topple democratically elected governments, or prosperous dictatorships, in the second and third worlds.

It would be interesting whether states of the world ever begin to get resistence to manipulations of foreign intelligence services. I would imagine not. Surely there are too many potential defectors and too many different ways a society can be subverted.

However, states which use dishonest tactics abroad should eventually collapse under their own contradictions, as what works on foreign countries can also work on the domestic scene, causing instability, strife and sub-optimal governance outcomes.

Lorenzo from Oz

Certainly the best argument for non-engagement I have seen. Though the importance of oil for the world economy does complicate things.

It is also good to see an analysis that takes internal dynamics of Islam as a separate civilisation seriously. (It was, however, sad to see the idea that non-Westerners are just puppets of malign Western forces pop up in the comments. Really, that Anglo-Americans set huge amounts of war material to the Soviet Union did not make Stalin their puppet: that the Americans provided about a third of the financing of the anti-Soviet mujahideen in Afghanistan does not make every–or, indeed, any–subsequent jihadi group a US creation.)

The main difficulty for your argument I can see is that (1) large Muslim minorities in Europe create potential “meta-ethnic frontiers” that European states cannot avoid (except by expelling their Muslim citizens and residents) and (2) Muslim resurgence has a nasty history of overflowing. In its first 1000 years, Islam aggressed against every culture and civilisation it came up against and it did not stop because the underlying doctrines or patterns changed, but because it came up against better social predators.

Moreover, a globalised world brings “the West” into the homes and consciousness of Muslims wherever they live, even if there are no Western military forces active within hundreds or thousands of kilometres. At the very least, all this complicates the “non-engagement” argument.


Lorenzo from Oz, “large Muslim minorities in Europe create potential “meta-ethnic frontiers” that European states cannot avoid (except by expelling their Muslim citizens and residents)”.
There is a way – assimilation, but that will mean no hidjabs for girls at schools and universities, no accommodation for Muslims by removing pork from school lunches and so on.

Basically, for assimilation to work the ideology of multiculturalism must be abandoned, borders sealed, the massive influx of Muslim migrants stopped. Even then assimilation will take a couple of generations at the least.

None of this will happen of course. We should expect a lot of dramatic events along the meta-ethnic frontier which now goes right through the heart of Europe.

Lorenzo from Oz

Assimilation would take a major change in policies and outlooks. There is a certain amount of assimilation already, but not apparently enough to stop second (or even third) generation alienation among young Muslims born and bred in Europe.


Islamic culture hasn’t assimilated anywhere in the world and that is deliberate because of the clerics who preach a distinct, supposedly superior culture, because for them, assimilation would mean their non-significance and loss of power.


There is another option , economic warfare. Perhaps its consequences are preferable. I understand that an economic war weaken the Islamic state elites without increasing its cohesion. The idea is to destroy its oil and drug trade fields but allow the local population is not isolated .


Speaking about a meta-ethnic frontier…

“#Halalchallenge: Racism in the guise of animal rights” by the state controlled Deutche Welle

Social media users are using provocative videos to protest the appearance of halal meat at supermarkets in Germany. They call their campaign civil disobedience; critics call it sanctimonious and Islamophobic.

Bruce Beck

Thomas Friedman agrees with you that ISIS is a symptomatic outgrowth of the local conflicts And that the defeat of ISIS would only leave a power vacuum that would spawn another problem. However, his solution to the problem is a peace between the Saudis (leading the Sunnis) and the Iranians (leading the Shiites). What are your thoughts about Friedman’s analysis? Your analysis seems to see the US/Western role as more central to the spawning of the problems than Friedman’s analysis.

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