The New Caliphate: Part V. The Third Option



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In Part IV of this series I considered two of the three possible options for dealing with ISIS: all-out war to destroy it and the middle route, to use the Western air force to contain and degrade the Islamic caliphate, with the view of eventually destroying it, especially if the local forces on the ground (Syrian and Iraqi Shiites, Kurds) prove to be effective in battling ISIS. My conclusion was that these two options are not really different. The main problem is that they perpetuate the West-Islamic metaethnic frontier, and thus an evolutionary pressure cooker that selects for the most capable and most ruthless armed groups.

We can find a fitting historical analogy for what to expect in the previous period that this region was on a West-Islam metaethnic frontier — the 12th century, after the First Crusade (1099) resulted in the establishment of Christian principalities in the Holy Land.

That frontier became an incubating ground for jihadist groups of which the most successful were the Ayyubids. This family of Kurdish origins, whose most famous member was Saladin, came to prominence in Tikrit and Mosul (do these place names sound familiar?) as generals leading Islamic troops against the Crusaders. When Saladin died in 1194, he was a ruler of a huge state that extended from Syria and northern Iraq to Egypt and Yemen.


Saladin after the battle of Hattin, in which he destroyed the Crusader army. Source

Metaethnic frontiers breed strong, expansionary states. Thus, on both theoretical grounds and in light of historical analogies, it appears that military pressure from the U.S. and allies, whether constrained or aggressive, will lead to the same general outcome: an ever more cohesive, militant and predatory Islamic Caliphate. It might not be the present group, ISIS, but a successor; just like ISIS is a successor of Zarqawi’s Al Qaeda in Iraq.



Saladin’s empire at its greatest extent, c. 1188.

What about the third option, that of complete withdrawal from the region?

A fitting historical analogy is what happened in the Middle East after 1300. That date is significant because it is roughly when this region ceased to be a metaethnic frontier. This resulted from two developments. First, the Mamluks, the Islamic “slave-soldiers” who took over Saladin’s empire, destroyed the last Crusader state, the County of Tripoli in 1289. Second, the Mongol empire of Il-Khans, which ruled Persia and most of Iraq, converted to Islam in 1295.

The disappearance of the medieval metaethnic frontier put an end to further state-building in Mesopotamia and Levant until the 19th century, when the Western Great Powers again started making inroads into this region. Syria and Iraq became backwaters of other imperial states: the Egyptian Mamluks, a series of empires built by dynasties of Central Asian origin and finally the Ottoman Turks (ultimately, all those polities, including the Mamluks, were governed by elites of Central Asian origins).

When the Ottoman Empire was dismantled after World War I, this region was known for its weak states. There was much internal instability and some interstate warfare within the region, but certainly nothing like a jihadist Caliphate with world ambitions. In other words, we see the operation of the same principle, but in reverse: Whereas metaethnic frontiers breed strong states, lack of such frontiers results in weak states.

The withdrawal of Western military presence from the Middle East will remove one of the most important factors feeding the growth of a militantly expansionary Caliphate. It will not stop wars in this region. Continuing conflicts will be driven by religious divisions between the Shiites and the Sunnis, and ethnic divisions among the Kurds, the Arabs and the Turks. Additionally, the impetus for state-building delivered by the ill-considered invasion and occupation of Iraq will take many years, indeed decades, to run its course. There is no easy solution to the tangle of challenges in the Middle East. But at least Option 3, the withdrawal, will terminate the environmental conditions favoring the evolution of cohesive and ruthless state-building groups with extra-regional ambitions.

A policy of disengagement is a difficult option to contemplate, and goes entirely against the grain of almost all mainstream discourse on the subject. I understand why this is so: everybody wants evil to be defeated. But we must consider the consequences of our actions, no matter how well-intentioned they are. In the long run, a complete withdrawal will result in much less human misery inflicted on this unfortunate region than continual attempts by the West to solve its problems by military means.


Note on the margin: It’s worth stressing that so far my focus in this series has been on Mesopotamia and Levant. The argument I make is that the best thing the West could do for people inhabiting this region is to leave them alone. That, of course, opens up other questions: what to do about the ISIS metastases outside the region? And what would the dynamics be in Mesopotamia, if the West withdraws? These are questions for other posts (assuming there is interest).


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al loomis

withdrawal seems impossible. political mechanisms in the west, notably in the usa where market expansion drives, and a weak electorate offers little resistance to militarism, will result in endless war.
the character and intellect of american leadership is unlikely to bend the course of leviathan.
madison aimed at stability, and effectively achieved political immobility.
“I do not know if the people of the United States would vote for superior men if they ran for office, but there can be no doubt that such men do not run.”
― Alexis de Tocqueville, Tocqueville: Democracy in America


I disagree.

The US has been isolationist (or confined its overseas adventures to the Americas) before.

Loren Petrich

Richard, there’s some interesting work by Frank Klingberg about cycles of US foreign policy (The Cycles of American History by Arthur Meier Schlesinger). He concluded that the US alternates between extroverted and introverted phases. Extroverted: willing to challenge distant and/or powerful nations. Introverted: unwilling to do so.

Each transition is provoked by a characteristic kind of event. I to E: challenges from powerful nations, E to I: burnout after big wars.
1776 – 1797 | I | Revolution, establishment of government
1798 – 1823 | E | French naval war, Louisiana Purchase, War of 1812
1824 – 1844 | I | Nullification crisis, Texas question (unwillingness to “liberate” Canada after 1830 revolt)
1845 – 1870 | E | Texas and Oregon annexations, Mexican War, Civil War
1871 – 1890 | I | (unwillingness to participate in the Europeans’ Scramble for Africa)
1891 – 1918 | E | Spanish-American War, World War I
1919 – 1939 | I | League of Nations rejection, Neutrality Acts
1940 – 1967 | E | World War II, Cold War, Korean and Vietnam Wars
1968 – 1988 | I | Vietnamization, détente, fall of the Soviet Union
1989 – | E | Post-Cold-War assertion, Gulf War, War on Terror
Given how long the periods last, the US is due for a new introverted period about now. That may explain the lack of interest in the US in an all-out war against ISIS.


Obama (and Trump) are introverted on foreign policy by nature.

Hillary is extroverted, though. She’s a Hubert Humphrey “Happy Warrior” center-left liberal.

Loren Petrich

That brings to mind Ronald Reagan. According to one historian, he wanted to teach the Soviet Union a harsh lesson, without being very specific about it or specifying how the Soviet leadership could show that they had learned it. Obviously very extroverted. He and other fellow Cold War extroverts also grumbled about “Vietnam syndrome”, many fellow Americans being very introverted.

But Hillary Clinton is likely to disappoint those who want an all-out war on the Muslim world. I don’t think that she is as willing to stand out the way that Ronald Reagan was.

Lee Doran

Yes, Peter, there definitely is interest! More please! This analysis is fascinating! The way you draw on historically analagous situations to illustrate your points is very convincing. Keep going please!

All best regards,


Guillaume Belanger

I second that motion! 🙂

Daniel González

Be sure I’m very interested, Peter, as much as pleased for your analysis.

Best regards.


So the incursion by the ottomans into Europe around 1500 led to the development of the early modern states?

If so, recent massive Muslim immigration will lead to a resurgence of strong European states in the future.

Edward Turner

What matters is not the size of the polygon but the quality of life within it for the majority of people.


I think the dynamics of immigration are different.

They do not form a meta-ethnic frontier (but do affect states in other ways).


Richard, “I think the dynamics of immigration are different.”

We are going to see how much different if different at all.

I think what we see in Europe right now is precisely bringing a meta-ethnic frontier inside Europe. I can’t think of any other such precedent in history.


Even within the heart of Europe, meta-ethnic frontiers have happened plenty often before. The Ottomans extending deep in to Europe. Before that, the Hungarians, Avars, etc. striking deep in to Europe. The Germanic tribes rampaging all through Europe during the Migration Period. Romans engulfing the Celts (and letting in the Goths, while taking advantage of them, inspiring them to rise up), etc.


Of course, you are right, the list is endless, but those events were all violent to the extreme when everyone was fighting with their tooth and claw and with sad results for some peoples involved ( where are Avars? What is left of Celts? etc)
They were striving to push the meta-ethnic frontier as far as possible, not to bring it closer what we are seeing now.

I still can’t think of any precedent when an invading army was welcomed and even invited to invade. Can you?


The Romans invited in the Goths, as I mentioned above (and exploited them). The Goths were also refugees. Granted, you may know what happened next after the exploitation.


“…Fritigern asked Valens to allow the Thervingi to cross the northern Roman border and settle in Moesia or Thracia, with the Danube River and Roman frontier forts protecting them from the Huns, (thus this was a form of asylum)….Valens agreed to permit Fritigern’s followers to enter the empire. In return, they would be subject to military service, but would be treated the same as other Roman subjects. As it turned out, neither happened.

During the fall of 376, the Romans helped Alavivus and Fritigern’s people cross the Danube and settle in the province of Moesia”

So not exactly “invited”. Rather Romans allowed Goths to enter the empire and settle on its frontier ( the Balkans), not any further, on certain conditions.
And yes, we know how it ended.

I see a big difference with what is going on now in Europe. However, the end will likely be the same.


Uh, Europeans aren’t exactly inviting refugees in either, but they are coming.

Also, the Romans exploited the Goths, which was what provoked their uprising. So there can be a difference there.

Tom St.Clair

I tend to agree with Al that the political and economic forces in the U.S.arrayed in support of continued military intervention in the Mideast are substantial, and public memory of the disasters in Iraq astonishingly short. Still, I think this analysis is extremely valuable whether or not it gains enough traction to prevent more near-term policy mistakes, and I admire Peter’s courage in applying the tools of his extensive research to current problems. Thank you, and please continue.

Edward Turner

An important point is that the polities of the Middle East have frequently been ruled by “foreign elites” or elites who are minorities compared to the majority. Assad’s Arab Alawite-ruled Syria is an example – the same could be said about Saudi Arabia. The elites are a minority with a different culture to the majority.

So, if the resident culture of the majority of the inhabitants isn’t conducive to a strong state and an expansionary empire, that is no barrier to the formation of one. This culture could be imported with the arrival of new elites, who bring with them their own organizing system.

The emergence of the state of Israel in the 20th century is essentially another example as the region was majority Arab in the early years of the century.

To some extent this happens elsewhere (rulers possess their own minority culture) but the fact that the Middle East is a geographic crossroads probably makes it much more likely to happen and also for upstarts to receive outside help from existing powers who have interests in the region.

ISIS was helped by foreign powers and likewise Saladin was supported by the Christian Byzantines.


How is Saudi Arabia ruled by a minority culture?

Sunnis predominate there, and Saudi Sunnis seem to have been quite Wahhabized.

Rick Derris

RIchard, he may have been referring to the Arabian peninsula post-WWI when the Saudis defeated the Hashemites and took over the peninsula. They only ruled a small part of the peninsula prior to this event.


Is it possible that the state of Israel creates a similar metaethnic frontier in the Levant? After all, it’s an overtly religious state, culturally distinct from the natives, supported by foreign subsidies, widely perceived to be invasive, and occupying much of the same territory as the medieval Crusader states.


This was my thought as well. The withdrawal of the West will not bring about the end of meta-ethnic frontiers in the Middle East due to the continued existence of Israel.


Huh… Israel is less of an overtly religious state than the other states in that region and the Israelis have more of a stake at nativity than the Palestinians who immigrated there. A frontier along religious lines will exist with or without existence of Israel simply because the clergy foments and revels and gains from religious conflict.


Who are the natives here by the way? Islam was founded 1400 years ago. Islam is less native to the middle east than any other of the older religions or ethnic groups out there. I don’t think nativity should be along religious lines anyway and if it wasn’t there wouldn’t be any problems to start with!

Ross Hartshorn

I certainly would look forward to more analysis!

I wonder, though, if the non-intervention route would really result in the absence of a meta-ethnic frontier. Wouldn’t the presence of Israel, with its many strong connections (economic, political, and cultural) to Europe, still create one? It would seem to put Israel in the same situation as the last of the Crusader Kingdoms, with the substantial difference that they are the strongest military power in the region. I think any war between Israel and their neighbors will be seen by the non-Israelis as a war between themselves and the West, even if we thought we had withdrawn.

I also wonder at the assertion that support of proxies would be the same as direct intervention. When drone strikes from the air it certainly would seem little different from direct intervention, but advanced weaponry in the hands of the Kurds (to give one example) would still seem more like a fight between Kurd and Arab, I think.

Lastly, I would be very interested to hear your thoughts on the meta-ethnic frontier between Russia and the Arabs. Russia is at least as entangled in Syria as the West, right now, and is not precisely part of the West, culturally (although perhaps they are also not precisely NOT part of the West, either). What do you think the impact would be if the West were withdrawn but Russia continue to back Syria, etc.? Would that still be enough to provide the conditions for strong state-building?


Yep, the US may be able to withdraw from the Arab world (especially when it becomes less reliant on Middle Eastern oil), but so long as Israel is there, the Shiite vs. Sunni Arab vs. Kurd vs. Turk (vs. everyone vs. everyone else vs. Israel) conflicts will keep drawing in Russia and Western Europe. We’ll see decades of strife and eventually the emergence of a strong Middle Eastern state (Stratfor predicts that it will be Turkey though I think it could be Iran as well). We’ll likely see the collapse of Saudi Arabia with oil exiting geopolitics, and power abhors a vacuum so the Middle East of our grandchildren will likely be very different from what we see now.

Edward Turner

It would take a long time but I was thinking of a Holy Union for the Middle East. The big empire could come at that point in the future when future Israeli population and the regional Arabs/Muslim population find common religious ground versus the secular empire (which would especially be Europe). The resulting empire might not be Jewish or Muslim though – but it would be Holy. Difficult to imagine Jews and Muslims getting on so this empire could be maintained by a new bridging religion that becomes popular among the ruling elites, and then actively sponsored. The fact that Jews and Muslims are today so fractious would be the metaethnic frontier that eventually produces this among the elites. Still a long way off though.


Super interesting as usual. But I wonder as Ross, if the mere presence of Israel isn’t sufficient to sustain a frontiere. Because for the frontiere to exist there need not be war but just the coexistence of neighboring states and a certain level of tension.


The religious frontier will exist even if Israel didn’t exist, simply because the clergy needs a frontier to justify their existence and to have a stake in politics.


So please explain the Middle East in the 19th century then.

If I recall, there were plenty Muslim clergy around then as well, yet the Middle East wasn’t embroiled in endless wars then.


Wahabism started in the 18th century. Salafism picked up in the end of the 19th century. The religious frontier of Dar-al-Islam vs Dar-al-Harb has existed since the start of the religion. If we are looking at frontiers that is probably a much more relevant frontier, especially so when looking from the perspective of the clergy and especially Salafi clergy which is backed up by petro-dollars.

In fact a question to Peter: if we are talking about ethnic frontiers. why shouldn’t we look at this in terms of Dar-al-Islam and Dar-al-Harb when Islamism and Salafism focus on it all the time as a frontier along which their conflict is aligned?


So if the division is between Dar-al-Islam and Dar-al-Harb, that division was there even in the 19th century. It wasn’t in the Middle East, though, but since you state that that is irrelevant, you still have to explain the lack of Middle Eastern wars in the 19th century.


Presence of clergy with political goals does not have to mean overt war all the time. Not that there weren’t any wars: there was conflict between Egypt and Ottomans for example. Overt war for some reason might be a useful and the only useful barometer for you, it isn’t for me. For example at the current time, peaceful Islamization of Turkey/Egypt (using doctrine of gradualism) is a far more serious matter (imho) than ISIS, because ISIS cannot exist without support from Islamized Turkey or Wahabized SaudiA. If you have to or at all want to dismantle Taliban, the least interesting question is whether to fight or withdraw, either is not going to succeed unless there is a plan to target the idealogy and education and madrassas and clergy and Salafi mosques and their funding.

And, I was pointing out that the latest iterations of what could be called Islamism has grown through the 18th/19th century. Its taken a while for Salafist clergy to spread around the globe, especially accelerated with petro-dollars. Secondly, there are various conditions that can imply lack of wars, among the most obvious being the practical matter of a military disadvantage .

In any case, in all my comments I have pointed out that militancy or ISIS, etc are the least interesting matters (imho). The role of religion in politics and education is by far the more interesting and debilitating aspect with or without war, ISIS, militancy, etc, and both for Muslims and non-Muslims and for Dar-al-Harb and Dar-al-Islam.


Petrodollars are going away sooner or later. Sooner, from the looks of it.


Absolutely fascinating. However wouldn’t your proposed course of action very probably continue to provoke a continued flow of refugees towards Europe? Given that issue’s political importance, it is hard to imagine how Europe could remain disengaged, and how it could refrain from pestering the Americans to remain engaged as well. Very much look forward to reading your further thoughts on this subject.

chris goble

What would the conclusion of the meta-ethnic frontier theory have suggested with respect to WWII? What is the time distribution for the survivability of empires with ISIS’ likely frontier characteristics? It seems like there have been more than a few empires that have survived for a very long time: certainly long enough to develop nuclear weapons and fundamentally change the calculus used.

I’d also second the Israel issue, especially as it relates to nuclear issues with respect to itself and other frontier countries like Pakistan, India, and any of the others likely to develop nukes during the confrontation period.

The global costs historic nation/empire death throes no longer seem to match historic costs.

chris goble

To not sound so negative, I should add, I do think the fermentation/isolationist solution is one of the best of a bunch of bad options….

Debating things using historical based models is a definite breath of fresh air from typical polemics (& much more likely to avoid the blinders of utopian/conventional-strategic thinking)



1) Focusing on ISIS misses the larger point, because the idealogy and propaganda that engenders a jihadist solution exists everywhere where the Wahabi/Salafi idealogy thrives and that includes the west too. This theory focuses too much on the geography while not realizing that the foot soldiers for ISIS have been recruited from around the world, not just from that geographic location. In fact, without the influx from the jihadis from the West, it wouldn’t have lasted as long as it has. The world isn’t as divided into cultures as previously, for sharp cultural/ethnic frontiers to help delineate problem areas.

2) By assuming that the Iraq war was the trigger point for the militancy you have ignored my previous proof showing that the conflict was desired and engineered by the Al Qaeda leadership. And, they will continue to engineer such conflict even if the current one is abandoned by the West. So, abandonment won’t stop future conflict especially given the demographic and technological changes which make conflict easier to create within the West.

3) Withdrawal would work if you could also isolate the culture and idealogy, but then you would have to ban immigration from certain areas. That would work, but no one seems to want to contemplate that. If you look at the history of Islamic conquest, part of it is also simply immigration and demographic and idealogical pressure over centuries. In fact I could argue that if the West did not have open immigration in the last 20 years then they would not be facing the terrorist threat at home nor would they be concerned with the presence or absence of a caliphate in the middle east. The only additional condition that makes the presence of ISIS is a problem is that there are immigrant and clerical communities around the world that can and will support jihadis and even foment conflict regardless of the presence or absence of a caliphate. Focusing on the caliphate only is like focusing only on the tip of the iceberg and the most inconsequential tip at that. The real focus should be on the clergy and political idealogues that benefit from conflict.

4) And then, militant Salafism is the lesser evil as compared to the more moderate Muslim Brotherhood which has essentially the same goals but via non-violent political methods and a far more patient resolve. I would consider the transformation in Turkey (and almost Egypt) to be an example where the idealogy that aspires to a caliphate thrives. If we ignore the ISIS bullshit fight against the west and the terrorist activities, please explain to me what is the difference between ISIS and an Islamic republic that implements sharia, and which has religious education that calls for intolerance towards others, for the people that are governed, which is the norm in a lot of countries today? What is the solution for a country that implements a law saying that an apostate should be killed? Why does that not incur apartheid like analogies and sanctions? And, if that is not a problem for the West, then what happens when that idealogy is imported into the West in large numbers and over decades and centuries?

5) When talking about defeating a caliphate, the point shouldn’t be to merely focus on the current iteration and how to isolate it or make it impotent but to look for a long-lasting solution that avoids the desire for a caliphate. That is what was achieved by the Christian enlightenment back in the 1700s when the Christians themselves fought to separate religion from politics and engender secularism. That parallel is far more relevant to this problem. The point is whether and how long it would take for a secular version of Islam to push Salafi Islam into irrelevance.

You have alluded to some of my points above by saying that you might have something to say about ISIS metastases. So, please continue to write on that because I would allege that it would be helpful in understanding how and where you delineate the frontier. The main issue I have is that I consider ISIS to be a minor variant of something else that is larger and more persistent whereas your analysis seems to begin and end with ISIS which is disappointing…

Edward Turner

//That is what was achieved by the Christian enlightenment back in the 1700s when the Christians themselves fought to separate religion from politics and engender secularism.//

Christians did not fight for secularism but against hierarchism and domination of the Catholic church, which is a completely different thing.

In places like Switzerland some Christians considered a neutral state with no religion a better option than having the other tribe in charge but that did not make them “secular” in any other sense of the term. Christians are only like secularists to the extent secularists agree with Christian values.

500 years ago Christianity was dominated by the Catholic Church which was and still is a very hierarchical institution with a powerful central body (Vatican, in Rome) that appoints bishops in the field. Islam is not like Christianity in structure. It is a devolved religion that, while it is global in concept, is much less institutional and heirarchical and more local. There is no central body in Mecca appointing Imams in Paris, Bradford or Ankara.

Muslims are not dominated by a heirarchical religious institution so they won’t fight against something that doesn’t exist. The lack of a coordinating center makes Muslims easily divided, and constantly splitting into factions. This is why Islam, from the perspective of a Jihadi, badly needs a state – a Caliphate, headed by a ruler who has an active interest in the religion, who will unify them all.

The Christian wants to be free of heirarchy, but rarely is; the Muslim needs to impose one, but usually cannot.

The zietgiest in Islam has been frustration of Muslims with their general inability to cooperate at a large-scale in non-state institutions and the seeking of the solution in the government of a territorial entity. The trend among the world’s Christians, on the other hand, has been to escape the suffocation of these heirarchical non-state bodies and look to the state to liberate them from the injustices perperated by them (- hence all the Evangelical libertarians in the US Bible belt).

Meanwhile technology is changing both the concept of territorial entity (unprecedented amount of travel, trade and information exchange across borders with the Internet) and what it means to govern (so many global level rules) so Christians don’t know quite where the oppressive heirarchy is and Muslims don’t know where exactly their state should be.

In this confusing situation is it a surprise that default options like “Let’s start a new Caliphate run by Arabs in Syria – the home of the first Caliphate” prove popular? And on the side of the Christians renewed interest among Evangelicals in constraining secular global government aka the NWO bogeyman?

Loren Petrich

It seems to me that Islam has become the new Communism for some people. A great international villain, one with an alien ideology, one that is trying to subvert the nations of the “good guys”. It seems to me that some Cold Warriors have been desperate to have new villains, now that Communism has ceased to be much of a villain. North Korea is the only Cold-Warring Communist country left of the remaining Communist countries, and it is a pipsqueak compared to what the Soviet Union was.

This goes as far as some US state governments passing laws stating that Islamic law (Sharia) is not recognized in those states (Ban on sharia law – Wikipedia). Much like “Red under the bed” anti-Communist paranoia.


Concerning the Crusades, did they actually strengthen the muslim states? Seems to me they did not so much create a metaethnic frontier, but shifted its focal location into the Levant, where it would’ve been Anatolia otherwise.


What about Israel? How would the West withdraw from the Middle East, using your definition, with Israel still in existence?

Jukka Aakula

Good text.

Russians have also been active in Mesopotamian Levant. Taleb told the Christians in Lebanon have a picture on Putin in their home and a candle on front of the picture. So Russians also maintain the metaethnic frontier.

There is also a problem which you do not mention. The metaethnic problem boarder exiast to some extent also in Russian Caucasus and in Russian and West European cities. How does a withdrawal from Mesopotamia and Levant affect those frontiers.

Guillaume Belanger

Great ideas! I really see the logic and find the arguments compelling. It would nice to see such a policy being adopted. Of course, I think you also realise this is unlikely. But, let’s hope nonetheless, just like we have to keep hoping for Bernie Sanders to come on top even though it is unlikely…

John Lilburne

There is a two reason why the west can not withdraw from the middle east and both would have to have solutions before it could be even thought about. The first is oil. since the middle east has the largest sources of oil and oil has reperesented global power since churchill set up BP, then the great powers willl continue to be involved. The second is that little country Israel which is an affront to all muslims. However because the jews are probably the most powerful elite in the west ( read Mearsheimer and walt or Mr K Macdonald) and have a preoccupation with Israel, the probability of withdrawal is essentialy zero.

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