Islamic State (IS) gets a lot of (deserved) bad rap as a mega-terror group full of bearded would-be suicide bombers itching to set off a nuke in New York or London. Every IS human rights atrocity is published in gory and specific detail, reinforcing the notion that this is one of those Ultimate Evils no one can get along with, and which will never play by the rational rules of humanity.
And while all that’s how it got started, it’s not necessarily how IS will end up, for even the mad may become sane through the brute logic of geopolitics. Last week, IS, through its English language magazine Dabiq, used one of its few surviving Western journalists to express a rather logical notion: a truce.
What the hell is going on? Are the madmen going sane? Perhaps.
But first, them cliff notes.
- All revolutions reach a day when they must figure out how to survive.
- On that day, they begin to play by the rules of geopolitics, or else they are destroyed.
- IS is starting to reach that point, and the fork in the road that will determine if they live or die will be completely dependent on how much they’re willing to moderate.
- With the Middle East in total chaos, it’s growing quite possible that IS could achieve its goal of independence and become a permanent thing on the map. But that won’t happen if they don’t do a few basic things.
So, then, what does a revolution seek to do? Well, they all begin idealistically and then either flame out, or they succeed and then pretty much abandon their edgiest ideals.
Thankfully, the term “sell out” is dying, if not already dead. But it helps you understand how revolutions undermine themselves. A cultural icon – say, a shock rock star – may start his career partying hard, living free, and breaking as many cultural conventions as humanly possible. But if he wishes to survive, let alone thrive, he will invariably take a path that will propel him to set up youth centers dedicated to keeping kids from doing exactly what he used to do. He may, of course, remain ideologically pure, living free, doing plenty of drugs, and having massive parties, but the chances of him dying young, in addition to squandering his wealth and influence, are high. O
n a long enough timeline, such purists die out, and only the pragmatists remain. Revolutions always seek to radically reorder a society based on typically untested political ideals. Perhaps they wish to replace a king with a president; a president with a Fuehrer; the rich and poor with a classless society.
The more radical the revolution, the more it must betray itself in order to survive – the more, in other words, it must “sell out,” because to party too hard will, over time, dramatically increase the risk of a geopolitical heart attack. The successful and long-lasting revolutions ditch the purists and elevate the pragmatists. The beautiful, idealistic, and movie-worthy revolutionaries that don’t are wiped out by forces better capable of organizing power using conventional geopolitical means.
Being the man who gave his name to Marxist-Leninism, one would think Lenin a man of “integrity” when it came to communist revolution. But after taking power in the anarchy of Russia’s World War I defeat, Lenin, a man of greater intelligence than many of his radical contemporaries (including Stalin), understood that rapid implementation of communism would completely undo all the state powers that made his fledgling Soviet Union able to fight its civil war. Lenin saw the writing on the wall: he could either be a purist and implement communism wherever he could, but sacrifice much territory, if not the whole of Russia itself, since that implementation would consume so many resources and people that he would not be able to fight the civil war.
Or he could bite the bullet, come up with some bullshit excuse for failing to following through with his revolutionary promises, and win the civil war to keep power.
Since the Soviet Union he founded lasted until 1991, you can guess which one he did. War Communism, as it was called, not only worked, it flourished. It also ensured the USSR never really got anywhere close to achieving true communism. That deadline just kept slipping until nobody took it seriously anymore.
While on the flip side was a man whose revolution started off softly and went harder with each passing year: Hitler.
For the historical demonstration of a revolution that got purer with each passing year – to disastrous results – just zero in on the Nazis. The Nazis took power in 1933 with relatively moderate targets: Antisemitism in that day was pretty popular and rearming Germany and kick starting the economy through centralized control even more so. The racial purity obsession of the Nazis grew with time: each success convinced them that their revolutionary ideals were correct, causing them to delve even deeper into their ideology to achieve their perfect society.
The tipping point was, without a doubt, the invasion of the Soviet Union, a geopolitical catastrophe dictated wholly by Nazi beliefs that Germany had to settle the East and exterminate or enslave the people there. As the war went on, the Nazis grew not less but more radical, ramping up the Holocaust even in the final bitter months of war, killing enemies with greater and greater relish, and allowing Hitler’s vision of a new Germany to come closer and closer to fruition. Each radical act undermined German power more and more, of course, but some scholars have argued that Hitler’s final months before defeat were also the ideologically most pure.
So while Hitler got real close to achieving all the tenants of his Mein Kemph, he also got real dead, since his ideals were not rooted in geopolitical reality.
Take your pick of modern revolutions and watch each one, over time, slowly betray its own ideals.
Iran, for example, once extolled dress codes as a chief tenant of its revolution. Yet today the rich kids of Tehran regularly break such prohibitions, and hardline president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad still wore Western-style suits (minus the tie). That’s because using state power to regulate a harmless cultural norm like what people wear is an expensive waste of resources. It forces cops to avoid real crimes, clogs jails with people who would otherwise be productive members of society, and creates enemies. Iran, as an increasingly rational state, has quietly abandoned the obsession.
But what about Saudi? True, Saudi Arabia has hardcore dress codes, but that’s not quite the same as Iran. Saudi Arabia enforces a dress code that was already more or less there; it’s most efficient police are its own citizens who largely agree with it. Saudi Arabia, with a smaller population and greater oil resources, can also afford to waste power on something like that – for now. But when hard decisions have to be made about what to do with dwindling Saudi oil resources, the first on the chopping block will be the Fashion Police budget.
So where does that leave IS? Are they suddenly all grown-up?
IS is now approaching a year after its blitz shocked the world and it ended up grabbing territory as large as Jordan. But it’s experiencing setbacks in Iraq. Having spent the summer and fall working really hard to be seen as the most Sunni and jihadi of jihadist groups – and enjoying the windfall in recruits and boosted morale – IS is now reaching the limits of that strategy. No matter how many motivated, dumb young men it recruits, it cannot overcome the simple and brute power of the American Air Force and its allies on the ground.
IS was always strongest in Arab Sunni territories, and those territories fell swiftly last summer in Iraq. But pushing into mixed, Shi’a, or Kurdish territories meant taking on whole populations that immediately feared and hated them. Unlike in Mosul, where local agents helped scatter the Iraqi army, or Fallujah, where friendly tribes were already pretty much running the show, to take Baghdad, Kirkuk, or Erbel requires mass ethnic cleansing.
It’s not that IS wouldn’t like to kill all those people: its revolutionary ideals dictate it must. But mass killings require manpower, ammunition, and the ability for the mass killers to be protected from counterattacks as they do their evil work. Under withering airstrikes they cannot shoot down, IS front lines are slipping back, while the critical task of moving ammunition, men, and fuel from one place to another is harried by drones and jets.
IS roused the West to out-jihadi al-Qaeda, gain legitimacy as a serious power, and enjoy a boost in recruitment. This it has now done: few consider al-Qaeda more dangerous than IS, and some would argue that IS is the true leader of Sunni jihadism today. And while the stream of recruits lets it replace battlefield losses in manpower, IS has no arms factories or friendly nation-states that can replace its lost tanks or artillery – the backbone of a true state’s military.
Thus the floating of a heresy: peace.
IS already has shown itself capable of being rational by not pissing off Turkey. A Turkish invasion would mean the absolute end of IS, and Raqqa knows it. Hence the reason Turkey was able to evacuate its troops from a Turkish enclave surrounded by IS without incident. While ideologically, IS views Turkey’s state as yet another infidel to conquer, IS’s geopolitical needs require it to avoid confrontation with the Middle East’s most powerful military.
Now that the U.S. strategy is making gains, notably by helping the Iraqi army retake Tikrit, IS must consider what, a year ago, may have seemed unthinkable to many of its cadres: a truce. Continuing to fight the West will absolutely result in the loss of IS’s Iraq territories, and smart IS strategists must realize the American election next year could bring to power a president with a mandate to crush the fledgling state.
Worse, if America and Iran do finalize their nuclear deal, a door will open for the ultimate anti-IS alliance, with Iranian troops supported by American warplanes.
Human agency allows IS to abandon that idea, of course. But they will be punished for doing so.
IS stands at a crossroads as the Iraqi offensive picks up steam. It may moderate, focus on providing services to its subjects, and work on becoming a functioning and self-sustaining state. Or it may continue its current strategy of relentless ideological purity, using its highly motivated fighters to capture equipment and plunder goods that might allow it to keep fighting. The problem with the second strategy is that most of the good plunder is gone, and there are no more easy Iraqi or Syrian army bases to capture.
In other words, IS must choose if it wants to achieve communism now, or if it wants to come up with some rhetorical bullshit to set up a system not all that different from the one they’ve overthrown. It may be Hitler or Lenin; its results will follow their paths.
The conditions in the Middle East are quite ripe for the establishment of a permanent Islamic State, and if IS does it right, that very much can happen.
The collapse of Syria and Iraq look permanent, and within their ruins new fiefs and states may emerge. No outside state has yet committed enough power to put these shattered states back together; worse, the unraveling of Yemen and the coming unrest in Saudi Arabia mean that the Arabian peninsula itself may soon see killing fields much like Syria and Iraq.
Nobody should kid themselves that the Middle East will become more orderly over the coming years. If anything, the wars will become nastier and more plentiful. In such nightmares, the dreams of some may be fulfilled: if IS can survive the West’s initial counterattack, run a good enough state that wins just enough support from its subjects, and keep its own radicals from forcing it to invade its own Soviet Union, the map may change in a big way.
If not, well, one need merely look at the record of the Ukrainian Black Army, the only anarchist movement to ever hold territory, to see IS’s future.