Is America at war with the Islamic State? On Friday, White House spokesman Josh Earnest said as much. “In the same way that we are at war with al Qaeda and its affiliates around the globe, we are at war with ISIL,” he said, using the acronym for the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant. The remark set a thousand Washington keyboards aflutter, as Secretary of State John Kerry had said pretty much the opposite only a day earlier—and President Obama never used the word “war” in his primetime speech on Wednesday.
Washington loves nothing more than to oversimplify the complex. But the fight against the radical jihadist movement that has taken over large parts of Syria and Iraq is not simply a war. In a conventional war, you are fighting a massed army seeking to gain or hold territory; such an army can be destroyed by superior force and skilled tactics. In a civil war, you are fighting guerrillas or militias seeking to free themselves from the central government, or to take it over. They can be defeated by giving the central government military and financial support to defend itself, building up secure zones to protect civilians and killing or capturing rebel leaders. ISIL, by contrast, is conducting a revolutionary war, in which civilians are recruited to support an ideological cause and rallied to overturn and replace regimes that are widely seen as unjust and illegitimate.
The distinction matters. To destroy the threat embodied in ISIL requires approaching the task as one of counter-revolution. ISIL, after all, is at its core only about 30,000 fighters, tops; what has made them the group force that could take over much of two countries with a total population of more than 50 million people is that they are supported by millions as the vanguard of a revolutionary movement for justice. That support ranges from military recruits from former supporters of other rebel groups who are joining ISIL to financial support from conservative co-religionists in Saudi Arabia and other Arab Gulf states to the quiet support of tens of millions of Syrian and Iraqi Sunnis.
How could such a barbarous and brutal group as ISIL, as Obama described it Wednesday, earn the support of those millions? By promising to protect and avenge them against the Assad regime in Syria, which has slaughtered their children and gassed their relatives and fellow townspeople and tribesmen; and against the Shiite regime in Iraq, which has stolen their jobs and destroyed their livelihoods, contemptuously dashing the hopes and careers of Sunni Arabs in that country.
The history of revolutions shows that such ideologically extremist groups typically emerge from periods of chaos in the wake of weak or disrupted regimes. ISIL is, within its Islamic framework, the heir of the Jacobins of the French Revolution, and the Bolsheviks of the Russian Revolution, who engaged in terror tactics and the killing of tens of thousands to reinforce their power in the wake of regime collapse and civil war. We know from this history that if the extremist vanguard is able to win the support of the masses, and turn them against the elites and moderate leaders left over from the old regime, they will carry the day and create an expansionist revolutionary state. Only if the radicals can be separated from the broader population, and the latter brought within the framework of other institutions that can provide order, security and start to respond to the population’s legitimate goals, can the radicals be effectively hunted down and destroyed.
In the case of the French Revolution, it took the combination of Britain, Prussia and Russia cooperating to destroy Napoleon’s forces at Waterloo to finally end the threat of a revolutionary conquest of Europe. In the case of the Bolsheviks and the Russian Revolution, it took the combination of all NATO countries, with support from Australia and New Zealand and Japan, to contain the Soviet Union’s plans for global communist expansion and eventually produce its implosion and fall. Both of these cases show that revolutionary ideological states, once established, are robust; it took more than two decades of conflict on three continents to turn back Napoleon, and more than seven decades of global Cold War to turn back Soviet communism. To turn back ISIL and separate it from its supporters will likewise take a broad coalition and years of arduous effort, but failure to succeed now will likely mean many decades of further conflict ahead.
The difficulty lies in the dual nature of counter-revolution. It is necessary to do two things: First, isolate and weaken the revolutionary forces by attacking their military force and limiting their access to funding and to external allies. Second, and even more essential, displace their ideological appeal to the masses by providing an alternative regime that can offer security, opportunity and inclusion to satisfy the legitimate aspirations of the people. Only then can military actions to destroy the radical forces be effective.
That is why the success of President Obama’s strategy to destroy ISIL depends on political solutions in both Iraq and Syria that provide inclusive and resilient civilian regimes. Yet so far unspoken is an essential fact of life in the Middle East: There can be no political solution in either Iraq or Syria without Iran’s assent.
Fortunately, events in both Iran and the Middle East have moved in a direction favorable to improved U.S.-Iranian relations. The new regime of Iranian President Hassan Rouhani appears sincerely interested in negotiating limits on its nuclear program in order to obtain relief from international sanctions. Iran is now also deeply reliant on U.S. help to sustain a stable and friendly Iraq next door. And ISIL is a mortal threat to both U.S. interests and to Iran. Rarely have U.S. and Iranian interests aligned so cleanly.
This article was written by Jack A. Goldstone for politico Magazine on SEP. 14, 2014. Jack A. Goldstone is a fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and Hazel professor of public policy at George Mason University. He is the author of Revolutions: A Very Short Introduction. The views expressed in this article are those solely of the author.
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