Thursday, October 29, 2015

The Campaign Against ISIS

Guest post by Peter T.
(For his previous posts, see here, here, and here.)


What are ISIS’ prospects of holding out against the coalition now formed against them? And how do the military prospects inform the outlook for a political resolution of the civil wars?

ISIS continues to hold significant parts of northern and western Iraq and north-east Syria, and is putting up a stiff resistance to Iraqi efforts to regain Ramadi and to a Russian-backed Syrian offensive around Aleppo. Various Islamic radical movements around the world continue to sign on as ISIS affiliates, and the extreme violence (gruesome forms of execution, suicide attacks, mosque bombings) characteristic of ISIS has spread to Pakistan, Yemen, Libya and further. How far can ISIS go?

ISIS is several things. At the core, it is a millenarian movement, preparing for (and trying to bring about) the end of days. It draws on Salafist Islam, Islamic eschatological doctrines and holy warrior traditions, and seeks purity through violence. This mix is attractive to many young men, and at the centre of ISIS military strength are some few thousands of devotees – fierce, cohesive, aggressive and, by now, thoroughly competent in battle. Around this core are Sunni tribe members, local conscripts, and foreign volunteers, adding up to some tens of thousands.

Against ISIS are the Iraqi and Syrian armies, Iraqi Shi'a militias, some Sunni tribes, Iraqi and Syrian Kurdish forces, competing rebel groups in Syria and, of course, Western (mostly U.S.) and Russian air forces and Iranian advisors.  Numerically, this coalition is far stronger.  It is also better equipped and supplied, and can draw on much larger populations.  Yet the record, so far, is decidedly mixed.  The regular Iraqi Army performed poorly against ISIS up to mid-2014. The Syrian Army has likewise not done too well.  Iraqi Kurdish forces have been effective in defense, but made very limited gains.  The Syrian Kurds have done better, sealing off the border with Turkey as far west as the Euphrates, but lack the numbers and equipment to attack major ISIS strongholds directly.  In Iraq, the most effective forces have been the Shi'a militias and in Syria the Lebanese Hezbollah militia.

Up to now ISIS has been able to offset numbers with elan, ferocity, cohesion, greater military competence, and the advantages offered by being on the offensive. These have been enough to seize territory against weak opposition, but not enough to overcome any determined resistance.  In the longer run, they are unlikely to be enough to hold what ISIS has gained.

ISIS has been slowly but steadily losing territory and populations in Iraq since mid-2014, and must now defend against greater forces along a wide front.  Forces have to be tied down in defence of key points, such as the roads between Mosul and Raqqa.  As the aura of success fades, and as supply tightens, its tribal allies and subordinates become less reliable, and greater pressure is needed to keep them in line. At the same time, the competence and morale of its enemies rises. Each successful battle (Kobane, Tel Abyad, Tikrit, Baiji, Hassakah, Shengal, currently Ramadi) costs ISIS core cadres and chips away at its aura of invincibility.  Taking towns ringed with IEDs and defended to the last is a slow process, but it can be and has been done. This is not blitzkrieg, but a steady pressure against a determined but weaker force.

Military geography does not favour ISIS. Both Mosul and Raqqa are exposed, and comparatively minor gains by Kurdish forces in northern Iraq or eastern Syria would sever communication between the two.  Likewise, ISIS has to hold Euphrates valley towns to access western Anbar and the Saudi border, but garrisons are vulnerable to Iraqi forces and their supply open to air attack.  And ISIS has to maintain forces in northern Syria against the very effective Kurdish YPG to ensure access to the Turkish border.  So its striking power is limited and its small elite vulnerable to attrition.

The Balance in Syria

Calculation of the military and political situation in Syria is more complex than in Iraq. The Assad regime in Damascus cannot muster the same numbers or depth of popular commitment as Baghdad, has to fight on several fronts, and faces a relatively stronger set of enemies. Its own indiscriminate use of fire-power has alienated many who might otherwise find it the lesser evil. While Baghdad enjoys support from all sides, the U.S. is hostile to the regime in Damascus and continues to tinker futilely with support for a “third party” -- a secular (or at least non-fundamentalist) and pro-democratic opposition.  Although the Pentagon has recently ended its effort to train separate ‘moderate’ forces to fight ISIS, a CIA program to train ‘moderates’ to fight Assad apparently continues.  Turkey is also hostile to Assad, and somewhat supportive, in terms of actions if not rhetoric, of both ISIS and the al-Qaeda-affiliated Nusra Front.

In the broader view, it is all one war. Not only is ISIS a common enemy (certainly for all Shi’a, at any rate), but Syrian Allawis, the core supporters of the Assad regime, are close to the Twelver Shi'ism of Iraq (and Iran), the Zainab shrine near Damascus is a major Shi'a pilgrimage centre, and there are close family ties between leading Shi'a religious families in Iraq, Lebanon, and Syria.  Iraqi militia are reported to have deployed to Syria in support of the regime, and Iraqi or Kurdish successes in northern Iraq will certainly be pursued into Syria – Iraq is not about to halt its campaign against ISIS at the border.

A deal – or even a stalemate – with ISIS is hard to envisage (one Syrian rebel leader observed “You can't talk to them; they take their orders from God”). If defeats continue, ISIS is likely to go the way of their Algerian equivalent, the GIA (or, for that matter, the several similar groups that arose in 17th-century Europe): splintering in defeat into deserters and die-hards.  It may be possible to broker an accord between Damascus and the rebel groups in southern Syria, and possibly even with the Nusra Front, along the lines of the resolution of the Algerian civil war.  For that to happen, first ISIS would need to be defeated, and then both the regime and the rebels convinced that a military solution is out of reach.  Both are some way off.

I used to work as an intelligence analyst, a profession notorious for hedging bets.  But, if I were pressed to give a definite forecast, I would say that ISIS is unlikely to hang on as an organised force for more than another two years, and the defeat of ISIS is a precondition for any resolution of the Syrian civil war.  That said, the defeat of ISIS is contingent on the coalition against them maintaining its present loose unity, and on the ability of the Damascus regime to avoid further major losses of territory.

One effect of the war is that whatever remained of the Shi'a tradition of political quietude has been largely abandoned.  While Khomeini's advocacy of a commanding political role for the clergy remains controversial, pretty much all the leading Shi'a figures advocate some form of political activism.  The days when the response to regime oppression was to don one's death shroud and wait are gone.  This in itself makes the outcome of the civil wars pivotal for the wider Muslim community.

-- Peter T.

Friday, October 23, 2015

Martin O'Malley & J.Q. Adams

Before the Oct. 13 Democratic presidential debate fades into memory or becomes, in campaign timeline terms, ancient history, I just want to mention that I was impressed, while watching the debate in a restaurant, to hear Martin O'Malley quote the John Quincy Adams line about America not going abroad in search of monsters to destroy.  On the one hand it's a quite well-known line in some circles, but on the other hand how likely is it that one would hear it in a presidential debate?  So props to O'Malley.  I'm still for Sanders and I think Clinton will probably wind up being the nominee, but anyway...

Thursday, October 22, 2015

Loomis's rant against economics

Erik Loomis has a post trashing economics, which he says is basically pure ideology.  (The post has attracted more than 200 comments, none of which I've read.  I read the LGM blog only sporadically.  In fact I often end up regretting having gone there at all.)

My two cents on this: Loomis is exaggerating. He's right that economics is not a value-free science, that data is/are not a freestanding avatar of The Truth.  He's right that "free-market fundamentalism" is harmful.  And I agree with him that "we have to find ways to improve the quality of lives of workers in the U.S. and overseas at the same time" (hard to disagree with that).  But to dismiss the entire field of economics as simply capitalist apologetics goes a bit too far.

My father was an economist (in the world outside the academy), and I grew up around economists.  I saw that Western economists in a developing country were people genuinely trying to help, even if in hindsight some of what they were doing might have been misguided.  Intentions don't excuse everything, but in this context they aren't irrelevant either.  Also, economists helped design the New Deal, no doubt a favorite era of Loomis's.  Hasn't he ever heard of Keynes and Keynes's American students and followers?

I took the intro-to-econ course in college and I've never regretted having done that.  I was reading Marx at the same time and it made for an interesting juxtaposition.  I'm not sure the intro-to-econ course taught me much I couldn't have picked up in some other way or that it was essential to reading articles on international political economy, which I had to do then and later, but I don't think it hurt.  It's fine to be skeptical of mainstream economics and keep a critical distance, but Loomis here, as I say, goes a bit too far.  YMMV.

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Sunday, October 18, 2015

A Palestinian state as absorber of anger

A Palestinian official on the radio today, when asked about the motives driving the latest wave of violence (including knife attacks on Israelis by a small number of Palestinians, followed by Israeli response), said the motives lay in 48 years of illegal occupation, coupled with feelings of hopelessness on the part of the younger generation.  The official compared this incipient 'third intifada' in that respect to the Arab Spring, and he compared Netanyahu to Mubarak.

Whatever one thinks of that suggested analogy or parallel, there is one obvious, glaring difference: the anger of the Egyptian protesters from 2011 on was directed at their own government, whereas that of Palestinians, as in the present moment, is directed outward, toward a government of occupation, a government not their own in any sense.  Hidden in this very obvious distinction is an implication one wonders whether Israel's leaders have ever fully grasped: namely, that once a sovereign Palestinian state is established, it would become the target at which its citizens would be most likely to direct whatever anger and frustration they might have about unfulfilled hopes or promises.  The longer that Israel continues the occupation, the longer the Palestinians exist in a basically stateless condition,  the longer it will be before there comes a time when Palestinians' anger is directed, in the first instance, where anger is typically first directed: i.e., at one's own government.

I wonder, in other words, whether Israeli leaders have ever taken an unabashedly pragmatic, self-interested view of a sovereign Palestinian state as an absorber of anger, which is what, among other things, it would be.  After an initial period of euphoria, once the state got down to the difficult business of governing and trying to improve its citizens' lives, it would become responsible or accountable in a way that the Palestinian Authority, despite its degree of autonomy in certain spheres, has never been.  This is presumably just one of several ways in which the establishment of a sovereign, universally recognized Palestinian state would benefit not only ordinary Palestinians (in psychic if not necessarily material terms), but also ordinary Israelis.

Added later: Lest the opening of this post give the wrong impression, I assure readers that I'm fully aware that (individual) Israelis have committed violent acts against (individual) Palestinians (including recently) and not just the other way around; on the level of individuals, the violence has flowed both ways, even while on the level of collectives it has been highly asymmetrical and unequal.  My basic position on the conflict should be fairly clear from previous posts; those readers in search of posts that consist solely of impassioned denunciations might be well advised to look elsewhere, since although I sometimes appreciate impassioned polemic, I don't do it all that often here.

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Deaton interview

This year's economics Nobelist, Angus Deaton, was interviewed a couple of days ago on the NewsHour. I was a bit bothered by his statement toward the end that "there’s been very little serious discussion [of inequality] until recently," which I think was, well, unhappily or unfortunately worded (trying to give him every benefit of the doubt here -- he probably meant a particular kind of serious discussion, but it came out as just a bald statement).  I also thought one of Judy Woodruff's questions was rather silly (n.b. I think she's generally a competent, hard-working journalist), but I won't waste time pointing out the question. (Or more precisely, I won't take the time to point it out.)

Monday, October 12, 2015

Conference note

This weekend I'm looking forward to attending the annual meeting of the Society for U.S. Intellectual History (S-USIH), being held this year in Wash. D.C.  Have no current plans to write about the conference on this blog, though I could change my mind about that.  The registration fees are quite reasonable; if interested in attending, follow the link at the end of this post.      

Sunday, October 11, 2015

Bernie and the Great Books

It occurred to me this morning that I didn't know very much about Bernie Sanders beyond a few basic facts, so I took a quick look at the main Wikipedia entry on him.  I learned from it, among other things, that he is a graduate of the Univ. of Chicago.  Does this mean that if he wins the presidency (which I rather hope he does) the Great Books will get a new lease on life, so to speak, in the U.S. education system? 

[Note to the humor-impaired: This post is intended to be humorous.]

Friday, October 9, 2015

Quote of the day: Hoffmann on Kissinger

From the late Stanley Hoffmann's Primacy or World Order (1978), p.70 (endnote omitted):
...[B]oth [Kissinger's] failures and his successes in the business of preserving American primacy show an obsession with stability, which puts him far closer to Metternich than to his own criticism of the Austrian statesman.... Détente and the new triangular relationship were supposedly to allow the United States to worry more about the designs of its equals than about the tantrums of the pygmies.  And yet, even after Vietnam, the United States, in "destabilizing" Allende's Chile and in trying to help its friends in Angola, in submitting to South Korea's corruption and espionage in the United States and to Marcos's blackmail over our bases in the Philippines, in supporting the colonels in Greece, and in sustaining the Republic of South Africa (indeed in using it as a lever in Rhodesia, while proclaiming that it "cannot be regarded as an illegitimate government"), showed that the old equation of stability, anti-Communism and pro-Americanism had survived intact.  Metternich's excuse was the fragility of his country, its desperate dependence on the status quo outside.  Is the social and political order of the United States equally brittle and tied to conservatism everywhere?
[Comments as always are welcome, but before commenting please note, for the sake of context, when this passage was published.  And obviously it was written earlier than the publication date.]

Wednesday, October 7, 2015


D. Nexon gave a talk yesterday at the U. of Ottawa on "International Hierarchy and Symbolic Capital: The Ming Treasure Fleets and the Apollo Missions." Description here.  

Tuesday, October 6, 2015

What have Russian and U.S. strikes been targeting in Syria?

These maps from NYT (including one showing which forces control which areas in Syria, based on data from the Carter Center) show the difference between Russian and U.S. air strikes in terms of who is being targeted.

Sunday, October 4, 2015

A matter of terminology

Discussing the response of "relatively conservative Americans" to the American Revolution, Henry F. May wrote (in The Enlightenment in America [1976], p.96, endnote omitted):
Conservatives had many qualms, but there was no Thermidor, still less an aristocratic and legitimist reaction like that of Europe in 1815.  There had never been a base for real aristocracy.  The colonial bourgeois elite was not destroyed, only divided and weakened.  Moreover, American conservatives were not romantic reactionaries, but Whigs and moderates.
The last sentence of this passage would seem to contradict Corey Robin's argument in The Reactionary Mind (2011, pb. ed. 2013) that conservative and reactionary are basically interchangeable categories.  But perhaps the difference here is less substantive than terminological.  According to Corey R., the "priority of conservative political argument has been the maintenance of private regimes of power -- even at the cost of the strength and integrity of the state" (p.15; italics added).  It is subordination and hierarchy "in the family, the factory, and the field" (p.15) -- more than in the polity -- that conservatives have been concerned above all to defend.  So if the "conservatives" in America in the 1780s were primarily concerned with 'order' in the public realm, then perhaps, in the framework of The  Reactionary Mind, they were not conservatives at all, but merely traditionalists (see ibid., pp.22-23).

Another point might be that if conservatism in its recognizably modern form(s) arose in response to the French Revolution (ibid., p.43), then, perhaps, no responses to the American Revolution should be classified as conservative.  (And didn't Burke himself favor independence for the American colonies?)

P.s. (added later): May, p.99, discussing the Constitutional Convention: "Most of the opposition to the adoption of the completed plan [i.e. the Constitution] reflected no fundamental difference of ideology.... It seems to me doubtful whether the Constitution could have been either framed or adopted if the Convention [of 1787] had been held only a few years later, when the Moderate Enlightenment had been challenged by a new kind of revolutionary ideology and most moderates had become reactionaries."