The Islamic Vortex (Note-3a)
This blog has doubtless generated rafts of unreliable predictions. The one that has been nagging, however — ever since Scott Alexander called me out on it in the comment thread there — was advanced in the most recent sub-episode of this series. Quote: “Baghdad will almost certainly have fallen by the end of the year, or early next.” Even if the time horizon for this event is stretched out to the end of March 2015, I have very low confidence in it being realized. The analysis upon which it was based was crucially flawed. I’m getting my crow-eating in early (and even if — by some improbably twist of fortune — ISIS is in control of Baghdad by late March next year, it won’t be any kind of vindication for the narrative I was previously spinning.)
Where did I go wrong (in my own eyes)? Fundamentally, by hugely over-estimating the intelligence of ISIS. The collapse of this inflated opinion is captured by a single word: Kurds.
Just a few months ago, ISIS enjoyed a strategic situation of extraordinary potential. It represented the most militant — and thus authentic — strain of Arab Sunni Jihad, ensuring exceptional morale, flows of volunteers from across the Sunni Muslim world, and funding from the gulf oil-states, based upon impregnable legitimacy. It was able to recruit freely from the only constituency within Iraq with any military competence — the embittered remnants of Saddam’s armed forces, recycled through the insurgency against the American occupation, and then profoundly alienated by the sectarian politics of the new Shia regime. It was also able to draw upon a large, fanatically motivated, Syrian Sunni population, brutalized and hardened by the war against the (Alawite, or quasi-Shia) Assad regime in that country. Both enemy states were radically anathematized throughout the Sunni world, deeply demoralized, incompetent, and patently incapable of asserting their authority throughout their respective countries. In consequence, a re-integrated insurgent Sunni Mesopotamia had arisen, with such historical momentum that it served as a concrete source of inspiration for energetic holy war, and a natural base for the eschatalogically-promised reborn Caliphate.
The wider environment was more complicated, but also highly encouraging. The Jihadi legitimacy of ISIS made opposition from the Sunni Arab states to the south (Jordan, Saudi Arabia) unthinkable. That left four major sources of substantial hostile intervention: Israel, the United States, Turkey, and Iran. Taking these in turn:
(1) Israel, by all game-theoretic sanity, was a de facto ally. Perhaps it is. It had no intelligible motive for intervention, and were it to do so the legitimacy of ISIS would be immediately elevated to stratospheric levels. Baghdad or Damascus regimes dependent upon Israeli support would be obviously politically unsustainable. (Israeli war against ISIS puts it in objective collaboration with Iran — which isn’t going to happen.)
(2) The USA was burnt out, directionless, strategically-conflicted to the point of psychosis, and politically-toxic to near-Israeli levels. Relevant at this point only as a Jihadi recruiting tool.
(3) As a NATO member, Turkey completes the troika of Westernized states, whose intervention would naturally tend to reinforce a clash-of-civilizations escalation, to the extreme medium-term advantage of ISIS. While a Sunni state, it is not Arab, and would quickly generate extraordinary ethnic animosity. With Turks having lost the previous Caliphate, there is no imaginable circumstances in which the Sunni Muslim world would entertain the prospect of them leading — or even seriously interfering with — the next one. Turkish intervention might no doubt slow things down, but it could not conceivably stabilize the situation in Mesopotamia. The effect would be to rapidly expand the conflict into Turkey itself, and even into Turkic Central Asia. There is no reason to think Turkish popular opinion would support a strategically pointless, bloody war in the south. (We will get to the critical Kurdish factor in a moment.)
(4) From a strictly military point of view, Iran possesses a mixture of capability and commitment that makes it a uniquely formidable opponent, but here the political calculus is also at its starkest. From the moment it intervenes, the Sunni-Shia sectarian character of the war is consolidated, and generalized, into a truly global, climactic struggle between the two dominant branches of the Muslim faith. From a local (Mesopotamian) uprising, ISIS’s war would be transformed immediately into an apocalyptic religious event, setting the world to the torch. Jihadi recruitment and funding would become a worldwide deluge. For the Iranians, there is no imaginable end-point to this, short of an absolute resolution at the level of eschatology, or revolutionary world-transformation. ISIS has the base-brain juice for that, does Teheran?
… but then we get to the Kurds. Of course ISIS should have courted them, anything else is utter madness. While not Arabs, they’re Sunni. They already hate the Baghdad regime, and long for secession. They’re more than willing to be persuaded to fight Turks, Persians, or (Alawite) Syrians, if the need arises. Played with even a minimum of intelligence, the Kurds would have provided a wedge to break Iraq apart definitively, distract the (Baghdad) regime, strip it of oil revenues, keep the Turks and Iranians nervous, and even provide various kinds of active support as they saw their long-held dreams of an independent Kurdistan arising and beckoning like a tantalizing jinn at the edge of the new Jihadi Caliphate. It’s the ultimate no-brainer.
Instead, ISIS threw everything away fighting the Kurds. It’s an organization of idiots, and a whole bunch of its fighters are now pointlessly dead idiots. No Baghdad-by-early-2015 for you losers. I’m embarrassed to have been drawn out of my dismissive contempt.