Martin van Creveld asks who will stop the Monster, the Islamic State?

Summary:  Today Martin van Creveld looks at the Islamic State. Are they ethnic militia unable to expand from their home zone, or a modern version of the Asiatic hordes? Who will stop them?  (1st of 2 posts today.}

Not how they see the Islamic State


The Monster

By Martin van Creveld
From his website, 13 August 2014

Here with his generous permission

The monster — the Sunni militias which, equipped by the Saudis with the active backing of the U.S, have been waging civil war in Syria for over three years — has risen against its benefactors. Unable to make headway against Syrian dictator Basher Assad, they have turned to the much softer target that once constituted Iraq but is now, thanks to George Bush Jr, no more than an awful mess. Doing so, they shed any “secular” and “liberal” character they may once had possessed. Instead they revealed their true colors as murderous bandits who wage war with a ferocity rare even among Arabs.

Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city and home to one of the world’s most important oil fields, has already fallen to them. As resistance seems to be crumbling, the capital, Baghdad, may well be next in line. Should that happen then the way to Basra and the Gulf countries in the south will be open. The outcome could well be another Afghanistan threatening to export terrorism, and perhaps more than just terrorism, both to the Gulf States in the south and to Jordan in the west — not to mention what may happen to the world’s economy should one of its main oil-exporting countries be knocked out.

And the West? Following more than a decade of warfare in Afghanistan and Iraq, its armed forces are exhausted and urgently in need of recuperation. Many of them have also been made the subject of endless cuts. As a result, their strength has been reduced to a fraction of what it used to be even as recently as the early 2000s. For some of them, the American ones in particular, new threats are looming in other parts of the world such as Southeast Asia. Perhaps most important of all, the politicians responsible for the wars in question have been largely discredited. Their successors, with President Barak Obama at their head, may engage in loose talk about the need to use force, as German President Joachim Gauk recently did. However, as President Obama has said, they will not spend any considerable resources to intervene in the ongoing struggle.

Nor, in truth, is there any reason to believe that, if Obama did respond to Iraqi Government pleas and did spend such resources, the outcome would be at all satisfactory.

Saladin (1137-1193).
ISIS isn’t Saladin (1137-1193).

True, an American aircraft carrier, the appropriately named GWHH Bush, is now cruising in the Gulf along with its various escorts. However, the number of attack aircraft it can launch is limited while the distances they will have to cover (first in one direction, then back) to hit the Jihadists in their present location is measured in several hundred miles. That fact would impose strict limits on the number of sorties that can be flown — probably not much more than one per aircraft per day on the average. Since the ISIS (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) fighters hardly do a regular army form, any eventual strikes will also be faced with a lack of targets.

The U.S armed forces might also resort to their favorite weapon, i.e. drones. Experience in Afghanistan and elsewhere has clearly shown that drones, which are relatively small, cheap and expendable, are better suited to combatting irregulars who do not have an air force of their own than manned aircraft are. But deploying any number of them in the theater and arranging suitable bases from which they can be operated, maintained and supplied will take time. Time that may not be available.

Under these circumstances, and barring some miracle, the only real hope of containing the ISIS rests with Iran. Compared with other interested countries, Iran enjoys the enormous advantage that it is right next door to the theater of war. Consequently, to intervene, it would not have to fly forces there from halfway across the world. It is also a Shi’ite country. Hopefully that gives it some interest in making sure the ISIS Sunnis do not gain the upper hand over their own coreligionists, who form the majority in Iraq; let alone unite Iraq with Syria so as to create, in time, a single powerful Arab state.

Clearly, though, Iran will not act as the West’s policeman in Iraq without extracting a price. Presumably that price will include

  • the relaxation, if not complete abolition, of economic sanctions; and
  • turning a blind eye to the continuation of Iran’s nuclear project.

Is the price worth paying and the risk — whose existence cannot be denied — worth taking? In the opinion of this author, the answer is yes. Perhaps an agreement can be reached that will allow Iran to pursue the project but neither test a bomb nor open declare it. For this the kind of agreement, U.S diplomacy over the last few decades provides several precedents.

ISIS execution 12 June 2014. AP photo.
ISIS execution 12 June 2014. AP photo.

Taking a wider view, how capricious, how full of surprises and hairpin corners, does life turn out to be!

During the days of the Shah (reigned 1953-78) the U.S considered Iran its strong arm in the Middle East, buying its oil and providing it with some of the most advanced weapons of the time. Following the Islamic Revolution Iran became part of the “axis of evil” whereas the Iranians on their part insisted that the US was “the big Satan” (the title, “little Satan” was reserved for Israel). Throughout the Iran-Iraq War of 1980-88 the U.S did whatever it could to support Iran’s enemies, even condoning Saddam Husein’s use of chemical warfare.

Now the tables have been turned again. Iran is good. whereas the Iraqi Sunnis — who President George Bush Jr. and his team hoped might follow up on the defeat of Saddam Hussein by building a modern, enlightened, even democratic Arab country in the Middle East — have become blacker than black.

As the saying goes, there is no end to illusions. And politics do strange bedfellows make.


Martin van Creveld

About the Author

Martin van Creveld is Professor Emeritus of History at Hebrew University of Jerusalem, and one of the world’s most renowned experts on military history and strategy.

The central role of Professor van Creveld in the development of theory about modern war is difficult to exaggerate. He has provided both the broad historical context — looking both forward and back in time — much of the analytical work, and a large share of the real work in publishing both academic and general interest books. He does not use the term 4GW, preferring to speak of “non-trinitarian” warfare — but his work is foundational for 4GW just the same.

Professor van Creveld has written 20 books, about almost every significant aspect of war. Some of the best known are Technology and War: From 2000 B.C. to the Present and  Nuclear Proliferation and the Future of Conflict. He’s written books about the technical aspects of war, such as Supplying War: Logistics from Wallenstein to Patton, Training of Officers: From Military Professionalism to Irrelevance, and Air Power and Maneuver Warfare.

He’s written controversial books, such as Fighting Power: German and U.S. Army Performance, 1939-1945 (German soldiers were better than our!) and Men, Women & War: Do Women Belong in the Front Line? He’s written some of the most influential books of our generation about war, such as The Transformation of War: The Most Radical Reinterpretation of Armed Conflict Since Clausewitz (which I consider the best work to date about modern war) and The Changing Face of War: Combat from the Marne to Iraq.

My favorite is The Culture of War. His magnum opus is the dense about mind-opening The Rise and Decline of the State – the ur-text describing the political order of the 21st century. For links to his articles see The Essential 4GW reading list: Martin van Creveld.

For More Information

If you liked this post, like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter. See all posts about Iran and about the Islamic State, especially…

The Culture of War
Available at Amazon.
Technology and War
Available at Amazon.

13 thoughts on “Martin van Creveld asks who will stop the Monster, the Islamic State?”

  1. As you note in this article, Martin van Crevald is an important historian and his role in identifying the major elements of 4GW cannot be denied.

    I am an American (which is a huge disadvantage when trying to understand Arab culture) who is not paid to think about ISIS (which may or may not be an advantage) but I find fault with this article. I believe that van Crevald makes unacceptable errors in his characterization of ISIS that leads to unacceptable errors in the rest of the article. I am going to offer my view of the organization based mostly on news sources and some analysis. A lot of what I have to say a rehash of standard 4GW doctrine, much of which was written by van Crevald, which makes this all the more annoying.

    ISIS is a successful 4GW organization, apparently partly funded by Saudi princes who may or may not be aligned with the Saudi government. It also has roots in the rather psychotic Al Qaida in Iraq movement (which advocated extreme violence against nearly everybody) but has outgrown the more anarchic elements and now advocates a more targeted use of extreme violence to achieve political goals.

    ISIS does not have a standard military force, it uses what the media calls heavily-armed fighters who use the standard AK-47, RPG, mortars, and improvised weapons platforms that have been seen since the Toyota Wars in Chad in the 1980’s. The strength of these troops is not their ability to fight but their ability to blend in with the population, to gather information and recruits without the occupying power noticing, and to strike unexpectedly. Its supporters among the local population are the key to its success.

    This means that ISIS efforts to capture Fallujah had a high likelihood of success but to capture nearby Bagdad have a low chance of success because there are not a lot Sunni Arabs left in Bagdad and they mostly stay away from the centers of political and economic power because of past Shiite purges (which are part of what formed ISIS in the first place).

    There is no chance of ISIS getting to Basra because there is no Sunni Arab population in the area. Similarly, the Kurds have been successful against the ISIS primarily when ISIS attempts to extend itself into area where Sunni Arabs are a thin minority. Likewise Kurdish successes have been limited when the local population has a higher percentage of Sunni Arabs.

    The doctrine of ISIS appeals to people who feel oppressed by their government, live in anarchy, or are ruled by a non-Sunni Arab government (like Syria’s Assad). This means that the most effective way to counter the organization is for the government to treat its people well and so far this has been born out by the fact that we have seen very little in the way of ISIS attacks in Jordan, Saudi Arabia, or in Kuwait.

    Iran is a powerful state but had very little success against ISIS in Tikrit (which was captured from ISIS with overwhelming numbers and lots of artillery support). The violence inflicted on Tikrit by Shiite Arabs and Persians probably did ISIS more good than harm and it is likely that ISIS will recapture the city if the Shiites ever relax their grip on the town.

    Other than possibly finishing the take-down of Assad and capturing Damascus, ISIS has probably reached the outer extent of its power. Its actions alienate populations of Sunni Arabs who live in less frustrating and chaotic environments so the way to limit ISIS is to not attack it any more, to treat your Sunni Arab populations well, and to let non-ISIS sponsored violence in the region die out. This will force ISIS to either govern effectively (which will be a lot harder after some of the things they have done to the local population) or attack areas with large numbers of non-supporters, which would be ineffective and waste its political capital among the people under its dominion.

    Van Crevald probably wanted to unify Iran and the US in this article against a common enemy that is not Israel. I’m in favor of Iran and the US having closer relations but having them attack ISIS to do this would cause more harm than good.

    1. Pluto,

      You in effect ask the question I gave in the Summary: “Are they ethnic militia unable to expand from their home zone, or a modern version of the Asiatic hordes? Who will stop them?” I agree with you. They’re powerful in their ethnic base, but unable to expand beyond it. Many others disagree. Time will tell who is correct.

    2. Duncan Kinder

      While ISIS probably cannot make much more headway in northern Iraq and Syria, it has a demonstrated capacity to leapfrog at least to Libya and probably elsewhere.

      Which means that even if we adopt van Creveld’s stratey, which I strongly support, ISIS would probably be able to make a Long March to Libya.

      Even if ISIS were ultlimately to be defeated, it has demonstrated the concept of a guerilla/quasi-guerrilla challenge to Western-backed armies. This will inspire subsequent challenges.

      1. Duncan,

        I’ll take the other side of that. This is similar to the stories about the fantastic growth in reach and power of al Qaeda — when nationalist insurgent groups adopted the aQ “brand name”. Our war-mongers went nuts with each new announcement. Credulous journalists ran scary maps. All those big AQ groups gone with last year’s snow.

        Color me skeptical that ISIS is in Libya in any substantive fashion.

  2. Unless ISIS has conquered a resource base big enough to make it self supporting it seems to me the best way to attack it is through its logistic and financial support system, which I suspect, comes form outside of ISIS’ area of operations. There seems to be a lot of money behind these guys. Find those sources and shut them off. ISIS will sputter to a crawl. Looting and bake sales will then reduce them to a local problem.

    As was observed in an earlier article, amateurs talk tactics, professionals talk logistics.

    1. Bergemot,

      I agree fully. Rumors are that, like al Qaeda, much of their funding comes from the Saudi and Gulf princes. On the other hand, I am skeptical that much money is required to start an insurgency in war zones like Iraq or Syria.

      But — while foreign sources might have provided the seed money, reports say that ISIS has created the key component of a State: a tax collection system. While probably doesn’t fund expansion, it might provide sufficient funds to stay in business. Especially with the US providing the expensive equipment with which to fight.

  3. “has created the key component of a State: a tax collection system”

    Anyone can collect taxes with a gun.In my humble mind the key component of a state is to provide services.If ISIS can’t provide electricity and water and other services,which they are not in Rakka then they will quickly wear out their welcome and their tax base as people flee and find other methods of bypassing them.

    1. Elle,

      “Collecting taxes with a gun”

      That’s theft, which is neither effective or sustainable. Collecting taxes, in a political sense. means levying laws which a majority of people consider legitimate (even if they disagree with the law or even dislike the regime).

  4. “Collecting taxes with a gun”

    “That’s thef, which is neither effective or sustainable”

    I agree. Are you suggesting that ISIS has in fact established a legitimate government that provides services? I was unaware of that. Are those living under ISIS happy with their new government?

    1. Mistresselle,

      (1) “a legitimate government”

      Legitimacy has a specific meaning in political science, referring to characteristics such as…

      • Control of armed forces, or even monopoly of armed force in its borders.
      • The ability to levy and collect taxes.
      • An administrative mechanism to execute its policies.
      • Territory in which it is the dominant political entity.
      • Control of borders.
      • Legitimacy (not love) in the eyes of its people.

      ISIS has most of those things at present. Given its young age and numerous foes, we can only guess at its future. In international relations Legitimacy comes from recognition by foreign governments. China after the revolution that came gradually over 20+ years, during which it strongly had all of the above characteristics.

      (2) “happy with their new government”

      I doubt we have any reliable data on that. Are American’s “happy” with their govt? Gallup’s Confidence in Institutions poll shows astonishingly low levels for the Republic’s institutions — excerpt for the military and police (which is even more disturbing). A poll in the Islamic State might give it higher scores. These matters are complex. They appear simple only on the front pages of newspapers and in the history books.

    2. “legitimate” is kind of a loaded term, and happy, well, who knows, but ISIS had reopened schools. Google this, it’s pretty widely reported. They are turning into a government of sorts, kind of a Taliban 2.0. Maybe we could learn a little ourselves, the end consequences of ‘lesser-evil’ism. That is many have been stuck between secular militias and ISIS, since America’s disastrous invasion of Iraq.

      1. Cathryn,

        Yes, the US media has a blackout on actual events in the Islamic State other than executions and battles. They are providing a wide range of social services, in addition to enforcing a harshly puritanical version of Islam. Reliable polls are impossible, but would be interesting to see.

  5. Things may have changed now, but back in 06-07, schools still got funded in AQI areas by Baghdad. Even though the government blocked salaries and services to Sunnis, the schools stayed funded.

    Always thought that was odd. Same situation could be happening now in ISIS controlled areas.

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