Martin van Creveld says: To understand ISIS, see its history

Summary:  To gain a perspective to understand the Islamic State, Martin van Creveld looks at the history of the Middle East for its origins. Although written last year it remains as apt today as then (despite the monthly clickbait announcements of turning points in this war).

Van Gogh sees the history of the Middle East

Van Gogh's Wheatfield (1890)
Van Gogh’s Wheatfield (1890).

The Monster II

By Martin van Creveld
From his website, 24 September 2014
Here with his generous permission

What went wrong? A brief history of the Arab world.

During the middle ages the Arabs developed a brilliant civilization, or so we are told. Next, at some time during the fifteenth century, things began going wrong. The Arabs missed the invention of print (only in 1775 did the Ottomans, who at that time ruled over most Arabs, allow the first printing shop to be established. They missed humanism, the Renaissance, and the Reformation. They missed the Scientific Revolution and the Enlightenment. They missed the French and American Revolutions along with the principles of democracy and human rights; and they also missed the industrial revolution.

As so often, backwardness meant military weakness and invited invasion. By 1919 there was not one Arab country left that was not under European occupation with all the attendant bloodshed, destruction, and humiliation.

The process of liberation started in the 1930s and lasted into the 1960s. Many of the regimes that now took power were republican and secular. They promised to catch up with the modern world, usually by adopting some version of “Arab socialism.” Algeria, Tunisia, Libya (after 1969), Egypt, Syria and Iraq all took this approach.


The situation in the monarchies (Morocco, Saudi, Arabia, Jordan, and the Gulf countries) was more problematic. The need to assert themselves in the world drove them, too, toward modernization. However, they were less able to cut loose from their traditions, since doing so would compromise the basis on which their regimes were built.

In our time

Either way, modernization failed. To this day there is no Arab Hyundai, no Arab Toyota or Alibaba. The reasons for this — political instability, extreme poverty, or the kind of oil-based riches that makes it easier to import whatever is needed rather than produce it locally — vary. With the failure to modernize the economy came the kind of regime in which corruption is an integral part of government. The rule of law is unknown, the secret police commits any crime it wants, and whatever elections are held are a farce. Not even the much overrated “Arab Spring” has changed these facts.

Some Arab leaders, notably the Saudis, distinguished themselves by their conservatism and bigotry. Others, notably Libya’s Muammar Khadafy, mixed their brutish despotism with a kind of clownishness. The Arab states’ attempts to assert themselves by force of arms were regularly defeated by Israel, which most Arabs see as a Western stooge, and by the West itself, as in 1991. By the turn of the millennium, so bad had things become that prefacing anything with the word “Arab” automatically marked it as second, third and even fourth rate. The only exception, apparently, is being an “Arab” horse.

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

The rise of the Islamic State

It was against this background that Daesh, IS as it is known in the West, emerged. The organization originated in Iraq during the U.S occupation when Sunni groups, resenting the loss of the privileges they had enjoyed under Saddam Hussein, broke away from Al Qaeda and started fighting both the Americans and the Shiite majority. From there it spread into Syria where civil war broke out in 2011 and where it joined other militias fighting the regime of Basher Assad before again turning its attention to Iraq.

It feeds on a century of near constant humiliation both at the hands of foreigners and at those of various Arab rulers. That accounts for its evident ability to attract volunteers from practically all Arab countries as well as the Arab minorities in the West.

Some of these people are highly educated. Yet they do not condemn the atrocities for which Daesh has become infamous. To the contrary, they see them as one more reason why it deserves their support. Here, they feel, is one organization prepared to adopt real Islam. It will burn its bridges and go to the end of the world fighting both the hated, corrupt Arab governments — whether republican or monarchical — and the overbearing West.

The position of the Arab governments is more problematic. Syria and Iraq barely have any governments left. The rulers of the Gulf States, Qatar in particular, dislike Daesh but are trying to buy them off. The Hashemite monarchy stands in mortal fear of it, and with good reason. Egypt’s military rulers, seeing links between Daesh and the Islamic opposition to their regimes, share the same attitude.

Most interesting is the position of the Saudis. A reborn Caliphate is hardly in the interest of the Saudi royal house whose ancestors used to be governed, albeit very loosely, by the Caliphs in Constantinople. They also dislike the atrocities which are giving Sharia a bad name in the U.S whose support they need against Iran and, perhaps one day, their own people. Yet some Saudis see a parallel between Daesh and themselves before, following the discovery of oil, they were subjected to Western influences. Should the house founded by Ibn Saud during the 1930s be overthrown, this view may well prevail.

Thus the entire, geo-politically critically important, area from the Mediterranean coast and the Persian Gulf stands in danger of being engulfed by a whole series of interrelated wars. So far Sunnis, Shiites, and, here and there, the small Christian minority in the various countries have done the bulk of the killing and the dying. Outside powers are, however, taking a hand. Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Iran are all more or less heavily involved. So are Jordan, Israel, and Lebanon. As so often the U.S plays, or is trying to play, a critical role. It is mobilizing a broad coalition of allies — including several Arab ones — and bombing, or threatening to bomb, everything in sight.

Islamic sky
Hope for the future.

And the outcome?

Nobody knows. Daesh may or may not defeat Assad and set up some other government in Syria. It may or may not succeed in overrunning Iraq. Jordan, Israel and Lebanon may or may not become even more heavily involved than they already are. Ditto in respect to the Saudis, the Gulf States, the Turks and the Iranians. All we know is that Daesh is but one of several similar and competing organizations all of which want to establish a new Caliphate. It can also be safely said that air strikes will do little to contain the fighting. The one certainty is that a great many people will die and whatever political order exists will be destroyed before another can take its place, if it can.

As the process unfolds, far from giving birth to a new pan-Arab politico-religious order, it may well bring about the Arab world’s terminal decline. The question is, will we allow them to take the rest of us down with them?


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 Islam, about the Islamic State, and especially these…

Changing Face of War
Available at Amazon.
Men, Women & War
Available at Amazon.

32 thoughts on “Martin van Creveld says: To understand ISIS, see its history”

  1. ‘The question is, will we allow them to take the rest of us down with them?’

    I hope not. Article is spot on.

  2. “It can also be safely said that air strikes will do little to contain the fighting.”

    How can this be? Doesn’t absolute air supremacy give an absolute advantage to the side which possesses it? Isn’t this especially true in the desert which offers no hiding place? If Daesh wants to go beyond guerilla warfare to the stage of conquering and holding cities, mustn’t they mass forces? And aren’t those massed forces vulnerable to air attack?

    It is not that air strikes will do little – it is that air strikes have been employed only grudgingly and symbolically.

    Why? Two reasons: 1) American policy is designed to avoid military crises until after the end of the current administration; and 2) American policy, now that the goal of democratization has failed, is designed only to avoid the clearcut victory of any side in the Arab wars of all against all.

    1. Lewis,

      “Doesn’t absolute air supremacy give an absolute advantage to the side which possesses it?”

      Not in 4th generation war. Foreign armies have fought scores of wars since WWII with local insurgents. In every one they had total air supremacy. They lost almost every one (i.e., those in which they were the primary force).

    2. “Isn’t this especially true in the desert which offers no hiding place?”

      The Brits tried this strategy in the 1920’s in Iraq, and it failed. There are many hiding places in the desert, and cover and concealment is easy to find among the people.

  3. Just as with the Crips and the Bloods it’s always about respect. Better to rule in hell than to serve in heaven. We Americans are pathetic in the area of showing respect for anyone, then wonder at the hurricane force reaction. Maybe our next president should have some gang violence experience.

  4. This is from the movie version…

    T.E. Lawrence: We do not work this thing for Feisal.
    Auda abu Tayi: No? For the English, then?
    T.E. Lawrence: For the Arabs.
    Auda abu Tayi: The Arabs? The Howitat, Ajili, Rala, Beni Saha; these I know, I have even heard of the Harif, but the Arabs? What tribe is that?

    Arabic is a language, and Arabs are a people who speak the dialects. I know this is from the movie, but still, I think it makes the point — why has this character never heard of ‘the Arabs?’ It is because the idea of an Arab nation is a modern thing. It’s the same with Finland, really, there have always been speakers of Finnic languages, going back a thousands of years, but the Finnish state, it’s a modern invention.

    I think this ‘Arab timeline’ is largely reconstructed after the fact, and kind of reeks of ‘why XXX people are inferior’ kind of orientalism. That the Turkish caliphate was united based on a common religion, not a common language. The language difference were always there, but really what went wrong those days was more about the Turks than Arabs. Arabs speakers were a willing part of that empire much of the time, but tying this into some kind of great decline of Arabs is kind of weird.

    1. Cathryn,

      I do not understand your comment.

      Yes, this timeline is an “after the fact reconstruction”. Is there any other kind?

      No. The idea of a united Arab people is an ancient idea, despite what you see in a movie. It is a hoped-for return to the days of the original Caliphate, under the Rashidun caliphs — chosen by shura.

      The equivalent desire for European unification has roots in Rome, Charlesmagne, and the Holy Roman Empire.

      As for whether it is accurate, no summary of a people’s history can be done in a few hundred words. But like it or not, this is factually accurate.

      1. Cathryn,

        You are thinking too narrowly. The desire for unification is deeper and older than the ideology used at any moment to justify it.

        In the 1940s and 1950s it was ethnic spirit and anti-colonialism. In the 1960s and 1970s it was nationalism and socialism. Now it is Islam. The forms change, but the underlying desire remains.

        Eventually, perhaps, they will find a formula that works.

  5. I think that sheer geography and natural resources play a role. The “Near East” was too near he imperialist powers. E.g. Mohammad Ali’s development project in Egypt ran into the British and French. Japan was fortunate in having no natural resources and was mostly left alone. (Asimov set his First Foundation on a planet with few resources.)

  6. What Has Not Changed” by Martin van Creveld, 2 July 2015. Opening:

    Currently I am reading Maps of Time: An Introduction to Big History (2005) by David Christian and William H. McNeill. It traces the evolution of the world from the big bang to the moment in which we humans find ourselves today. One of quite a number of recent books of the same kind, and not the worst of the lot.

    It made me think. A higher compliment no book can get or should get. However, seen from the authors’ point of view, it made me think about the wrong things. Perhaps that is another compliment to their work. I did not think about how we changed and why we changed and how else we might have changed and where change is taking us a d whether change is good or bad. But about all the ways in which we did not change. In other words, what it means to be human.
    Homo Sapiens (skull & lower jaw). …

    1. Normandy,

      This is a useful and apt essay; thank you for posting it. However, please don’t post 1100 word essays here. Just post a citation and why you think people should read it, perhaps a brief excerpt. It’s not polite to the other website and likely violates copyrights.

  7. It is important to note that one of the most distinguishing features of Sunni And Shiite
    Islam is this: Sunnis use Shura consultation (listening to the people). Shiites derive their instructions directly from god (F**k people)

  8. “Namely, Americans have historically prefered “Arabs” that do not listen to the Shura”

    Why?? because its more convenient to their interests, or so they perceive it.

  9. In so far as the picture in this post, I love it. it shows 3 terrestial ways, left center and right, and birds over this terrestial ways, mostly taking a direction and sense, between center and right.

    It also shows there are two moons , the biggest one in the center, the other one to the left

  10. Pingback: News Highlights – July 13, 2015 | Blog

  11. What’s the relevance of saying the old caliphate used to govern the Saudis? It might be a better analysis to point out that they control the holy cities and that’s about it of interest to DAESH (an acronym, right?). The old caliphates controlled the holy cities, but it’s entirely reasonable to think that DAESH and the Saudis could come to some sort of agreement regarding pilgrimages, etc…, at least in the short-term. There’s not much to the House of Saud other than oil, holy cities, and explicit US support. They enjoy logistical advantages – maybe it’s better to say that DAESH would have logistical disadvantages in trying to control the center of the peninsula.

    I can’t help but think that DAESH is the fruition of our sins sown on fertile Sunni land. Regardless, they are still surrounded by some powerful enemies – Turkey, Israel, Iran. This is truly an international problem given the number of countries affected and the importance of the middle east. I favor a strong UN presence (even a military campaign), but with minimal US involvement as we are tainted with our past aggressions. Let the main stakeholders deal with this under while under UN ‘control’, e.g. Turkey, Egypt, Russia, Iran…

    1. Jason,

      “What’s the relevance of saying the old caliphate used to govern the Saudis?”

      It’s helpful to reply to quotes so readers know to what you are referring to. If you refer to my comment about dreams of unification —

      (a) I was referring to the Arab people, not just the Saudi tribes.

      (b) Are you kidding? Dreams of restoring the past are a powerful force in history. In China people dreams of again becoming the Middle Kingdom. The Arabs dream of restoring past glories of their days under the Caliphs. Europeans dream of unification, restoring the glories of Rome, of Charlesmagne, and the Emperior — it is as powerful today as it was for Napoleon.

    2. Fabius – I kid often, but not this time. Dreams are tempered by reality. DAESH has shown itself to be politically astute. And besides, the old caliphate(s) never properly governed the Sauds – you can’t but loosely govern wandering goatherds.

    3. Fabius – I’m not trying to be cryptic. I was just responding to the article with the assumption that your readers had read it. That’s why I don’t include quotes from the article – it’s just clumsy.

      The article discusses historical conditions and so I addressed this re the house of Saud; namely, I wrote that Mr. van Crevald provided an irrelevant (and mostly incorrect) statement about the Saudis, namely that they were part of the caliphate – which they were in only the loosest sense possible and they were of no importance back then other than a pain in the side of the Hashemites in the Hejaz.

      The article also discusses future possibility and so I addressed this re that the Saudis presently play an important role in the area, but primarily because they control the holy places, which are crucial to a caliphate, but aren’t crucial for administrative control. If DAESH could come to an agreement with the Saudis for de-facto shared control of the holy places, then DAESH doesn’t have to focus on Saudi Arabia… Under this scenario, the only political liability for DAESH is that they can’t be seen to be cozy with the Sauds since they are soft, corrupt and a Western creation.

      Mr. van Crevald then discusses the other ‘players’ in the area (theater – in the military sense), their roles and possible outcomes. I gave my two cents along those same lines. That’s where I’m coming from…


      1. Jason,

        “I wrote that Mr. van Crevald provided an irrelevant (and mostly incorrect) statement about the Saudis, namely that they were part of the caliphate”
        Where does he say that?

        “I addressed this re that the Saudis presently play an important role in the area, but primarily because they control the holy places”

        I would like to see an expert comment on that. My guess would be that their money is as large or a larger factor.

  12. Given such high casualty rates of ISIS and organizations like it in 4th generation warfare. I mean kill ratios where 10 of them die for every man/woman of the opposition forces. How would they not eventually run out of men?

      1. infowar,

        Kill ratios are not meaningful unless you know the kill numbers as a percent of the population. These kind of wars were long called “low intensity conflicts” because the kill numbers/population were low compared to more conventional wars (e.g., the Congo, the Hundred Years War, WWII).

        Also, kill ratios that would horrify you or I are acceptable to the leaders who win 4GWs — almost always at horrific cost to their people. Consider an example. In November 1965 at Ia Drang the armies of North Vietnam and America fought their first major battle. These quotes are from one of the great works about the Vietnam War: We Were Soldiers Once… and Young,\ by Harold G. Moore (Lt. General, US Army, retired) and Joseph L. Galloway. During those four days 234 American men died. “That is more Americans than were killed in any regiment, North or South, at he Battle of Gettysburg, and far more than were killed in combat in the entire Persian Gulf War.” Both sides drew optimistic conclusions from the result.

        “In Saigon, the American commander in Vietnam, Gen William C. Westmoreland, and his principal deputy, Gen William DePuy, look at the statistics of the 34-day Ia Drang campaign … and saw a kill ratio of 12 North Vietnamese to one America. What that said … was that they could bleed the enemy to death over the long haul, with a strategy of attrition. …

        “In Hanoi, President Ho Chi Ming and his lieutenants considered the outcome in the Ia Drang and were serenely confident. Their peasant soldiers had withstood the terrible high-tech fire storm delivered against them by a superpower and had at least fought the Americas to a draw. By their yardstick, a draw against such a powerful opponent was the equivalent of a victory. In time, they were certain, the patience and perseverance that had worn down the French colonialists would also wear down the Americans.”

  13. A thought experiment if you will. If Nazism is waged in a 4GW way from its inception what form would it take? What would happen if it bumped up against the USSR?

    1. infowar,

      Great question. It’s not something I’ve seen discussed. How does 4GW work for States, especially by aggressor in State to State conflict? My guess is “not at all”. Just like 3GW and 2GW and 1GW. State to state among great powers has been a losing proposition in the west since Westphalia (1648). But some people just don’t learn.

  14. The rule of law is unknown, the secret police commits any crime it wants, and whatever elections are held are a farce.

    Good news! The Arab countries are just like America!

    1. Thomas,

      That is funny, but a bit exaggerated. Magnitudes matter.

      “elections held are a farce”

      That’s like saying the lottery is a farce because I never win. But then I never buy a ticket. If we worked the electoral machinery, instead of treating it as a reality TV show, we might find it works for us too.

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