“It is perfectly true, as the philosophers say, that life must be understood backwards. But they forget the other proposition: that it must be lived forwards.” This observation was made in 1843 by the Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard in a journal entry, but it might have been written about the contemporary Middle East.
We have been living the Islamic State forwards, surprised at every turn, but we can perhaps begin to understand it backwards. Although ISIS took most of the world by surprise when it swept into the Iraqi city of Mosul in June 2014, the group and its forebears had been proclaiming their goals for a decade. Like many consequential events, this one didn’t sneak up on policymakers; they simply didn’t see what was taking shape in front of them. ISIS told us exactly what it was going to do, and then did it. This was a secret conspiracy hiding in plain sight.
ISIS is mysterious in part because it is so many things at once. It combines Islamic piety and reverence for the prophet and his companions with the most modern social-media platforms and encryption schemes; its videos blend the raw pornographic violence of a snuff film with the pious chanting of religious warriors; the group has the discipline of a prison gang (many of its recruits were indeed drawn from U.S.-organized prisons in Iraq), but also the tactical subtlety and capacity for deception of the most skilled members of Saddam Hussein’s intelligence services, who were also pulled into the ISIS net. It appears less brittle than al-Qaeda because its members care less about religious doctrine and organizational hierarchy. As has been said of the Episcopal Church (forgive the comparison), ISIS is solid at the core but loose at the edges.
What is ravaging the Middle East right now is obviously deeper than ISIS. It has become commonplace over the last year to observe that we are witnessing the collapse of the post-Ottoman order—that the “lines in the sand” conjured in 1916 by the British and French diplomats Mark Sykes and François Georges-Picot are being blown to dust. But we haven’t reckoned with how the insurgents perceive that process. ISIS has religious, psychological, and technological faces. But in some fundamental respects it is an anti-colonial movement that takes as its reference point Islam’s pre-colonial conception of power—an Islamic state, a Sunni caliphate. Even if ISIS is crushed, this idea of “our caliphate” is likely to persist, and return.
The story of ISIS teaches the same basic lesson that emerged from America’s other failures in the Middle East over the last decade: Attempts by the United States or Islamist rebels to topple authoritarian regimes—in Iraq, Libya, and now Syria—create power vacuums. This empty political space will be filled by extremists unless the United States and its allies build strong local forces that can suppress terrorist groups and warlords both. When the U.S. creates such local forces, it must be persistent. If it withdraws from these efforts, as America did in Iraq in 2011, it invites mayhem. Halfway American intervention has produced nothing but trouble. Rebels have gotten enough support to continue fighting, but not enough to win.
History teaches that such wars end through a combination of the exhaustion of local combatants and an agreement among major regional and international powers on a formula to curtail the fighting and rebuild some governance. Usually the settlement ratifies the informal cantonal boundaries that have emerged during the fighting, so that each sect has what amounts to a “safe zone” in a decentralized state that functions under the umbrella of the old nation. That’s what happened in Lebanon with the Taif Agreement in 1989, and it’s probably the best that can be hoped for in Iraq and Syria. To reduce human suffering on the way to such a new equilibrium, it’s important, where possible, to back moderate forces as they create the safe zones that will eventually form the pieces of the new federal state—and that provide platforms for attacking extremist groups. Middle Eastern wars rarely end with outright victory and permanent stability, so the word “settlement” may promise too much. At best, for many years, it may simply mean stable ceasefire lines, reduced bloodshed, fewer refugees, and less terrorism.