When a radical revolutionary group with a threatening ideology seized a strategically important region, a war-weary United States agreed to limited participation in an allied effort to dislodge the radicals and recover the lost territory, providing several thousand troops and supplies. British, Canadian, Australian, French and Japanese troops joined the effort, as did smaller forces from Italy, Poland, Greece, and other nations neighboring the lost region. But after five years of fighting, the cause was lost, and the radicals consolidated their control and posed a threat to Western interests for most of the following seventy years.
The years were 1918-22, the territory was the Russian Empire, and the revolutionary group was the Bolshevik (later Communist) Party. Although the Bolsheviks seemed near exhaustion from fighting their own civil war against Russian conservative forces, while the allied forces had just emerged from triumph in World War I, it was the Bolsheviks who triumphed. They won because of their far greater determination and cohesion and ideological support against allies forces that were hamstrung by divided objectives, little desire to continue fighting after years of draining war, and lack of public support at home.
The situation in the fight against the Islamic State (IS) in the Middle East today is remarkably similar. While forces in the front-line countries of Syria and Iraq may be capable of defending rumps of their territory, and trading tactical wins and losses with IS, they are in no way capable of mounting the major sustained offensive operations that would be necessary to completely defeat IS and recover the territories this radical group has taken over. For that, an allied force including the United States, Turkey, Iran and other more powerful nations – including European countries and the Gulf nations – is needed. Only a multi-pronged offensive effort with strong air and ground forces in coordination, likely drawing on Iraqi forces backed by Iranian arms, troops, and expertise from the east, Kurdish forces backed by Turkish arms, troops, and expertise from the north, and Sunni Syrian forces backed by Gulf money and armaments from the west, can grind down the resourceful and well-equipped forces of IS.
Yet the prospects for such a coalition to act remain dim. The U.S. and its European allies are exhausted from the long wars in Iraq and Afghanistan; already suffering from long recessions and vast spending on overseas military expeditions, their publics show little enthusiasm for a renewed fight in the Middle East, even against an enemy as frightful as IS. Moreover, as in 1918, the key allies are divided on their objectives: Iran will only support a campaign against ISIS that promises to maintain Syria’s leader Bashar al-Assad’s authority; Turkey and Saudi Arabia will only support a campaign that promises to remove Assad from power. The United States has therefore tried to mount a campaign against IS with no explicit strategy for Assad’s future. But the result has only been to gain tepid support from any key potential allies. Disagreements over Syria strategy do not end there, but as the sudden resignation of US secretary of state Chuck Hagel suggests, extend deep within America’s leadership.
By contrast, support for IS is growing both locally and internationally. Just as the Bolsheviks used the fact of western intervention in Russia’s revolution to argue that their enemies were backed by Western capital bent on exploiting hapless Russians, so ISIS argues to Sunnis in Syria and Iraq and across the world that Western infidels are trying to undermine and oppress their religion. Not only have Sunni populations in Iraq and Syria — who have been shunted out of power by Shi’a leaders in those countries – enthusiastically rallied to IS’s banner, so too have disgruntled Sunni individuals and radical groups in other countries, including Europeans, Egyptians, Palestinians, Tunisians, Chechens, and others. Indeed, anywhere that Sunni Muslims feel oppressed or excluded by their society, IS’s program to build a powerful, defiant Sunni state in the Islamic heartland has massive appeal. IS can bide its time and recover from a few tactical reversals; whether it loses Kobani or succeeds in capturing Ramadi are local issues. In the long run, IS will be gathering its forces and seeking to increase its funding and arms for the days that can march on Baghdad, mount terror attacks on Western nations and their Middle Eastern allies (including Turkey and Saudi Arabia), and undermine what it sees as the apostate state of Iran.
Can anything be done to overcome the divisions among the potential allied coalition? It will be immensely difficult. Most analysts believe that Bashar al-Assad is content to leave IS in control of parts of Syria as long as he controls the key Damascus-Aleppo corridor and the coast; meanwhile Assad’s brutality and US bombing are driving more Syrians to support IS as the best hope of gaining security from Assad’s reach. Thus the only way to bring Syria’s powerful armed forces into the fight against IS is to remove Assad from power. There lies the hub of a deal: Syria’s military and elites could be promised that if they replace Assad they will be fully supported in their efforts to recover all of Syria. Yet they would have to agree to an inclusive regime that respects and incorporates the Sunni majority in that country, not just a revived Alawite oligarchy. Similarly, Iran would have to accept Assad’s departure and promise to support a regime in Iraq that respects and incorporates the Sunnis of that country; something it has notably failed to do in the last decade. Finally, Russia would have to be assured that its strategic agreements and naval base at Tartus in Syria would be maintained by a new Syrian regime; otherwise Russia will act as spoiler and supply Assad with sufficient weapons and other support to maintain his rule.
In 1918-1920, the allies in Russia won many local victories against the Bolsheviks, defeating them in Estonia, Odessa, and Siberia. Yet due to divisions among the various allied forces and lack of resolve at home, as well as lack of support from Russians who remained committed to the Bolshevik cause and the weakness of the Russian conservative White armies, the allied forces never were able to follow-up those local victories with a successful drive into the heart of Bolshevik power. The Bolsheviks maintained control of Petersburg, Moscow, and most of European Russia, and waited out the declining Allied resolve. In the 1920s, one ally after another decided to withdraw their expeditionary forces from Russia, leaving the Bolsheviks in control to build up their state over the following decades.
Something similar seems the most likely outcome in today’s Middle East. The divisions among potential allies abroad, and lack of resolve and public support at home, will likely doom efforts to overcome the more committed, cohesive, and determined forces of the Islamic State. In the mélange of jihadist forces that contended for power in the wake of collapsing authority in Syria, the IS was initially dismissed as just another terrorist group. Much the same underestimation was made of the Bolsheviks in 1917-1918; among the Mensheviks, Kadets, Socialists, Octobrists, Progressives, and other anti-Tsarist parties the Bolsheviks hardly seemed the main threat until they took over the government in a coup.
The Islamic State should not be taken lightly; it has gone from just another terrorist group to leadership of a region stretching from the outskirts of Aleppo to Mosul to the outskirts of Baghdad (an area larger than Lebanon or Israel) with a population of over two million, tens of thousands of armed fighters and financial resources in the billions of dollars. It has displaced Al-Qaeda as the leading force of Islamic opposition against the West, and seems to draw new supporters and allies among jihadist groups every week. Against this powerful and committed adversary, neighboring nations and distant America have been able to mount only isolated, sporadic attacks. Such limited, half-hearted actions cannot succeed in destroying the Islamic State. It appears we shall have to get used to having yet another major source of terrorism and war in the region for many years to come.