Has ISIS reached its culminating point, the point where a military offensive or a movement (ISIS is both) runs out of gas?
ISIS’s success in Ramadi and Palmyra seem to suggest the answer is no. On the physical level of war, it is moving from strength to strength. Its defeat in Tikrit was not so much a defeat of ISIS as of the Baath. That was not to our strategic advantage–or would not have been, if we had a strategy–because we should be seeking an alliance with the Baath against the Islamic puritans who front ISIS. That would be a strategy. But as John Boyd often said, few people in Washington can do more than spell the word. America’s “strategy” is bombing.
To answer the question, we need to move from the physical level of war to the moral, which Boyd argued was the most powerful level. That is certainly the case with any movement.
We also need to factor in the Brinton Thesis, which I have mentioned before in these columns. Created by historian Crane Brinton, whose specialty was the French Revolution, the Brinton Thesis postulates that all revolutions move in an ever—more radical direction in a series of coups leading to the left (left—right is not relevant here; rather, the spectrum is religious-secular). A final coup of Thermidor, the month in the French Revolutionary calendar when that coup occurred, restores the center.
So our question becomes more specific: on the moral level of war, is the faction of ISIS which represents the religious puritans reaching its culminating point?
That point is currently covered by clouds, so even Olympus must speculate. But some evidence suggests it may be.
The first is that the puritans have turned Islam into a cult that demands human sacrifice. I am no friend of Islam, which is a religion of war and always has been (there are peaceful Moslems, such as the Sufi; peace be upon them). But from a religious standpoint, there is a vast difference between war and human sacrifice. The headless corpses that dominate the picture wherever ISIS goes are human sacrifices, no different from those offered to Baal or to the Aztec’s Hummingbird Wizard, Huitzilopochtli.
Every Moslem knows that Allah is not a god who demands human sacrifices. So ISIS, when it offers them, is offering them to a god who is not Allah. For a religious movement, that creates a problem of legitimacy–the most dangerous weakness such a movement can have on the moral level.
Where this may lead is pointed out by the Aztec’s example. The reason Cortez won is because all the other indians joined with him against the Aztecs. It seems they had grown tired of feeding old Huitzilopochtli.
ISIS cannot turn off the human sacrifices, because it depends on puritan recruits to fill its fighting ranks. Any move toward moderation, in any form, would make it impure and set the state for another coup leading yet more to the extreme.
This points to a second critical vulnerability ISIS has on the moral level. It depends heavily on foreign troops.
As we found out in Iraq and Afghanistan, foreigners are not loved in tribal societies. Now, conquest by ISIS means conquest by foreigners. Those foreigners intentionally disrespect many local customs, which they regard as un—Islamic, i.e., impure. ISIS’s physical assaults on the monuments to the history of the local peoples is also an affront. The destruction of history we are now likely to witness in Palmyra will not make the locals happy–again, destruction carried out by foreigners.
If the United States had a strategy for dealing with ISIS–Republican calls for more direct American military action are equally absent any strategy–it would seek to leverage these vulnerabilties of ISIS on the moral level. It cannot do so directly, because it also has a legitimacy problem in that part of the world. The more directly we act, the more we weaken the parties we are trying to support and buttress ISIS.
The most promising strategy is to work behind the scenes to support the Baath against the puritans within ISIS. We might, for example, tell the Baath we would support them in creating a “Sunnistan” out of the remnants of Iraq and Syria. The Baath are the most likely source of the coup of Thermidor, which is what is needed to put an end to Islamic puritanism. That would be our strategic goal, if we had a strategy.
As it is, the best we dare hope for is that our mindless bombing does not so strengthen ISIS at the moral level that it overcomes the critical vulnerabilities at that level its own actions are creating. It would be an unpleasant irony if, just as President George W. Bush created ISIS, the U.S. Air Force were to save it.