Every so often, one should stop ascribing blame and prescribing remedies and put down exactly what one thinks is likely to happen. As George Orwell observed, this can be a humbling experience, because our predictions so often reflect our hopes or fears rather than careful analysis. Besides, castigating politicians one dislikes, and concocting policies that have no chance of encountering the test of practice, is much more fun than peering into the future. Yet no other topic could benefit more from a cold-blooded analysis of the probabilities than the current conflict in Syria and Iraq and the various burning cinders that it has spewed into other lands—Libya and, most recently, France.
It is safe to predict that, barring a calamitous attack on the scale of September 11 in the American homeland, the United States will not lead a coalition attempting to root out the Islamic State in its lairs, above all the city of Mosul. President Obama, in every possible way, has made it clear that he thinks such an effort misguided. Nor should one expect a President who has pledged himself to ending Middle East wars to conclude his term by sending tens of thousands of infantrymen back to Mesopotamia (a much better term these days than Syria and Iraq, which, for all practical purposes, no longer exist as states). A bit more bombing, a few more commando raids, some additional trainers and spotters, perhaps, but a ground force—no. He would be acting contrary to every instinct, every judgment, and, most importantly, his self-understanding were he to do so.
This being the case, the Islamic State will continue to control territory in Iraq and Syria. The Kurds and Iraqi army may nibble at the edges and cut lines of supply; the Russians, Iranians, and Shi’a militias may do the same; but to take back any major city and, above all, Mosul will require lots of troops. To do it the American or Israeli way would mean surrounding it, persuading the population to leave, and then painstakingly working one’s way through the booby-traps, ambushes, bunkers, and tunnels using all the advantages of meticulously collected intelligence and persistent observation, as well as a wide variety of low-yield precision-guided weapons. Even so, the damage to infrastructure and loss of civilian life would be considerable, as would the casualties sustained by the forces going in. Mosul—a city of two-and-a-half million before the Islamic State invaded—would require a clean-up operation an order of magnitude larger than the clearing of Fallujah (prewar population roughly 300,000) or recent Israeli incursions into Gaza City (perhaps half a million), with tens of thousands of well-trained and -disciplined troops. Those are not on offer, and certainly not from the United States.
To think that Iraqi troops and Sunni tribesmen will do what they did in 2006–2008 in taking down al-Qaeda in Iraq—the Islamic State’s smaller and less expert predecessor—is fantasy. Iraqi soldiers and tribal forces did indeed fight, and bravely, but they knew they were allied with what Bing West has dubbed “the strongest tribe,” i.e., the United States. They could see the tanks and attack helicopters, the confident soldiers and Marines going into battle with them. They will have no such support this time, and they know it. They can be terrorized, and the evidence suggests, have been.
The Russian way is simpler, and Putin has done it before, most famously in Chechnya’s capital of Grozny, a largely Russian-inhabited city, in 1999–2000: flatten the city, shoot anything that moves, and rebuild it with a client governor in charge. But today’s Russia, as impressive at it has been strategically, may not have the resources and probably does not have the inclination to do something that will involve killing tens or hundreds of thousands of Sunni Arabs, thereby inflaming its own domestic Muslim problem.
The Islamic State will not be easily strangled, either. It has shown itself remarkably capable of drawing money in from many sources, and it has no compunction about squeezing to the limit the population among which it resides. It is a tenacious parasite, and although it has suffered thousands of casualties, it still gets recruits and is adapting to the continuous aerial bombardment. There is no reason to think it will quit.
So the Islamic State will continue to exist, and as recent reports suggest, put down roots in a number of countries. The appeal of its cruelty, religious purity, and apocalyptic faith will not be diminished. Indeed, just the reverse, the longer it appears to stand up to the unholy coalition of the United States, Europe, Russia, the Persians, and the Shi’a. At the same time, however, it is equally unlikely that the Syrian civil war will be resolved, and above all, that Bashar al-Asad will recover control of more than a fraction of his shattered country. He relies now on foreign arms and armies, his own Alawite base having been exhausted. His allies may be willing to send thousands of troops to keep him going, but are unlikely to commit the tens or hundreds of thousands to really restore him to power. Were that to happen, one should expect to see the Gulf states pump ever more military aid into his opponents, including the Islamic State and other jihadi movements. It is a lesson in the relative unimportance of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to compare the vituperative fear and hatred that many Sunni Arabs have for the Persian Shi’a with their equally sincere but distinctly feebler loathing of the Jews. Furthermore, in light of the breakdown in Russo-Turkish relations, and the presence of an increasingly arbitrary and dictatorial Islamist at the head of the Turkish government, Ankara may well ramp up support for the insurgents, including the Islamic State. For these reasons and more, the would-be Talleyrands who think that tacit American support for Russo-Iranian hegemony over this region in the name of stability is either desirable or possible had better think again. That kind of devil’s deal would simply brew even more violence, as even our current President seems to recognize.
The upshot, then, will be large-scale mayhem across an increasingly large area, which will in turn breed more mayhem. We are in the early or, at best, early-middle stages of a vicious cycle of violence. Consider only the refugee camps in Jordan, Lebanon, and Turkey. What sorts of experiences have the teenagers in those camps had? What future can they expect? How many murders, maimings, and rapes might they wish to avenge? In those camps lie a well-nigh infinite pool of recruits for the jihadi cause, and they will make their way into the fight. To be sure, there will be some islands of stability in the Middle East. The Israelis will deter direct attacks, and will help the Druze carve out communal enclaves under their aegis. The Kurdish quasi-state will become ever more real, and the United States will quietly recognize that fact by arming it to the teeth. Jordan may hang on, although the Hashemite King may have to fight, yet again, for his monarchy’s existence.
What we cannot predict are the sparks that could ignite other fires. A second Russo-Turkish incident—an S-400 missile taking down a Turkish F-16, another Russian jet shot down, raids on Russian or Turkish bases coming from areas controlled by the other sides’ clients—may not bring a shooting war, exactly, but it could lead to a much deadlier proxy war than we have seen thus far. Should Turkey then invoke Article V of the North Atlantic Treaty, and Russia choose to demonstrate the West’s vulnerabilities on other fronts, the winds of the Syrian war could blow as far away as the Baltic states. A more immediate matter: The refugee flow to Europe may be slowed but will not stop unless the unwieldy and befuddled European Union slams the gates shut. If it does, that may be one of the developments that helps end the EU as we know it. If it does not, the rise of seriously nasty rightwing parties in the European core may bring it to a different kind of end.
The next American president will probably do more to take the lead in this crisis, but not much. It takes at least six months to fully staff up a government (which you want to do if you are going to go to war), but more importantly, what president wishes to begin his or her term by sending large forces to the Middle East? Even if the President did so desire, and even if we did wipe out the Islamic State and liberate Mosul, what would we do then—hand it back to an Iranian-controlled client state headquartered in Baghdad, while deploring the depredations of the Shi’a militias re-establishing control in Iraq’s largest Sunni city?
It is amazing to consider what we now accept as normal politics in this part of the world. A quarter of a million civilians dead. Chemical weapons used routinely by a state and by insurgents. Millions of refugees. The eviction of Christians from vast areas they have inhabited very nearly since the time of Jesus. An apocalyptic religious sect that has constructed at least an embryonic state, revels in publicizing every kind of barbarity from crucifixion to partial beheadings, and now controls an area the size of a small European country. Murderous assaults on European capitals inspired and directed by that state. Russian forces engaged in combat in the Middle East on a scale not seen since the early 1970s. Iranian operatives openly waging war in countries that Iran does not even neighbor.
The future will be ghastly for that part of the world, and all that borders it. The United States will be somewhat distant from this whirlpool of blood, but only somewhat—we, our allies, and our interests will increasingly be spattered by it. It is disheartening that at a time when countries are desperate for the United States merely to appear to want to lead them out of this, Americans are preoccupied on the one side with a braggart bully billionaire who knows little and cares less about civil liberties and on the other side with the contest between a marginal monomaniac and a terminally deceitful triangulator. Meanwhile, on the beautiful campuses of our oldest and wealthiest universities, mobs of the luckiest young people in the world are whimpering belligerently because they believe themselves to be victims—an obscene notion, if you think about their Syrian and Iraqi contemporaries. This may not be the early 1930s, but it is getting close. And as one might have said back then, this is not likely to get any better.