The Corner

ISIS: A Bolshevik Precedent?

For all the horror of the reports coming out of the “Islamic State,” there seems to have been a fairly widespread assumption that ISIS is, if not beaten, at least contained, and that in due course it will burn out/be burnt out.

Historical parallels are dangerous to draw, and they often lead to some wildly incorrect conclusions, but ISIS’s position in Syria and Iraq reminds me more than a little of the situation in which the nascent Soviet state found itself during the early years of the Russian Civil War. The Bolsheviks were encircled by hostile forces, who, on paper, were far stronger, but lacked the will and the coordination to defeat a Communist enemy that (like ISIS) enjoyed the benefits of a relatively solid core of territory, fanaticism, and a belief that the future was theirs. We all know what followed.

Alarmist? I certainly hope so, but with Palmyra reportedly having fallen, this Foreign Policy article makes depressing reading:

Ramadi is far from the only front on which the Islamic State is advancing. The group last week launched an offensive, supported by multiple suicide operations, in the eastern Syrian city of Deir Ezzor against President Bashar al-Assad regime’s holdouts in the military air base. In the central city of Palmyra, it attacked a regime base near the ancient Roman ruins. It also recently clashed with Syrian rebels and the regime in the eastern countryside of Aleppo, the provinces of Homs and Hama, and the southern city of Quneitra, near the border with Israel.

Nor are the Islamic State’s gains in Iraq confined to Ramadi. The group has advanced deep into the Baiji oil refinery, the largest in the country. And it has since pushed on from Ramadi, attacking the nearby town of Khalidiya; if the group is successful, that might provide it with the territorial depth to advance on Baghdad.

. . . Unlike in 2006, when whole Sunni tribes rose up against al Qaeda in Iraq, there are now deep divisions over what to do about the Islamic State. With the fall of Ramadi, tribesmen loyal to the Islamic State will find themselves in a better position to pull their relatives toward their side, citing the failure of pro-government tribal leaders across Anbar.

But the fall of Ramadi will echo far further than just across Anbar. The White House’s focus on airstrikes in Iraq — while making little progress in training anti–Islamic State Sunni forces in either Syria or Iraq — is allowing the group immense space for planning, maneuvering, and redeployment.

Despite attempts by U.S. officials to downplay the significance of Ramadi’s fall, the development marks a dangerous new phase of the war. The Islamic State seems poised to take new areas despite American firepower and despite Iranian backing of tens of thousands of Shiite and Kurdish forces. The idea that the Islamic State is losing or declining now seems absurd. . . . 

In a March article for Reuters, Jack Goldstone also looked back to the years after the October Revolution. Here’s an extract:

[S]upport for Islamic State is growing locally and internationally. Just as the Bolsheviks cited foreign intervention in Russia’s revolution as proof that Western capitalist states were bent on exploiting hapless Russians, so Islamic State points to U.S. bombing strikes and drone attacks to persuade Sunni Muslims in Syria, Iraq and around the globe that Western infidels are seeking to undermine and oppress their religion.

Not only have the Sunni populations forced out of power by Shi’ite leaders in Iraq and Syria rallied to Islamic State’s banner, so, too, have disgruntled Sunnis and radical groups in other countries, including Europeans, Australians, Canadians, Egyptians, Palestinians, Tunisians and Chechens. In Libya and Nigeria, local jihadists have sworn allegiance to Islamic State.

Indeed, anywhere that Sunni Muslims feel oppressed or excluded, Islamic State’s program to build a powerful, defiant Sunni state in the Islamic heartland has magnetic appeal. Islamic State can bide its time and recover from tactical reversals. In the long run, it will be gathering its forces and seeking to increase its funding and arms for the days when it will 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. . . . 

In 1918–1920, the Western allies won many victories against the Bolsheviks, defeating the Red Army in Estonia, Odessa and Siberia. Yet the allied forces were never able to follow up with a successful drive into the heart of Bolshevik power.

The Bolsheviks held onto Moscow and most of European Russia and waited out the Allies’ declining resolve. In the early 1920s, one Western ally after another withdrew its forces from Russia, leaving the Bolsheviks to build their state over the following decades.

Something similar seems the most likely outcome in the Middle East today. The deep divisions among potential allies and the lack of public support for yet another war in the Middle East will likely doom efforts to overcome the more committed, cohesive and determined forces of Islamic State.

The Islamic State, like the Bolshevik regime a century earlier, is a rising revolutionary power. It has gone from being just another terrorist group to master of a region larger than Lebanon or Israel, with a population of more than 2 million, tens of thousands of armed fighters and financial resources in the billions of dollars.

Unless the major powers of the region — Turkey, Iraq, Iran and Saudi Arabia — can unite and sustain a multipronged campaign against Islamic State, we shall have to deal with a major source of terrorism and war in the region for many years to come.

Winston Churchill always thought that the Bolshevik baby should have been strangled “in its cradle.” He had a point. 

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