Lawrence Freedman’s Strategy contains an interesting account of Marx’s reaction to the failures of the European Revolutions of 1848 (or OG “Spring of Nations”). Marx decried the ultimate failure of the proletariat to take advantage of the situation by exclaiming, “they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past” and “The tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living”. Vladimir Lenin understood that that the nightmare must be expunged with extreme prejudice, taking into consideration the failure of more moderate (and less centralized) political factions to integrate into the legitimate political systems of Europe. It’s an interesting thought exercise then to briefly consider how the failures of the Arab Spring have informed ISIS’s strategy and how the US and its coalition partners really face a brand new strategic problem in ISIS that has a distant flavor of revolutions long past.
The nexus of ISIS’s regional success so far, at least in the strategic sense, has been to understand that control of territory and politics must be centralized in order to complete the wider ideological objective. The caliphate is the starting point for all revolutionary change. This differs greatly from a rough amalgamation of Al-Qaeda’s philosophy and strategy, which features a myriad of objectives but ultimately views the establishment of a caliphate as the end goal, the ultimate measure of success in a long struggle. The willingness of ISIS to immediately establish the caliphate parallels Lenin’s goal (according to Freedman) of making “the Party” the vehicle for revolution. Ultimately, once a serious political apparatus is in place, dealing with those who threaten the party or state is a lot more expedient than arguing about how to best implement the wraith of ideology. States also include an exclusive tool box of coercive measures that insurgent organizations are unable to wield, particularly to kill large numbers of people in the way you please, when you please, because they exist in your domain. ISIS can affect political change rapidly and, ostensibly, unimpeded. Al – Qaeda must settle for staggered attacks and the unlikely nature of operational success in an environment rife with the type of friction that is incumbent upon terrorist cell operations in “foreign territory”.
Lenin’s stress on the importance of “the Party” to revolution was located in the same type of historical experience that drives ISIS. It is possible that ISIS views past revolutionary non-starts in the region as an illustration of the failure to locate the schwerpunkt of the adversary and carry out a decisive action. The schwerpunkt in a revolution is the ruling party’s political apparatus and the demographics that support its efficient and legitimate operation. It’s the liquidation of these entities that is the goal of the successful revolutionary state, especially for those who have watched the failure of attempts that operated under a more inclusive and civil strategy of transition that reverts to conservative or reactionary government (examples given by Freedman are the failures in multiple states in 1848 Europe and in France in 1871, a modern example would be Egypt). The violent suppression of the Syrian revolution (and other uprisings in the region), and the chaos that it bred, was the final miscarriage in the type of gradual processes that characterized civil disobedience and broad appeals for political reform in the early days of the Arab Spring.
ISIS is not a terrorist cell, it is a revolutionary state and the long-term strategy and tactics of the “War on Terror” will be just as ineffective as the half-hearted attempts at snuffing out the Russian Revolution were. It appears, at the moment, that the Obama Administration’s strategy doesn't differ significantly from past operations against perceived threats, an example of how the White House interprets the success of its past military interventions and how it views ISIS. It might be that the US and its allies have not quite grasped what they are up against in ISIS and what it will take to dislodge them from the region. The US’s lack of strategic fit to ISIS’s presentation of its thought processes and political goals might be a signal of the US’s ambivalence towards the endeavor as a whole, and is noted by regional powers. It could also be the White House understands that the complex nature of the regional struggle is unintelligible, and is only comfortable making adjustments to its position at the margins.