Why the Middle Eastern powers aren’t fighting ISIS

A map of territory gained and lost by ISIS, from the Washington Post. HT Stephen Saideman.

Even though ISIS claims a territorial mandate over a region extending across the Middle East and Northern Africa, powers in the region have been hesitant, if not outright unwilling, to intervene. Arab leaders view the civil conflict in Yemen — spurred by competition between Iran and Saudi Arabia for leadership in the region — as more important than ISIS.

For Iraq and Syria, however, the fight against ISIS involves control of vital territory, rich in natural resources, chiefly oil. Researchers of the causes of war have long known that territorial conflicts substantially increase the violence of disputes.

Outside those two countries, however, ISIS represents a different kind of threat. Although the attacks in Paris, San Bernadino, Cairo, and elsewhere this year indicate a serious threat to the people of countries beyond ISIS’s territory in Iraq and Syria, the issue is one of policy, not territory.

This puts Western and Arab leaders alike in a tough position: allow ISIS to continue its operations, or spend costly political capital with their own constituencies, not to mention military assets, and intervene.

Why are ISIS’s Arab neighbors unwilling to act? Simply put, the politics and military weakness of other Arab countries incentivize ignoring, rather than addressing, the threat. This leaves Western powers, including France, the United Kingdom, and the United States, to take action against what otherwise is a regional problem. The key is to understanding ISIS from the perspective of each country involved in the conflict, which ultimately comes down to the difference between conflicts over territory and conflicts over policy.

Territorial versus Policy Conflicts

Cambridge lecturer Aaron Rapport recently published a paper that shows militarily powerful states can afford to use limited mobilizations of their armed forces — short of war — to test opponents’ willingness to fight over policy issues, which helps them determine just how hard to push before engaging in a potentially expensive conflict. Such limited mobilization of forces is far more difficult and expensive for weaker states.

This means powerful states can attempt to pursue policy conflicts with military force, which leads their opponents to acquiesce in the face of a much stronger opponent or to stand firm, which leads the powerful state to back off. Meanwhile, weaker states avoid policy contests; however, they will respond when territory is at stake.

Winning territory and maintaining a claim to territory requires ensuring competitors recognize the claim. Although a competitor may challenge the claim in the future, nothing is required to ensure the opponent’s government complies with the territorial claim except maintaining the ability to defend the region.
Achieving foreign policy victory — that is, getting other governments to do what we want them to do — requires much more long-term commitment and expense than claiming territory because those policy changes — favorable to us but unfavorable to the foreign leader’s constituents — require enforcement of compliance.

Typically that enforcement comes in two forms: foreign aid or setting up puppet governments. The governments of wealthy countries want leaders of poor countries to change a policy that is well-liked by the leader’s supporters but not by the wealthy country’s population. Foreign aid lets wealthy governments use their economic resources to buy off foreign leaders who need to shore up additional political support at home due the change toward a domestically unfavorable policy. The leader can use the aid to provide more benefits to his few supporters in the form of private goods, or cash, palaces, cars, or whatever they want.

On the other hand, it may be easier to replace an otherwise noncompliant foreign leader with a different one that is willing to comply. Setting up a puppet government may be necessary to achieve the intervener’s policy goals, but maintaining the puppet government requires a potentially long and costly occupation. Otherwise, the puppet regime may either revert to old policy to curry domestic support or may be overthrown by domestic challengers. Either way, the policy shift would not last for very long.

For example, when Al Qaeda instigated the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, the Bush Administration offered an ultimatum to the Taliban regime in Afghanistan: hand over Osama bin Laden or else. The Taliban represented no territorial threat to the US, but the Bush Administration deemed its continued policy of harboring of support for Al Qaeda unacceptable. The resulting intervention replaced the Taliban regime with a new one that produced policies more favorable to the US but at the cost of long, difficult occupation and considerable financial support for the new regime. The intervention against Saddam Hussein’s regime in Iraq resulted similarly.

The key here is that conflicts over policy are usually much more difficult and costly to enforce than the acquisition and maintenance of territorial holdings. This makes judging other governments’ willingness to negotiate or fight over policy issues difficult. On the other hand, control over territory often invokes strong security interests or historical claims, so countries know whether they are willing to fight or not. This expectation of willingness to fight matters for which countries we should expect to get involved.

Comparing Western and Middle Eastern Powers

One way of comparing countries in terms of military power is to look at “military effort,” or how much a government spends on its military relative to its number of soldiers. More spending per soldier should produce better equipment, better training, and more effective forces.

The charts above show the ratio of military expenditures (as a percentage of gross domestic product) to armed forces personnel (as a percentage of total labor force) for the top Western powers (the data come from the World Bank’s World Development Indicators). The greater the ratio, the more the country spends per soldier. The US and UK score similarly, averaging around a score of four, while France and Germany come in around a score of two.

The charts below show the same ratio for the key Middle Eastern powers. Of the four, only Saudi Arabia puts as much effort into its military preparedness as the Western powers, with an average score of over three, while Iraq, Iran, and Turkey put forward considerably less effort, averaging around a score of one.

The graphs of Middle Eastern powers also include foreign aid (as a percentage of gross domestic product, also from the World Development Indicators). These data indicate that financial support for regime in Iraq has declined steadily since 2005, making it more difficult for the puppet government there, erected and supported by the coalition, to stay in power. Also, although Iraqi military effort appears to increase 2013, this is due to a substantial decline in the number of troops in Iraq’s military beginning that year. This supports Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter’s statement that “we have an issue with the will of the Iraqis to fight ISIL and defend themselves.”

Based on Rapport’s findings, we should expect the Western powers, along with perhaps Saudi Arabia, to be willing to use limited military engagements to test the willingness of ISIS, but this does not necessarily mean full military combat. This is what we’re seeing, with strategic bombings from Western powers and limited public diplomacy against ISIS by Saudi Arabia. ISIS’s responses to limited actions should drive future decision making. So what do the recent terrorist attacks in Paris and San Bernadino tell us about ISIS?

Is ISIS Faltering or Expanding?

Is ISIS weakening? The group’s resort to terrorism outside its base could indicate the threat to its survival from foreign interveners makes the group less sure of its future. Robert Pape, who researches suicide terrorism at the University of Chicago, recently argued the Paris attacks indicate a “wounded” ISIS, “lashing out against the states that are now posing crippling blows to its dreams of a caliphate in the Middle East.”

On the other hand, University of California San Diego Professor Barbara F. Walter claims the attacks raise the costs of continued action against ISIS by foreign governments that threaten its operations, forcing Western powers “to choose between greater security at home for their citizens or greater involvement in ISIS’s wars. There’s a real trade-off to be made and the choice is not clear, especially if the terrorist attacks begin to add up.”

So the issue is determining whether the attacks indicate a strategic move by a force that is here to stay or a desperate, last gasp for ISIS. In a new paper, Michael C. Horowitz, Evan Perkoski, and Philip B.K. Potter examine the tactics nonstate armed groups use relative to the level of repression and competition from other groups they face. While repression of and competition among nonstate groups lead armed organizations to diversify the lethal and destructive methods they use, this tactical diversification into more sophisticated methods, such as aerial hijackings and suicide bombings, indicate expanding, not contracting, groups: “the number of both yearly fatalities and attacks against hard targets increase when groups diversify their tactics. When contracting, both of these metrics decrease, indicating that organizations that abandon tactical abilities from one year to the next simultaneously decline in lethality and the ability to attack hard targets” (33–34).

This finding indicates that as ISIS employs a wider array of tactics, from taking hostages and assassinations to suicide bombings and hijackings, it strengthens rather than weakens. This means the group should continue to expand its territorial claims, tactical diversity, and lethality. As it does so, Western powers may ramp up their response, but Walter expects this should increase attacks as well. Western powers will also remain the sole military powers responding to ISIS, at least as long as the group’s territorial claims do not expand beyond Syria and Iraq.

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