ISIS and the Bolshevik Precedent

by Mark N. Katz

All the major actors in the Middle East oppose the rise of the extremist group that calls itself the Islamic State (ISIS). In fact, ISIS has managed to incur the enmity of a highly diverse set of actors who often oppose one another. These include several sets of antagonists such as the United States and the West on the one hand and Russia on the other; Iran and the Assad regime in Syria on the one hand and Sunni states like Saudi Arabia on the other; Israel on the one hand and Hezbollah on the other; and the Kurds on the one hand and Turkey (which fears Kurdish nationalism) on the other. Even al-Qaeda opposes ISIS.

The fact that all the important actors in the region oppose ISIS has given rise to the hope that this radical Sunni group can be defeated. The experience of the Bolsheviks nearly a century ago, however, shows that this might not occur. Indeed, the current situation is reminiscent of Russia after the Bolsheviks seized power there in late 1917. The harshness of their rule quickly resulted in numerous opposition groups rising up against them inside the country. External powers also recognized the Bolsheviks as a threat, and several supported their internal opponents or even directly intervened both in the final year of World War I and for a few years afterward. But even though many internal and external actors wanted to defeat the Bolsheviks, these actors ultimately worked at cross-purposes, which helped the Bolsheviks not only survive but also gain control over most of the former Tsarist Empire and pose a threat to many other nations for years.

Today, as with the threat posed by the Bolsheviks, the common threat posed by ISIS provides no guarantee that the groups who oppose it will put aside their differences and work together to defeat it. Indeed, while hopes for a grand alliance against ISIS have been expressed in many quarters, the achievement of this goal has so far proven elusive—and will likely remain so.

Many of the principal actors in the region are worried not only about ISIS, but also other threats, including one another. Iran and Russia in particular regard the Syrian government—a minority Alawite regime—as an ally and do not want to see it replaced by a Sunni majority regime that would be hostile toward them. Saudi Arabia and several other Sunni Arab states, in contrast, see Iran—along with its Shi’a allies in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, and Yemen—as the principal threat and accordingly regard the replacement of the Assad regime as important for their security as the defeat of ISIS. Turkey, for its part, sees ISIS as a threat but apparently regards the possibility of Kurdish forces in Syria (and, as a result, in Turkey itself) growing stronger from ISIS’s defeat as an even greater one.

The Obama administration is pursuing three contradictory sets of goals in the Middle East. First, while Washington wants to preserve American relations with Saudi Arabia and other Sunni Arab states, it also wants to improve ties with Iran with which it hopes to achieve a nuclear accord.  Secondly, while the US wants to preserve ties with a Turkish government that very much fears the growth of Kurdish separatism, Washington also sees Kurdish forces in Northern Iraq and in Syria as allies against ISIS. Finally, while the Obama administration genuinely wants to combat ISIS (and has, along with some of its Arab and European allies, launched airstrikes against ISIS positions in both Iraq and Syria), it also wants to do so without sending American ground forces back to Iraq. Yet it will be difficult for Washington to resolve any one of these contradictions—and may well be impossible to resolve all three.

Thus, while everyone wants to see ISIS defeated, the fact that so many of the actors in the region are working at cross-purposes could result in ISIS surviving and prospering despite universal opposition. Just this possibility should focus the minds of policymakers in different countries on how they can work together against the common threat before it grows even worse and becomes, like the Bolsheviks did almost a century ago, even more difficult to deal with.

Photo: Secretary of State John Kerry meets with Gulf Cooperation Council Foreign Ministers in New York City on September 25, 2014.

Mark N. Katz

Mark N. Katz is a professor of government and politics at the George Mason University Schar School of Policy and Government, and a Nonresident Senior Fellow at the Atlantic Council. The views expressed here are his alone. Links to his recent articles can be found at



  1. Good article Mr Katz. Your point of comparison is eye opening, of which no other has brought to the table, as far as I have seen. As with most things, being obsolete before being marketed, the use of Cold War planning in today’s world, fits into that category, IMHO. As for the “O” administration seeking 3 different avenues or goals in the M.E., might that point to a “superiority complex” within those different sections of the government?

  2. Professor Katz has written an excellent article, yet he has neglected to mention the roots of problems are tied to the Israeli barbarism against people they terrorized. Unless Israel comes to peace with Palestinians, the situation will become worse scorching the US and Israel too.

  3. The West is not serious about finishing off ISIS. It is responding theatrically to the the theatrical killing of a few westerners. The Arab countries, part of the ‘coalition’, are not serious either. They prefer to topple the secular pro-Iran regime of Bashar al Assad and just contain ISIS whose creed is very close to their.
    The events in this region do not really affect the West, oil is down, Israel is more secure, the USA is protecting the oil sources. The threat of home terrorism is the only concern to the West. In fact it is only if ISIS is kicked out of the region by the air attacks, that it will just go underground and resort to terrorists acts in the West. If ISIS is contained in a specific areas where they are not harassed enough to leave, buy enough not to expand, they will present no danger to the West.
    Turkey is more than happy to see ISIS weakening the PKK, the Syrian Kurds and the Syrian army. As long as ISIS remains in Syria and Iraq and Turkey does not provoke them, Turkey is no real danger. Turkey who has helped many ISIS members can easily negotiate with them as we have seen Erdogan do it to free 46 hostages from ISIS hands. That’s why Turkey’s main objective in ‘joining’ the coalition is to just contain ISIS within defined border within Syria but more importantly to divert it to establish a Moslem Brotherhood ruling in replacement to the ‘too secular’ Bashar Al Assad.
    The West’s campaign will just weaken ISIS, it will die off and ISIS will be kept on leash in Syria for decades, until it auto-destroy.
    Whether Turkey’s plan to change the regime in Syria under the cover of fighting ISIS succeeds or not is debatable.
    My opinion is that, as all Turkey’s calculations until now failed, this one will fail too.

  4. This comment I made september 16th in economist (Riling the juggernaut)

    The reason why IS will win or “The Tower of Babel Effect”:
    Although it is a relative measure but IS terrorists they all speak one language, meaning they have a plan and they subordinate everything to their plan. They don’t think, I have a Rolex and 8 wives and 20 slaves when it comes to carrying out their plan.
    On the other side, in this new coalition against IS, their language is “confound”. Behind the doors everyone is thinking about how to use this situation to get the most out of it to improve their personal power or personal states.
    The Arabic states are personal cause the masses there have no rights anyways. They have only the right to work and to obey. The Western states are personal because lobbyists and mainstream medias manipulate the public opinion however they want it.

  5. Comparing ISIS to a state which however brutal it became under Stalin (Bolshevism does not equal Stalinism by the way) the USSR still provided free health care, post-secondary education, daycare, dental care, etc to its citizens which the U.S. never did and still doesn’t because the big corporations want to keep keep on making the big bucks (state regulation and redistribution of socialised capital has always scared off the elites of America).

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