My thoughts on this topic are extremely tentative, hypothetical I would say, but I’ve seen so much other bad commentary I thought I would lay out a possible “model” for what is going on. I offer this with what I consider to be more than just caveats and qualifications, if you wish simply consider this an exercise in constructing some possibilities to think through. These are “in my opinion the most likely to be true, compared to alternatives,” but still quite low in terms of their absolute chance of being true. Here goes:
1. I don’t view Islam as essential to the conflict, though it helps explain some of the second-order causes and effects.
2. I think first in terms of Yugoslavia in the 1990s, which also saw the collapse of an untenable-once-placed-under-pressure nation-state, followed by atrocities. Building a successful nation state seems to be a “win big, fail big” proposition, and both Yugoslavia and Syria failed. The West also had its failures leading up to and during the two World Wars, though with a happyish ending.
3. Syria also has become a playground for a proxy war between Iran and Saudi Arabia (among others). Being a playground for a proxy war is a bad place to be, just ask Vietnam, El Salvador, or Nicaragua. The mix of #2 and #3 accounts for many of the key features of the crisis, plus as conflict proceeds trust frays and human beings are brutalized, worsening the dynamic.
3b. The proxy war heated up due to a rising Iran, a falling Saudi Arabia, and the collapse of creative ambiguity over roles and responsibilities in what were previously buffer zones.
4. It is very hard to model ISIS, ISIL, Daesh, whatever you wish to call it (the most thoughtful approach I have seen is from Shadi Hamid). Maybe the group is one fraction crazies, one fraction semi-rational power brokers, and one fraction “momentum traders” who wanted higher status for their local terrorizing and never expected it to get this far and simply could not climb off and stop. It is hard for groups to back out of strategies which have delivered consistent institutional growth. In any case, I don’t think of the group as having transitive preferences, even in the intra-profile sense, much less the Arrovian inter-profile sense.
5. I view ISIS as “modern,” or even “hypermodern,” rather than a “return to barbarism.” The medieval Arabic world was more advanced than Europe in most ways, yet still Islamic ideologically.
6. Islam has the important secondary effect of tying Syria and other Middle Eastern conflicts to disaffected (Muslim) groups living in Western Europe, most of all France and Belgium. Labor market deregulation, people!
7. Islam has another significant effect. By melding the political and the theological, it renders the conflict more complex and harder to resolve, and that effect is fundamental to the ideological structure of Islam. It also helps motivate the proxy war sides taken by Iran (Shii’te) and the Saudis (Sunni). But note this: when the political order is not up for grabs, Islam does not have the same destabilizing effects. The merging of the legal and the theological therefore may create greater stability in some equilibria (e.g.,much of Ottoman history, the Gulf monarchies), while less stability in others.
8. The Laffer curve, resource extraction path of ISIS will weaken with time, causing a fiscal starvation and thus a further move toward mean-reducing, variance-increasing strategies.
9. This won’t end well. Now go read a book on the Taiping rebellion.
Your thoughts are welcome, please try to stick with the analytical and avoid posturing. And what Russia is up to in Syria is another mystery, best considered another time.