What is going on in Syria? (model this)

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.


8. An incredibly important point!

I've been wondering this whole time why nobody has been bringing up that for every Syrian refugee the west accepts, there is one less tax-payer that ISIS can extort. Through that lens, expanding acceptance of refugees can be seen as a, perhaps risky, win-win. I hadn't fully considered the reaction function of ISIS to fiscal starvation, however.

One question is, what does accelerating the starvation do to ISIS' reaction function??

Which is more valuable to a regime like Saudi Arabia? Their citizens or the oil wells? Which one is a greater liability?

What about the USA? How many of their citizens are net tax payers compared to net tax takers? What is more important to the American regime?

point being is that ISIS is a "state" with comparatively little need for citizens, they are modern especially in the sense that they operate above the citizens. If you look at that perspective, do western countries operate similarly? I'd say increasingly so

Half their revenue has come from one-offs like raiding Iraqi banks. The rest isn't all kidnappings and oil extraction, either. They are actually in pretty dire straits when it comes to money, and in no way operate "above the people", nothing at all like the Saud family does. This is why Tyler brought up point number 8 in the first place.

ISIS is what happens when "Average is Over"

This is an under-remarked point. I have a hypothesis that the IQ threshold for bourgeois-level remunerative work is slowly rising, worldwide. The Middle East has a ridiculous amount of people including many men with no marriage-value and few marketable skills. ISIS gives them status and purpose. Alternatively, they can raise their marriage-market value back home by getting to Europe and receiving welfare transfer payments.

I've lived in the Middle East.

I think it is around 85% of people being net tax payers. It is a difficult calculation b/c of all the different types of taxes one pays at the city/state/federal level.

I just tried to google for an answer, but couldn't get anything definitive.

If 85% of people were net tax payers there wouldn't be huge annual deficits. We are nowhere near being able to pay for the level of government we're voting for ourselves.

Geez. Go see a prostitute already. Then maybe you won't be so sex obsessed that you turn into a tiresome reductionist.

What percentage of people consume the output of the military?

Percentage who are net tax -payers has nothing to do with the deficit.

The military is make work jobs. So just count up all the people that work for the military, DoD, contractors, lobbyists, etc.

The military is make work jobs.

Yeah, just stick your fingers in your ears, and the world goes away.

"The military is make work jobs"

Ah, if only that were true now. I'd feel a lot safer.

The conservative hatred for government but near-worship of the military is a very expensive form of cognitive dissidence. Talk to people who are actually in the military and they'll tell you how astounded they are of the bureaucracy and extraordinally wasteful spending (like $1.5 trillion to develop a plan they don't need).

A smart man once said that "the Pentagon is the Post Office with nuclear weapons"

Add up city, state, and federal spending and divide it per capita. It's a shocking number.

Only a small minority of people are net tax payers in the US. Less than half the country even has a job.

US per capita GDP about 50k, govt spending about 40%, or 20k. Anybody who isn't paying 20k per capita lifetime average is a consumer, not a payer I suspect Dude meant to say 85% are consumers, 15% payers.

And you have to think that you spend much of your life in childhood, education, being a stay-at-home spouse, and retirement. So maybe you need to double that number to get the tax bill you should expect to see year in and year out while working to be a net payer.

I've seen people quibble about details, but you're talking about someone earning $100-200k on average over their working life before they are net tax payers. So, at least a successful engineer, and maybe a medical doctor if you want to be sure.

You're probably right that Dude meant to say it in the other direction...

Tax incidence is very difficult. If there where no corporate even low wage workers might be paid more. Property taxes paid by businesses and land lords are passed through to customers and renters.
If Buffet and Gates where hit with a one time 50% wealth tax and he money spend on the poor and upped their consumption, who would consume less? Not Gates and Buffet.

Just on healthcare we spend $9,250 per person. For every hour worked it is roughly $12 an hour. (h/t p schaeffer)

Even if they are not net taxpayers the money spent on them is generally of low value to them. For example a upper middle class Democrat may get more value from knowing the medicaid exists than the recipients value it. So maybe they really are net tax payers. Add to that tax incidence is very difficult to calculate.

53%! 100% - 47% = 53% Weren't you paying attention to Mitt?

The fleeing tax base problem was discussed in this very good article, published in Cracked of all places.


I have thought that IS was radical Islam jumping the shark, but I didn't realize the degree. "Death Cult" isn't an exaggeration, it is literally what they are, what they present in their magazine.

Everyone who wants US troops in Syria needs to read that.

On Tyler's model, that this is more Yugoslavia-like break-up and less about Islam, I will try to give that some weight, but surely a break-up with a death cult that is "winning" (Sheen-like) it is that much worse.

We should do no more than stand-off support of friends, and bomb the crap out of the gifts we already gave them.

From that article, as well as others I have read, ISIS needs foreign recruits to act as cannon fodder.

It would seem to me that Paris attacks are meant to show that ISIS still can hurt the West, and thus inspire more recruitment than to "warn off" the West or stop refugees from leaving...again many of those refugees are from non-ISIS areas or are those already in camps in Turkey and Jordan.

Thanks for the recommendation. That Cracked article by Robert Evans is very well done.

This makes me think Anonymous might be on the right track. Hacking and ridicule make as much sense and indirectly providing them arms (point #2 in the article)


With respect to #8 - One can view (and I think I suggested this a week ago) the Paris attack as a move by ISIS to get Europe to reject refugees and to thereby trap Syrians in Syria and under ISIS's control.

So far it seems to be working brilliantly for ISIS.

Ergo, we must invade the world because we must invite the world.

Globalism is getting expensive and bloody.

@The Anti-Gnostic
There is less war now than ever.

Those millions of Syrians in refugee camps are adding economic productivity how? Let's say ISIS manages to get them back under their control. How does having to feed millions more people help their bottom line?

I need to see evidence that ISIS is having financial troubles.

They get support from the Gulf states and from Saudis.

They are highly motivated by religion, and may not require as much as other soldiers.

Again, refugees are more likely to come from the population heavy cities where Assad and the FSA are fighting, not from Raqqa.

You are assuming they all come from ISIS regions.

I would bet that most refugees come from non-ISIS regions, seeing as that is where the big cities are located.

That means they are less taxes and less resources for the FSA and for Assad.

Its already been pointed out that many "refugees" in Europe are young men who don't want to be drafted by the Assad regime.

Why are people assuming that most refugees are originally from ISIS held territory? I wouldn't be surprised if it's only like 5% at most.


Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn on ideology:

"To do evil a human being must first of all believe that what he’s doing is good, or else that it’s a well-considered act in conformity with natural law. Fortunately, it is in the nature of the human being to seek justification for his actions.

Macbeth’s self-justifications were feeble – and his conscience devoured him. Yes, even Iago was a little lamb too. The imagination and the spiritual strength of Shakespeare’s evildoers stopped short at a dozen corpses. Because they had no ideology.

Ideology – that is what gives evildoing its long-sought justification and gives the evildoer the necessary steadfastness and determination."

This is not a "model", but a set of disconnected observations. Stop trying to sound more sophisticated and intelligent than you are. Analytic philosophy and the social sciences are really bad in this regard. They try to mimic the rigor of math or hard science with this sort of language.

You mean like "I don’t think of the group as having transitive preferences, even in the intra-profile sense, much less the Arrovian inter-profile sense."

I have a vague familiarity with Arrow's impossibility theorem, but just speak English man, this is not necessary.

I believe that when he called ISIS "modern" he threw away all pretense at trying to sound intelligent. I mean, Jesus.

This didn't help either:
>And what Russia is up to in Syria is another mystery

Propping up a dictator who serves your every whim is a "mystery"? Really? He caught on to the Iran vs. Saudi subtext in Syria, but is apparently oblivious to the Russia vs. USA one. Perhaps he is not aware that those two nations have been at odds for some time?

Yeah, what Russia is up to is the only straightforward thing in this whole mess.

"What is the US up to?" is a much deeper mystery.

Which is why he put the word "model" in quotes...

>The medieval Arabic world was more advanced than Europe in most ways, yet still Islamic ideologically.

Europe and the west are no longer in medieval times. It has been quite a while. The medieval Arabic world of today is no comparison to the west.

It isn't about Islam but by the end it is all about Islam. Proxy wars between the sectarian divide, fueled by the religious fervor. Yes, there are other things at play, but the ugly is either Islam or an attempt to get rid of it.

You come close to describing the Political Islam and the Islam of private practice. Political Islam is as bad or worse than Political Catholicism or other christian religious states. The closest that I have experienced to the medieval backwardness of the Arabic world is Quebec pre Quiet Revolution. They didn't chop off heads, there was a working state and laws to keep a lid on things, but the restive mobs, the Imams as political power base are very familiar.

Solution? No idea. It looks quite like the Spanish civil war with every ideology and power involved in some way honing their weaponry for the larger battle to come. I agree, it will not end well. When it is over the Middle east will look very much like it does now, but Europe probably won't.

Secular Arab Nationalism with a Socialist bent! It could have done the job.

I read a very interesting book, called "The Closing of the Muslim Mind", which presented the history behind the end of the Golden Age of the Islamic World. Wouldn't you believe it, it was as simple as two ideological groups fighting it out over interpretations of holy texts? Well, nothing simple about that, but I recommend it.

The Socialist Ba'ath party of Assad is a socialist secular party. Like all closed-access economies, friends, family, and others of the Leaders Alawite sect could get monopoly businesses like telecoms, those outside the inner circle had their businesses closed down due to "regulation." The Arab Spring gave hope to an oppressed people to rise up against the totalitarian security state.

So again, socialism was used as an excuse for this totalitarianism, now there are a bunch of groups fighting for control (Assad, ISIS, Turkmen, Kurds, and other non-Alawite rebel groups. All want total control of territory for their sect. None believe in a free market.

That's the joke.

From the American perspective, I viewed Obama'a strategy as sort of a Containment II. Keep the terrorism problem over there, and don't let any other nations fall into chaos. Instead of containment, we got muddling through. We used enough force for ISIS to claim they were holding off the West, but not nearly enough to make a real dent.

I have always found the Powell doctrine compelling, and I think the last few weeks have flipped some of the questions. But the not half-assing it part is critical.

I agree with your take on ISIS, at least the diffusion of actors aspect.

My main takeaway from Syria the last five years is nobody knows anything. Tons of flaws in everyone's thinking on this issues, and I don't proclaim to have the answers.

It is clear, especially now, that Obama sees few opportunities for useful action in Syria. Support for Kurds being the one exception.

The rest of his policy has been the minimum necessary to placate the idiots who call for more, more, more, war, war, war.

No useful action? It seems like he should think of some useful actions because the war is spreading and he doesn't have the luxury of ignoring it. I don't expect much from him and many more will die.

Magic thinking?

If you can't name the plan, yes.

I have plenty of ideas, but he is the one that should be generating them, not me. He has the entire state department, military, etc. at his disposal.

Look, in times past, leaders were able to fight the Axis powers, rebuild Europe, contain the soviets etc. and now it seems our leaders can't even coordinate enough to defeat a bunch of losers camping out in Syria. Our political class is horrible.

Seriously, what if action beyond airstrikes is counterproductive to US interests?

What if people in the US make a great game of calling for more anyway?

Do you think that calling for counterproductive action is productive?

What if questions are irrelevant?

What if questions are misleading?

Obama has not supported the Kurds very much. All those weapons shipments were just headlines as they had to go through Baghdad and Baghdad didn't deliver.

I think Germany actually ships them the TOWs they use.

By bombing?

I think delivering weapons is very risky these days. See pictures of ISIS posing with their American weapons, I think some acquired through proxy rebel groups..

We have supported them with airpower and some logistics.

Some arms must have gotten through, and recently we air dropped ammo to the FSA which "accidentally" landed in Kurdish areas.

Maybe we're pushing Germany to give them the TOWs?

Its not like the Kurds are angry with us. We just haven't been able to fully deliver. They are probably used to this.

BTW, anyone else impressed by the TOWs? No wonder Ukraine wanted them.

ISIS got those weapons from Iraqis...dropped once, never fired.

Some also when they absorbed other groups.

I believe this is why the CIA demands the rebels film every TOW attack, too.

Perhaps the rebel groups are less fluid than I think, but they seem a barrel of snakes. Drop in a mouse to feed one, you feed another.

Hence my skepticism that we can simply demand a plan.

No, you're right - they probably are very incestuous, changing sides.

ISIS started out tiny. Obviously they attracted adherents. One issue is religious groups can compete on who is the more extreme/faithful.

Kurds, while Sunni, have the ethnic identity to perhaps resist this bidding war. Or the fact that many of the groups are socialist. (Don't ask, don't tell on that one.)

'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.'

Prof. Cowen, foreign policy analyst - or at least he plays one, on the Internet.

Still, no one seems to have mentioned Israel or Lebanon, both countries bordering Syria. One a direct opponent with massive interest in a Syria so hobbled it is unable to threaten its own ambitions, the other a proxy battleground involving at least Israel, Iran, and Syria for several decades.

Still, no one seems to have mentioned Israel or Lebanon, both countries bordering Syria. One a direct opponent with massive interest in a Syria so hobbled it is unable to threaten its own ambitions,

Israel has no 'ambitions' vis a vis Syria, and never did. It just wishes to be left alone. Israel holds about 22,400 sq miles of territory. About 92% of that it has held since 1949 (subsequent to that splendid little war launched by the neighboring Arab governments), about 5% it acquired in 1967 from Jordan (having begged King Hussein to refrain from joining Nasser's schemes), and about 3% it acquired from Syria in 1967 (and over the disposition of which Syria has never been willing to bargain). No one is endangered by Israel's 'ambitions'.

Do we really need to "model" this? What kind of model is it if you have to plug in a hundred unique particulars applicable only to the current object of study? How often is this model going to be reused in the future? The point of models is to use them as a basic framework to understand recurring objects of interest, not to build a gigantic one with a million moving parts that's only good for understanding one particular object and subsequently shelved. This mentality of "model building" when analyzing human events, especially stemming from highly complex motivations rooted in personal, political and historical forces seems like a disease just ravaging the economics field. Historians and journalists have been doing just fine illuminating events without this idiotic compulsion to model everything as if you'll be able to tell where history is going if you can just fit enough variables into your excel sheet.

Thank you.

"especially stemming from highly complex motivations rooted in personal, political and historical forces seems..."

Consistent with how the actors themselves are behaving? ISIS has a model of the world that they use to plan. So do Iran, the Saudis, Russia, hell even the Republican candidates. It's not like everyone is just doing everything off instinct like animals. ISIS is barbaric in behavior but also somewhat predictable based on past behavior.

#4 - A common mistake of non-religious people is to assume that religious people couldn't really believe what they say they believe. What if ISIS believe that God is a real actor in this conflict on their side and is more powerful than all of the other forces involved combined? The question of what is rational changes dramatically.

Good point, though it's an open question as to whether most ISIS fighters believe in God or ideology, like TC says. It could be that they are just being driven by profit, along the lines of a few thousand dollars in goods, and adventurism. I think that's also the driving force in Crimea (adventurism among young men with guns). Sure, the leaders are different, since they are at the top of the pyramid and get more benefits, but the rank and file may be driven by just a couple of hundred thousand in benefits or adventure (the latter being the reward for those western jihadists).

Profit and adventurism may be enough to draw someone into war, but you need more than that once confronted with the reality of risking your life--or even intentionally sacrificing your life to the cause.

I think the staying power of ISIS, compared to other rebel groups in the conflict, implies a strong ideological/theological basis.

Consider the selection effects. They have been calling for exactly the kind of people who believe enough to immediately martyr themselves. How does that shift their "median voter?"

200,000 jihadis are quite a value network

Is anyone actually fighting in Crimea? I think you mean eastern ukraine. Crimea is a done deal. It is ethnnically Russian and we haven't heard a peep out of it since it was annexed.

@Hazel Meade - yes, maybe I was thinking of Ukraine, though in Crimea they had a power crisis yesterday due to some rebels blowing up a transmission tower, and Russia offered some assistance.

Suicide bombings are strong, strong evidence for your position.

And not just the exciting kinds against Western targets.

They have suicide motorcyclists even against podunk Kurdish checkpoints.

Why don't you take Isis at their word, accept them for what they are? They filled a hole. The Belgium/Paris situation is another hole, they filled it. Same with North Africa. It seems the largest one yet is between the ears of the President.

Models are highly overrated. They assume that something will act the way we expect it to within rules and boundaries that we understand. Why not instead of modelling them, model ourselves and our western pieties and how they can be exploited by someone determined and without any restraint. We know what they will do, they will probe and find weakness, and exploit it.

I wonder what the GDP numbers will look like for France and Belgium for the fourth quarter?

"We know what they will do, they will probe and find weakness, and exploit it."

This directly contradicts the anti-model portion of your comment.

There is no model involved there. It is what they have done. There is a hole in Iraq, they filled it. A hole in Syrian opposition to Assad, they filled it. A hole in North Africa in Libya and further south, they filled it and are continuing to do so. There is a hole in the ethnic enclaves of Belgium, they filled it.

Yesterday I chased one of my workers out of the office as he was 'modeling' a job for the fourth time. Enough modeling, the job won't get done if you aren't on site. Isis from the western perspective is what the interface looks like. They are here, you are there and what are the interactions. It changes as in any conflict in response to the actions on the ground. Obama insists on not having boots on the ground, but what he loves is asses in chairs pouring over intelligence and debating the hashtag strategies. Isis, the Iranians and Russians have figured out that he isn't smart enough to know how stupid that it and are taking full advantage of the void between his ears.

This isn't modeling, it is describing what has been happening. What comes tomorrow in a dynamic and chaotic environment depends on who is where when with what. This is what a centrally controlled security state looks like, a monstrously expensive infrastructure chasing it's tail. All perfectly well documented and legal of course.

As I and Tyler said, this is going to get worse.

To suggest that there is a hole driving behavior is to posit a model. Nothing wrong with that, but don't pretend you're somehow above models.

"Models are highly overrated" is a model of modeling.

So "model" just means "claim"?

"5. I view ISIS as 'modern,' or even 'hypermodern,' rather than a 'return to barbarism.'”

No way. There's no way a modern factory such as a steel plant, refinery, or automotive plant will *ever* be built in an area controlled by ISIS. And no Walmart, and no hospital. And definitely no university.

They're an apocalyptic death cult. Any place they control will basically be unliveable within a couple of years at the very most.

Well, what does Tyler mean by modern? Cryptic as always, but I don't think he means they are going to build a Walmart. Viewing them as a "return to the past", rather than "something new", may be a mistake.

He means "not Medieval Islam" i.e. it's a new political ideology and not one that prevailed over the Ottoman Empire.

I suppose, but what's "hypermodern" about that?

One could say they're more of a return to the militant conquering version of early Islam in its initial expansion, as soon as it was strong enough to stop playing nice. If we follow that model, calling them retrograde [if not "barbaric", which is simply a term of judgment, though not one I disagree with] is apt.

(I don't know that that's very accurate, but it's wouldn't be forehead-on-palm-sighingly wrong, and most importantly it points out that Islam has historically also been things other than high Ottoman. It's been both a roughshod conqueror and an urbane mostly-live-and-let-live ruler, here and there, then and again.)

The other problem with that interpretation is that the Ottoman version of Islam was nearly urbane, and not remotely "barbaric", even if it was utterly non-European.

I remain unsure WTH Tyler actually meant with his 5th point.

Something sufficiently new is going to be a return to the past in this sense: our expectations of how people behave is conditioned on the fact that they socialised in a particular civilisation.

Whenever some group is sufficiently different that those expectations fail, we must fall back on the longer-lived verities of human nature (such as the passions and incentives that make barbarians tick), or at least back to longer-lived aspects of culture (such as the Koran). ISIS is something new, but many of our hints for understanding it come from history.

They use modern techniques. Why build a factory when you can get most things in the black market? And when to do so is to create a target for Western bombers?

"They use modern techniques."

Murder, looting, and enslavement aren't modern.

"Why build a factory when you can get most things in the black market?"

To buy things in the black market, one needs cash. The four main sources of ISIS cash are oil, looting antiquities, taxing the (very poor) population they control, and donations. The oil source will be virtually eliminated after sufficient oil transport trucks are destroyed. Looting antiquities is not a long-term revenue stream. The population they control will become ever poorer, and ISIS is unlikely to ever control a wealthy population. Donations will probably decline as the world sees how barbaric ISIS is.

Maybe he means "modern" in reference to the way they are a kind of romantic fantasy, with the romanticism imported from very western origins. They're not really an authentically medieval movement, they're sort of like a romance-novel medieval movement: full of buxom women and knights on horseback, or in this case, sex slaves and jihadi heros wielding swords in defense of the faith.

This is right, but I suspect that the world-view of real medeivals was not so different. In fact their (reaslistic!) view of their situation might have been more rosy than that of the average _Game of Thrones_ fan.

There’s no way a modern factory such as a steel plant, refinery, or automotive plant will *ever* be built in an area controlled by ISIS.

I hope that you are correct but how different is ISIS for Saudi Arabia?

Well, Saudi Arabia's built refineries.

So there's that.

there are already refineries, hospitals and universities under IS and they are all running
who needs walmat when you have markets, again all running smoothly
ludcrous to expect a fledgling state under constant bombardment to have heavy industry like cars/steel

but then im replying to an idiot american

Good analysis. The only point I'd disagree with is 9. "This is not going to end well."

Syria is about as good an approximation as we have in the modern world to Thomas Hobbes' state of nature, where "the life of man" is "poor, nasty, brutish and short". Pretty much any conceivable end to the conflict would be better than its continuation; from the point of view of the Syrian people, if not from the point of view of external players.

From a Hobbesian perspective, ISIS isn't anarchic chaos but a nascent state taking the place of a failed state, or perhaps several failed states. The course of this process is likely to be similar to other changes in authority like the French and Bolshevik revolutions. If there's a model, it's been seen before, although its success is hardly guaranteed.

"3b. The proxy war heated up due to a rising Iran," What's "rising" about Iran? While the Iranian mullahs might be enjoying the spectacle of the destruction of their ideological opponents, they've unleashed, or allowed to develop, a force that will be beyond their control.

They didn't allow anything to happen. Rather they are trying to prevent Sunnis from controlling a mostly Shia Iraq.

Revenue from oil must now take a severe hit, but they've still got wheat - as long as they have enough farmers.

Is being the site of a proxy war always bad? What If the local actors can extract resources from their patron states, while coming to a tacit agreement with their co-belligerent proxies? They may be able to acquire at much faster rates than they destroy. Arguably the American colonies were the site of a proxy war between English Whigs and Tories circa 1776. Also much of Italy during the Rennaissance.

Proxy wars seem to only get really bloody when the respective local sides really hate each other. Then they're willing to go all in on total destruction. If they generally respect each other, then they fight with kid gloves all the while scamming their ideological benefactors.

Fair point. Hadn't really thought of that. You could argue that Lebanon is currently in the sort of good civil war equilibrium that you describe.

That said, the bad civil war equilibrium is pretty terrible. External backers make it possible to keep on fighting even when so much has been destroyed that pretty much everyone ends up being a net loser. If more weapons and cash keep being pumped to participants in a civil war, it doesn't get the chance to burn itself out.

Leaving a bad civil war equilibrium took Lebanon 15 years last time round, hopefully Syria'll be able to manage it more quickly.

Don't forget high rates of cousin marriage in Syria and Iraq. Here's my Feb. 2003 article on why democracy building in Iraq was unlikely to work:


Here's Alan Bittle's tables of rates of cousin marriage around the world:


My vague impression is that the rates they may be starting to come down in the Middle East, which would be a good thing. Besides the genetic load, inbreeding generally encourages clannishness.

To be frank, I doubt it matters, Todd puts Bangladesh's endogamy rate among the lowest ones in the Muslim world, but it still is Bangladesh. https://books.google.com.br/books?id=PegYBQAAQBAJ&pg=PA32&lpg=PA32&dq="emmanuel+todd"+cousins&source=bl&ots=Tp-URKYEJT&sig=dWuQNuQxM2ohDNdV8s01SSKFA2I&hl=en&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwii6OTSoKvJAhUIJJAKHekUBucQ6AEIODAK#v=onepage&q=%22emmanuel%20todd%22%20cousins&f=false

What's the trend like in Appalachia?

Higher than the rest of the U.S. before automobiles, much lower than in much of the Muslim Middle East. Bittles has a reference to a 1940s study of some holler in Kentucky that shocked Americans and fueled the beloved stereotype of hillbillies as inbred, but it was well under Iraq levels and almost all second cousin marriage rather than first cousin marriage, which was the ideal in much of the Middle East at least until very recently.

It did contribute to clannishness in the region, such as the notorious Hatfield-McCoy clan war.

The good news is that the birth defects problem of inbreeding washes out very quickly, mostly in one generation. Geneticist L.L. Cavalli-Sforza documented that there had been a lot of second cousin marriage and the like in isolated Italian mountain villages, but once bus service came, young people went courting a few mile further and their children shot up in height.

I think I see a way to solve two problems with one stone ...

Just two comments on the least defensible of your claims, Tyler.

1) Syria has much more solidity as a nation-state than did Yugoslavia, which did not have a single group that constituted a majority, the Serbs and Croats being too close in numbers, even if their languages are really close. Once they went after each other, it was all over. In Syria the majority is Sunni Arabs who have a strong Syrian identity. They just are not in power, and there are now a bunch of groups trying to lead them to power, which is an important part of why the current situation is such a mess. Modern Syria may have been created by the French, who also gave the minor minority Alawites superior positions in the military allowing them to seize power. But the place has had a long off and on previous political existence as a province of the Ottoman and even Roman empires. Yugoslavia never had any previous existence as a political entity prior to its post-WW I creation.

2) What is with this Saudi Arabia declining while Iran is rising? Iran has always been way more militarily powerful than Saudi Arabia, with a much larger population and a good half millennium of existence as an independent and serious nation state. The Saudis were a bunch of religious fanatics hanging around in the middle of the desert until Abdulaziz took Mecca in the 20s and then oil was found there. But Iran had oil being produced out of it well before it was coming out of KSA. The falling price of oil hurts both of them. Arguably the only sense in which Iran has risen while Saudi has fallen is due to the Bush invading Iraq and overthrowing Saddam in favor of the Iran-allied Shi'a. The Saudis warned him against that, and did succeed in convincing his father to avoid going all the way to Baghdad after winning the first Gulf war. But then, like the Sunnis in Syria, the Shi'a in Iraq are the majority. And, of course, it was Bush's invasion of Iraq that gave us "al-Qaeda in Iraq," which morphed into Da'esh over time.

Syrians are a tribal people of inbred clans, which means that they are not a nation and there is no majority population in Syria in the modern nationalist sense. The historical places called 'Syria' are not even remotely synonymous with today's Syria geographically or in terms of people's ancestry.


You are overstating the situation here, although there is considerable tribalism in Syria as well as broader ethnic and religious diversity. But, even if the borders have varied over time (often broader than those of the current nation), that such places as Latakia, Antioch, Aleppo, Palmyra, and Damascus, one of the longest continuously existing cities in the world, have been identified as being party of "Syria" from at least the 8th century BCE, if not much earlier. The Roman province of Syria had borders nearly coinciding with the current national borders. Ottoman Syria included what is now Lebanon, Israel, northern Iraq, western Jordan, and piece of southern Turkey, which was further subdivided into vilayets. The French Mandate of Syria after WW I closely approximated the modern borders, except for including Lebanon, which the French carved out as a to-be-dominated-by-Christians enclave (and it having a distinct ancient history as the seat of Phonece).. The Ottoman province was known as "al Shams," also identified in the West with "the Levant," which is in the Arabic name for Da'esh, which is why some people call the caliphate, "Islamic State of Iraq and Levant," or "ISIL."

In any case, the general area that is now Syria has been identified as possessing that name since at least the 8th century BCE, and almost certainly earlier for some variant of it, as the name probably came from the Assyrians, although some argue that it is even older than that coming from the Akkadians. So, yoiu are all wet, P.


I think the root cause of popular revolt is always tyranny. It's proxy now to dismiss any attempt of popular revolt as "Western instigated" revolution because that works better to blame the west for everything. When we fail to understand the anatomy of a tyranny we cannot understand the mess that is the Mid East.

Oppression is fuels radicalism, when channels of dialogue are broken people resort to radical ways, from Mandela do Arafat. Radical Islam has a lot to do with Islam (go watch Ibrahim Issa videos on YouTube, he makes a good case) but it has more to do with tyrannical leadership in most Muslim dominated countries of Mid East.

In open societies the "self-improving mechanism" works better, because leaders do not have a "carte blanche" to do whatever they want, people have voices and can negotiate their social contracts very often, in dictatorship their lives are dictated and whenever their wills fails to please the leader they're oppressed then making the country a "sleeping revolution". The country is kept "at peace" by force and intimidation, police, army and security services are instruments of fear, they are well fed to keep the "fear wall" up because when it falls the revolution starts and in face of revolt violent response from the oppressor usually leads to civil war because people fighting the dictator usually get help from abroad either by sympathy or vested interests.

You make a good point on #2 and #3. Building a functional state after so many years of tyranny amid a civil war is a huge task. Syria will get worse before it gets better and wherever there's a dictatorship people will try to find ways to get rid of it, it will always be a "sleeping revolution". The only way to build stable Muslim societies in Mid East is accepting open societies, where individual rights are respected and political power cannot be abused.

To fix Syria, there must be a solution for transitional government without Assad who could find refuge in Sochi and a broader global coalition to dislodge Daesh from the occupied territories, they will retreat and become a bunch of cells that perpetrate terrorist attacks but without their training camps and access to easy products to smuggle. It's also vital to clamp down on other means of financing, particularly from rich people from the Gulf.

However, we must bear in mind that at this stage, radical madrassas should deserve attention and should be erased.

It's true. My model of civil war would also be that war needs a grievance (e.g. tyranny) to trigger.
Then the brutal people, you may also call them would-be dictators or "particularly career-oriented", take over the uprising. They gradually displace people less inclined to violence. War starts.
Sometimes these people win quickly (really weak states). Often they do not, as society sees them as another potentially autocratic evil (they are right).
Once the would-be dictators age, after a generation or so, but never less than ten years, they stop fighting or get killed. And the war just ends, without further ado. There is little government can do. Not even kill them more quickly; that would fuel the uprising.
It's amazing how after a decade or so, we have forgotten about all the civil war research that went on back then.

"My model of civil war would also be that war needs a grievance (e.g. tyranny) to trigger. Then the brutal people, you may also call them would-be dictators or “particularly career-oriented”, take over the uprising. They gradually displace people less inclined to violence. War starts. Sometimes these people win quickly (really weak states). Often they do not, as society sees them as another potentially autocratic evil (they are right)."

Spot on!

If we could wave a magic wand and turn Syria into a pluralistic democracy, that might make the oppression go away, but I suspect that it would rapidly return, because the Syrians themselves do not understand, or have the cultural norms necessary for, living without oppressing one another. This is why every Arab Spring revolt (with the possible exception of Tunisia) has failed.

It's not true that "every Arab Spring revolt (with the possible exception of Tunisia) has failed". Tunisia is still the best example but Egypt cannot be described as a failure despite the ousting of the first post revolution elected leader. We cannot affirm that Al Sissi will be able to reconstruct an autocratic regime a la Mubarak, I think some of his moves indicate that he would like it to be the case but I don't think he has the tools to do so. Egyptians are far from being an ideal democracy at this stage but they're a more inclusive society that before and if they keep their focus on building inclusive institutions they will do alright and prevent the emergence of another dictator.

Arab Spring has failed there where civil war was already there (Yemen) and where the dictator decided to respond with force (Libya and Syria) in lieu of leaving office/flee the country (Egypt and Tunisia) or reforming the state (Morocco). When you pull your gun out in presence of regime toppling protests you "invite" those who @yo calls "would be dictator" to take central stage displacing those who are less willing to use violence to contest power.

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."

I bet a Saudi oil baron or maybe even a government representative could make sure they have what they need to keep killing innocents. See your point #3

Our Saudi allies would never do such a thing, they share our democratic institutions, our devotion to human rights and our Christian values. You may be thinking of Iranians or Venezuelans.

Supposedly Raqqa is full of western delicacies because the foreign fighters and the media arm like those.

If I wanted intel on ISIS economics, I'd see when those started to dry up.

It would really be helpful if we could get these muslims to stop being muslim

Syria was basically ruled by a Coalition of the Fringes (Alawite in the lead, Shiite, Christian, Yezidi, Kurds, etc.) over the Core (the Sunni majority). That's not very democratic in the old-fashioned Andrew Jackson sense of the Democratic Party that emphasized majority rule, but it's rather like the new-fangled Barack Obama sense of the Democratic Party that emphasizes minority rights.

The happy ending would have been if the majority Sunnis had matured into a well-educated, reasonable, pragmatic people ready for the responsibilities of self-rule. That actually has happened a few times in history. To take a local example, my vague impression is that the Kurds have been maturing politically and have been acting in this century with restraint and intelligent purpose in a neighborhood where those commodities have been unfortunately rare.

Unfortunately, judging by the rise of ISIS there's not much evidence that the Sunnis are on a similar trajectory. And that's what made disastrous Obama's call for the overthrow of the internationally recognized government and its replacement by the Obama-Dunham-Soetoro clan's outdated delusion of Moderate Islam.

It's a tragedy: no President before Obama has had so much familiarity with Islam via family, residence, vacations, friends, and academic study. Obama was educated expensively by his family to be a "Muslimist" working for the State Department, a soft power NGO like the Ford Foundation, or a university (such as the U. of Hawaii's East-West Center) as a diplomat or other go-between between America and Muslim-intensive regions like Indonesia, Pakistan, or East Africa. As he told his biographer David Maraniss in 2011, until he rebelled and moved ot Chicago to be a race activist in 1985 he was on a predictable career path toward being a specialist in international relations.

On the other hand, Obama is by background a Muslimist rather than an Arabist, with most of his familiarity with non-Arab Islamic regions.

It's hard to say why, but it's clear now that he made the wrong call on the Sunnis.

This is ridiculous. Ann Dunham's research was in economic anthropology and, if anything, more associated with the Agama Jawa used practices in blacksmithing and textiles than Muslim practices and her focus on women in this work, if anything, was anathema to any Islamic point of view. Dunham's second (ex-)husband (they divorced in 1980) certainly had "Islam" as the religion on his Indonesian identity card, but he was a casual Muslim at best (he drank alcohol, for example, dying of liver disease) and he may well have been one of the millions of Javanese who originally had Agama Jawa on their cards but had this automatically changed to Islam when, in a concession to the muslim organizations, eliminated Agama Jawa as an option (and, coincidentally, keep the number of state-approved religions at the state ideology number of five, split Christians into Catholics and Reformed Protestants.)

As to Obama being "educated expensively to be a "Muslimist", as a child in Indonesia he attended a Catholic school for two and a half grades and, when they could no longer afford the tuition, went to an Indonesian state school for one and a half years, a secular school. There were certainly many possibilities to have Obama attend a Muslim school instead (in fact, en route to either school, he would have passed a Muslim school), but they did not choose such an option. In Hawai'i, largely under his (Christian) grandparents' watch, his exposure to anything islamic was minimal to none.

Aren't you making Sailer's point? The Islam that Obama gets all teary eyed about is as you describe, a nominal faith, a community fixture as opposed to an authoritarian cudgel. The Persian/Arabic Islam is stern, hard and extremely radical, a political Islam as opposed to the private practice of a faith.

This is the source of all this claptrap that it isn't about Islam. Nonsense. That is like saying that the Vatican being a city state has nothing to do with Catholicism.

And by the way, watching the systematic demolition of political Catholicism during the last century has been instructive. We hope for a Muslim reformation, but I suggest that the imams know what their irrelevance looks like and are doing an excellent job of preventing it. No second Vatican council.

"That is like saying that the Vatican being a city state has nothing to do with Catholicism."
Is there like saying that Pedophilia scandals has nothing to do with Catholicism?
"The Islam that Obama gets all teary eyed about is as you describe, a nominal faith, a community fixture as opposed to an authoritarian cudgel."
Well, Mr. Bush assured us--and his Saudi friends- that he knew Islam was not inherently terrorist and we were not at war with Islam. Did Mr. Bush also get all teary eyed about Islam?

Obama visited Pakistan for 3 weeks as a student. He had friends from Pakistan.

Many of the jihadis drink and break Islamic laws as well.

Obama may have some mystical attachment to Islam...remember he thinks the azan is beautiful for example.

No, I'm not saying he's a Muslim. I'm just saying he may have some romantic notions attached to it, like a Catholic kid might think Crusader knights were noble.

remember he thinks the azan is beautiful for example

So does Sam Harris, the avowed (and strident) atheist who dislikes all religions, but Islam most of all.

Exactly. Its enchanting. So are Gregorian chants. If you listen to them you think about serious monk contemplating god. Its nice.

But its romanticizing them.

As outlined in Robert D. Kaplan’s 1995 book The Arabists: The Romance of an American Elite, Protestant missionaries from the Atlantic Seaboard voyaged to the Arab world in the 19th century. They didn’t have much luck converting the locals to Protestantism. (Obama’s Columbia professor Edward Said was a rare Arab Protestant.) But these intermarried families founded influential schools such as the American University of Beirut.

The Arabists played an influential role in American foreign policy until largely being squeezed out by Zionists angered by the Arabists’ sympathy for the Palestinians.

Much of the Muslim world, however, is not Arab—for example, Indonesia, Pakistan, and large parts of black Africa. And that opened up a potential career path not as an Arabist per se, but as a “Muslimist.” The Muslimist route became especially promising in 1973 with the Muslim-dominated OPEC’s emergence as an economic power. The oil cartel included not only Saudi Arabia, the Emirates, Libya, and Iran, but also Indonesia and part-Muslim Nigeria.

And who was better suited by family, friends, and personality to become a professional Muslimist than Barack Obama? As Obama told his biographer David Maraniss, the “obvious path for me given my background” was to get a graduate degree in international relations and wind up “working in the State Department, in the Foreign Service, or working for an international foundation.…”

After all, how common is it for an American citizen to be the biological son of an East African government official and a Ford Foundation employee in Jakarta, and the stepson of an Indonesian who works in government relations for an American oil company because his brother-in-law was in charge of mineral rights for the Jakarta regime?

A few of us have pointed out that the young Obama had numerous two-degrees-of-separation connections with the CIA. Obama himself implied in his autobiography that his mother worked at the US Embassy in Jakarta with purported diplomats who were actually Company operatives.

But little evidence has emerged that Obama was ever cut out to be a cutout. A less glamorous but more plausible notion is that Obama was never suited for being a spy pretending to be a diplomat. A good agent looks boring on the outside, such as Gary Oldman in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. In contrast, glory-hogging Obama appears exotic on the outside but is boring on the inside.

Instead, he always had the makings of a plain old diplomat.

Obama’s elders recognized that this career path made sense for him. Thus, at substantial expense, he attended Occidental, an underachieving but quite WASPy/international liberal-arts college, and then majored in international relations at Columbia.

Most of Obama’s male friends from age 18 through 24 were rich Pakistani Marxists, putting him on the fringes of the powerful Bhutto circle. (They all saw Obama as much less African-American than as “international.”)

But it’s also telling that his best American buddy, Phil Boerner, with whom he transferred from Occidental to Columbia in 1981, was the son of a peripatetic diplomat.

Likewise, Obama’s most serious New York girlfriend, Genevieve Cook, was the daughter of a top Australian diplomat/spy in Indonesia who later became Australia’s ambassador to America. Genevieve was also the stepdaughter of the chief counsel of the International Nickel Company, which had lucrative mining interests in Indonesia. (Continuing this Muslimist theme, she rebounded from Obama to marry the son of an Egyptian educator.)

Many have invoked Obama’s mother’s Ph.D. in anthropology as a key to his watchful persona, but academia is not quite the best analogy. His mother frequently abandoned him to his grandparents’ care to work on her 1,043-page Ph.D. dissertation on Indonesian blacksmiths. Obama, in contrast, has been remarkably lacking in the urge to do original work, except in writing about himself. He has All-But-Dissertation written all over him.

Obama’s dearth of creativity would not be a defect in, say, a Foreign Service lifer, where his job would have been to relay messages from the State Department to the host government and vice-versa. The “blank screen” aspect of Obama’s personality would have suited him well for a job as a relay.

Obama’s most obvious talent is that he is good at listening to people speak and then repeating it back accurately and elegantly, showing comprehension as well as rote memorization. This is a crucial skill for diplomats—the ability to grasp the implications of what the foreign official is saying and pass it back to Foggy Bottom.


Obama lived in Indonesia from the age of 5 to the age of 10 and got kicked around in school; I doubt he was very attached to the place. While his mother was in Honolulu dying of cancer, he was attending a humbug jamboree called the Million Man March; I doubt he cared very much about her in a visceral way, and that's just what happens to a mother whose predominant trait is self-centeredness. With some exceptions (e.g Mary Maxwell Gates), mothers are generally a weak influence on their children's understanding of civic life or religion.

Here's a hypothesis about Obama: he's an artifact to some degree (see the personal account of the Harvard Law student who knew both Obama and Joan Jett and thought their personal development similar), and a reflection of his various environments to some degree. He grew up in Honolulu's haolie society. Hawaii Japanese are generally natives and have a distinct sensibility that you can recognize on very limited exposure. You have some oldline families in Hawaii, but the haolies are mostly migrants who traded their home turf for the climate. Honolulu is a ticky tacky town, but with less neon than you might see in Miami or Las Vegas. The adults in his immediate vicinity (Stanley Dunham, Madalyn Dunham, and Frank Marshall Davis) did not inspire emulation. He's addled by the idea that he's black, but has no contact with normal working-class blacks and ends up thinking he'll learn watching Soul Train. When he eventually marries, it's to a woman who manifests very little of her solid working-class upbringing - i.e. who is an artifact herself; when he takes up religion, it's ersatz politicized Africanisant rubbish peddled by Jeremiah Wright. And, in truth, there is little that he says or does which takes issue with the sort of opinions which are modal in a faculty rathskellar (seen most particularly in his abiding distaste for firearms).

I nominate this 1-2 comment punch as most emblematic of the self-congratulatory lunacy that parades as rationality on MR's comment board. Worst of the worst.

emblematic of the self-congratulatory lunacy

Since I refer to myself not at all in this comment, that's quite a tour de force. As for 'lunacy', you're projecting.

I agree the only explanation for Obama is he is likely the smartest man of his generation. Too talented to ever really develop of vocation he settled for quickly mastering a series of disciplines. Like a true master he left little mark on those fields as a true master is too committed to mastery to let achievement become an obstacle to mastery. It's fitting that a man of Obama's talents would perfectly capture a Zen-like approach to mastery intuitively. Again a true mark of genius-needing no exposure to ideas in order to nonetheless encapsulate them.

One can understand how Obama would thus naturally feel sympathetic with Islam and its centuries of unabated cultural achievement. The conquest of Baghdad and the works of Averros to name just two fairly recent examples. Perhaps if the Christian West had a similar history of achievement Obama would feel more warmness to the West. But after all the invention of the jet engine not to mention something like something like Don Quixote or the poetry of T.S. Eliot occurred so long ago that's it's hardly possible to see any embers of that brief period of creativity left.

Seconded. White guys psychoanalyzing Obama's tribal identify with all the insight of a jihadist explaining the infidel.

White guys psychoanalyzing

That word does not mean what you think it means. (And Obama's connection to the domestic black population is that he married into it).

Self-parodying. Please share with us more of your subtle understanding of what it means to be black in America, and to have lived in Indonesia as a child, and in particular how you understand Obama more than he himself does.


(and -1 for dr)

"The adults in his immediate vicinity (Stanley Dunham, Madalyn Dunham, and Frank Marshall Davis) did not inspire emulation."

Obama's American grandparents were the black sheep of good families, with his grandmother eventually reverting to family form and becoming a bank executive.

Somewhat more distant relations and friends were solid upper middle class individuals in academia and government. For example, his ne'er do well grandfather Stanley's brother Ralph Waldo Emerson Dunham had a Ph.D. from Berkeley and a long career in the federal government. His grandmother Madalyn's sister had a Ph.D. and was a college professor in what used to be called "a Boston marriage." Another great-uncle was the #2 man at the huge U. of Chicago library. His mother's academic mentor at the East West Center at the U. of Hawaii was Alice Greeley Dewey, a descendant of both the Go West Young Man presidential candidate of 1872 Horace Greeley and the philosopher John Dewey.

The East-West Center was created by Congress in 1959 in response to the Soviet creation of Patrice Lumumba University for Third World revolutionaries. Marriages between Americans and invited foreign students were common and by no means discouraged, such as Obama's mother's to Lolo Soetoro, the son of the top Indonesian petroleum geologist.

This was all part of a long American Cold War strategy to nurture warm relations with non-Communist left of center young elites.

The landslide re-election of Reagan in 1984, however, made a Foreign Service career sound less congenial to Obama, and his interests turned to domestic race politics, specifically the Council Wars in Chicago.

Janny Scott, the biographer of Obama's mother, interviewed several of her uncles and aunts before their recent deaths, and they all come off as intelligent, educated, judicious, bookish and otherwise similar in personality to the President. In writing his memoir, Obama concentrated on his raffish maternal grandfather because Stanley was a sort of Willy Loman-like lovable loser and thus made good literary material. But the President is much more similar in personality to his grandfather's late brother, the aptly named Dr. Ralph Waldo Emerson Dunham.

But the President is much more similar in personality to his grandfather’s late brother, the aptly named Dr. Ralph Waldo Emerson Dunham.

You mean his uncle alternated between peevishness and logorrhea?

Obama’s American grandparents were the black sheep of good families,

Steve, I think you need to learn the common meaning of 'black sheep' before you use it again.

The landslide re-election of Reagan in 1984, however, made a Foreign Service career sound less congenial to Obama,

The Foreign Service recruits for people who have general erudition and can think on their feet. Just the written exam is daunting. Very skeptical they'd have taken BO.

1. ? Really. How can Syria be seen out of the context of how all Arabic revolts in the Arab spring were all to some extend hijacked by Islamist movements? ISIL is just one fraction, the Brotherhood is another, of a (mostly SunnI) religious resurgence building since the 1950s (at least). Islam not being part? Why are Americans so insistent on this, when they at the same time saw Communism as the ideological cause of all popular uprisings in the 1940s-1980s? Even Tyler? Im disappointed with the narrowmindedness and the insistence of seeing religion as different than any other ideology...

And this idea that Nationstates is the natural base of the mental tribe. Of all nationalities (pun intended) Americans should know better.

The course of history is for multi-national or multi-creedal polities to devolve into their constituent nations. In Syria's case, the elite/ruling class was tiny compared to the ruled class, and was constantly bleeding off talent through emigration. Unfortunately, the erstwhile democratic majority is hobbled by centuries of Islam, which doesn't have Christianity's strictures against cousin marriage and polygamy. Of course, Islam is not monolithic, and the Alawites seem quite cosmopolitan, but I don't know what they do differently other than their women don't cover themselves. They actually may be mirroring the practices inside the Hajnal lines (more educated women, later marriage, no cousin marriage, later childbirth, fewer children). This would certainly explain the sophistication and higher IQs of Syrian Christians.

Really, a lot of things seem explicable in terms of the K-selected vs. the r-selected.

I would argue that Islamists have just as much right to rebel against the dictator as anyone else.

They may view the dictator as immoral because he drinks gin and has a harem, rather than because he doesn't let people vote, but object they might.

No mention of the drought, the government's cutting off water resources to much of the country, and the subsequent collapse of Syrian agriculture.

Further, one important aspect of Daesh is that it is a cross-border enterprise, combining Sunni populations and lands in both Iraq and Syria, and with them Iraqi oil has suddenly become a source of finance in Syria and a source that neither Assad nor the non-Daesh Sunnis have access to.

4. As Hamid intimates, what's really hard is to model the Obama administration and its supporters. Rigid ideologues who won't change course or admit error, no matter how badly their plans fail: where do they acquire and how to they maintain such levels of narcissism and grandiosity?

I too was convinced that the conflict in Syria, as with most conflict in the middle east, was sectarian. That was until I read Graeme Wood's long article in the Atlantic this past March about apocalyptic Islam and what ISIS wants. Cowen assesses the conflict in Syria from an economic perspective, which may have been accurate at the outset of the conflict (when Sunni Muslim Syrians first began their protests), but the conflict has evolved, first as a sectarian conflict (again, Cowen may have been right at one time) and now as the fulfillment of the apocalypse and Armageddon. Crazy, right? Millions of Muslims and Christians believe in the coming apocalypse, are they all crazy? But, you say, Christians don't support violence to bring it about. Really? Fundamentalist Christians foment conflict between the Israelis and the Palestinians because they believe it fulfills scripture and the coming apocalypse. I have a home in the buckle of the Bible Belt, and I can assure readers that these people are serious about their religion and their (preferred) place in the apocalypse. And they are doctors and lawyers and small business owners and teachers and firemen, not raging madmen who believe in beheading and crucifying apostates. It's all but impossible to convince someone who is atheist or agnostic or religious only on holidays that sane people can believe such things. But they do. After all, the chosen twelve Disciples of Jesus gave up their worldly occupations and possessions because the End was near and only those who repent and accept Jesus as their Savior would be spared an eternity in Hell.

Yes, if it weren't for rayward's Evangelical neighbors in Des Moines, Israelis and Palestinians would be living in one big, happy, unicameral state on the eastern Mediterranean shore; call it, Diversitopia.

I do agree with Cowen's prophesy (I can't help myself) that the political and theological conflict could be the basis for some kind of (relatively peaceful and stable) equilibria. Absent intervention. If one reads the latest from John Bolton and Robert Kagan, likely influential advisers in the next Republican administration, the conflict in Syria is an excuse to launch their long sought war against Iran. Then, perhaps, the prophesy of the apocalypse and Armageddon will be fulfilled.

Then you better vote Trump, because the neo-cons hate him and bellicose rants aside, he doesn't seem interested in bogging the US military down over there. And don't vote for Clinton, because she helped engineer the destabilization of Libya and Syria.

I suppose you could vote Sanders who'll probably try to nationalize the steel industry and re-start the Civilian Conservation Corps. There are worse policies.

The Atlantic article was quite good, but I think what the reporter did well was to get inside the heads of a small number of people--several ISIS supporters in the West, and also some people from the same fringe of fundamentalist Islam who reject ISIS. (My understanding is that most Muslims think these guys are nuts, probably in much the same way that most Christians think the Westboro Baptist Church guys are nuts.)

I don't know how representative the people he interviewed are of the actual set of ISIS fighters, who I think are mostly Sunni Arabs who've lived through many years of war and destruction. This article describes interviews with some ISIS prisoners, and leaves a different sense of what the average ISIS fighter might be like.

My guess is, if you want to convince me that the End Times are at hand, having me live through the destruction of my country in a bloody multisided ethnic/religious civil war is probably a pretty good way of going about it. Consider the number of people in the modern US who are convinced that the End Times are at hand, despite the fact that we're among the richest and most successful countries in human history, and there hasn't been a war here for more than a century. To an Iraqi or a Syrian, it must seem a lot more plausible.

"(My understanding is that most Muslims think these guys are nuts, probably in much the same way that most Christians think the Westboro Baptist Church guys are nuts.)"

Opus Dei vs. Catholics who aren't really religious anymore, but go to mass on Christmas, use B-C, etc..

Which is "more" Catholic or "really" Catholic?

Which Islamic world do you think they want to go back to? They dont want to go back to the Islamic intellectual and cultural golden age. They want to go back to the very beginning of Islam. The plundering, marauding, rape and pillage Islam of the first 30 years of its existence.

The "Golden age" you refer to was just as bloody, if not more so:

"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."

Can someone explain what the first 12 words of this mean, and why they are true?

I think it means that will tax more and more and get less and less total receipts.

When you saw France earlier this year enter the conflict with a bombing campaign you then knew that parties were beginning a negotiated settlement. To be at the bargaining table, you have to be in the conflict. Same with the increased role of Russia.

The real issue is the creation of additional states: for the Kurds, Sunnis, and Shias in the region, or the creation of a federated state which gives recognition to regional differences (although this did not work so well in Iraq with a Shia majority.)

Europe had the Thirty Years War. Who's to say that people don't have to learn what the cost of conflict is to withdraw from it.

(Saudi-)Arabian Imperialism.

The polarization of Islam all over the world is the answer of the Arabian oligarchy, to the threats that modernity (or modern societies) pose to their power and wealth, for instance Laicism, Nationhood or Democracy. All of these Concepts are not very well regarded in the upper-class of the Arabian peninsula. The funding of Wahabite-Sunni madrasas, mosques and organizations all over the world is the attempt to use Islam as a proxy to nationhood. It is a win-win for them since they can't offer nationhood to their citizens while it increases their range of influence into other nations societies.

It's what the Papal States until 'recently'.

Every unrest about Islam is one unrest less about the 'Islamic' Rulers. Tragically this also means that every terrorist attack in Mumbai/Paris/Nairobi means one less revolt back home in Riad.

What's happening in Syria is the collection of those low hanging fruits. Plus the incompetence of the West, which got itself lured by those arabic to act on their behalf.

Erdogan is trying to use the same approach, mixing it with an Turk-Hegemonial approach. It just happens that Turkey's and the Arabic interests align in Syria so perfectly.

+1 One of my neighbors is an ag economist who travels around the world. The problem he sees in Africa and the Middle East is the madrassa "educational" system--kids prepared to recite the Koran, but unable to find a job because they learned nothing other than religion in school. They make fine and dedicated soldiers fighting for the cause, however.

Absolutely. These countries will have to deal with these radicalized believers for generations. It will take a long time for them.

I don't think this Saudi financed extremism is an Official geo-strategical doctrine. As it is not always the state that funds those groups but often individuals from the Saudi upper-class.

So one European analogy to that would be the German fraternities of the 1800s. Those fraternities were made up of students of different backgrounds but ultimately the dominating group where those students that choose to confront the "threats" of modernity with nationalistic hate and anti-Semitism, as modernity ousted them from nobility and their supposedly inherited special rights and riches. Their doing over time heavily caused the rise of the NSDAP.

So to further push that analogy: ISIS is to Arabic nobility what the waffles SS was to the "burschenschaften" .

Interesting Papal States analogy.

Maybe in a more stable future, the Saudi royal family will rule one square mile in the heart of Mecca?

Personally I think the world would be a better place, if that were to happen. Just for the sake of them being in charge no more. Although not if Islam were ever to be a part of that bright future. Even if it's not a precondition for a modern Islam it would surely be a must-have result: an enlightened Islam would have no problems having non-Muslim tourist wandering around the sights of Mecca and medina. Wanna-be-papal Saudi upper class has and will.

#8: people running away is not only about losing tax income. Refugees are bad for the "we're building the perfect country" ISIS narrative. If ISIS state is the perfect place to be, why people want to escape? People voting with their feet it bad publicity.

This is true. Even if each person is a drain on ISIS resources, ISIS would rather quietly put a bullet in their head where no media can see it than have them flee the country.

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

My own pet theory as a very much non-expert is that Iraq and Syria need to be broken into smaller pieces based on ethnicity: Kurdistan, Sunni-stan, and Shia-stan, and perhaps others. From what I understand Kurdistan is already more or less operating. That may be the major lesson of Yugoslavia and perhaps World War II, which had the unfortunate effect of making many European countries close to monoethnic.

There are problems with this (e.g. Turkey and Kurds) but there also seem to be many problems with the status quo, to the extent there is a status quo.

Perhaps the only thing average individuals can do is attempt to use less oil at the margin (shift from a hybrid car to a plug-in hybrid when necessary, from a standard car to a hybrid, and there are others), since oil is indirectly funding so much of the violence.

1. ISIS may be totally apocalyptic oriented, though I doubt it, but at least as a medium term goal they would like to build a "shining city on the hill" type of state to show the Islamic world and then the rest of the world that their way of life is superior. This is an...optimistic...but not crazy goal and it is certainly not crazy that Sunnis in Iraq and Syria would want some self-determination.

2. I can't speak for what the Quran does or doesn't say, but other than taking video I don't think ISIS is doing anything not depicted in the Old Testament- plenty of genocide, terrorism, and sex slavery/forced marriage there. Their behavior is easy for me to understand through a religious lens.

3. I highly doubt the Paris attacks had anything to do with some grand plan to stop the flow of refugees. Earlier that same day the Kurds had retaken the town of Sinjar, which has significant strategic and symbolic value. The campaign was highly publicized on social media to Kurdish/Arab/Muslim audiences (there was even a hashtag #FreeSinjar on Twitter), and the ISIS rank and file were probably aware of the loss as well. It seems unlikely that the Paris attacks occurred a few hours later purely by coincidence; more likely, these were operatives ISIS had in their pocket and elected to use them to drown out the "bad news."

4. ISIS could carry out a Paris scale attack in the US if they wanted. They do not need to go through the refugee program.

5. I don't see any moral mandate to admit Syrian refugees. I certainly didn't see any "but teh statue of liberty!!!" rants pre Paris, and I still don't see them today for the millions of non-Syrian refugees, including refugees fleeing countries where the US had an active (or maybe I should say open) role in toppling the government.

6. The more children and in particular senior citizens you let in through the refugee program, the worse the deal is for taxpayers. "Military aged men" can at least work.

If they could carry out a Paris-style attack on the US, why haven't they?

ISIS has murdered a bunch of US and UK citizens in really brutal ways, on video, and put the video online, apparently to provoke us into some kind of military response. I imagine if they could, they'd attack us here.

I have continually heard about penetration testers getting across the border or through airport customs, and security testers sneaking weapons or mock explosives through TSA security in 90%+ of attempts, and critical infrastructure being vulnerable in various ways. And we all know how easy it is for even one or two random people to get their hands on guns and cause damage. I don't think that ISIS has tried to attack the US and just been foiled by DHS every single time.

You avoided his question with a non sequitur about the TSA.

Why hasn't ISIS attacked the US?

Well there are 3 possibilities:

1. ISIS has often attempted to attack the US and has succeeded at least once.
2. ISIS has often attempted to attack the US but has never succeeded.
3. ISIS has not often attempted to attack the US.

I think we can rule out (1), and (2) seems extremely improbable for the reasons I listed. That leaves (3). So my answer to the question is "because they haven't tried."

The DHS penetration tests you hear about are conducted by insiders who have a very deep understanding of how the DHS screening works. They didn't just observe from the outside. It's rather like being a hacker who understands Linux internals vs. a script kiddie who copies and pastes code.

ISIS is keen to attack the US my friend. Stop dreaming. They could easily attack tens of African cities tomorrow but Western media coverage of such acts would not be good enough for their thirst for publicity. The day ISIS puts all the pieces together to carry a major attack on US soil they will execute their plan.

Re: What Russia are up too.

Russia’s successful intervention proved it feasible to eliminate ISIS.
The Mainstream media totally blacks out that Russia is the main force behind destroying ISIS.

The Western official claims on the ‘impossibility’ to defeat ISIS without “war on terror” can't stand any longer.

Russia continues assisting Syria in liberating itself from these terrorist forces. Russia’s actions stand in sharp contrast with the Western response, for whom the target to eliminate is evidently not ISIS, but Syria’s elected, legitimate government.

Thus, the Western-Israeli coalition – now joined by the French – remains jammed under the Russian-led highly effective military operations eliminating strategic ISIS-bases in Syria. The West remains unable to resolve the big dilemma: How to fight ISIS while not fighting ISIS at all, actually sponsoring and supporting them?

lol, that reads like some good old Russian astroturf

Russia was hardly targeting ISIS at all until the downing of their passenger flight. They were defending Bashar al-Assad, especially against those rebels who had western friends. Hence, the Turkey situation. Now they are for Assad and against everyone else?

One interesting question for a western observer might be how Russian ruthlessness will affect ISIS, but surely "bomb everything" is not going to be a humanitarian triumph.

Russia is attempting to keep Assad in power. While doing this, they can claim to be anti-ISIS or even be anti-ISIS, and thus create a huge tension in the West about Assad having to go...or not. The pro-Russian commenters show just how well this is working.

This is very valuable to Russia and Assad. I was surprised on Reddit at how Russia was getting sympathy and the Turks portrayed as the bad guys.

Meanwhile, Turkey wants the opposite: fight Assad, keep Kurds down, ISIS-ambivalent because they keep Kurds down, fight Assad and are Sunni.

Frankly, maybe we shouldn't be involved. There are simply so many factions.

I think we should do a sort of minimum, keep a seat at the table. No one will really win.

As I've said, I think the rational response for a Syrian is immigration, and so we should support those rational souls.

"decisive U.S. action"

All your comments are unhinged.

"I think we should do a sort of minimum, keep a seat at the table."

Good point. There are issues beyond Syria or terror, too.

For example, do we really want Russia and France becomes buddies?

Glad its not my job to do this stuff.

The US and Turkey are supporting Al-Qaeda. The public is gradually catching on to this, and Russia is getting more sympathy for fighting genocidal terrorists (funded by the USA) who have zero interest in creating a modern democracy.

The public wants Obama to "do something" but doesn't recognize that this is where their demand leads. Many will "blame Obama" for doing what they asked.

Elected government --- hahahaha


I have tried to model the involvement of Russia, Iran, Iraq and Saudi Arabia in Syria with ISIS as the casus belli.

I think there are immediate economic concerns uniting those countries, more than you have allowed for, even though their long term interests are not aligned. I see the most likely outcome as Russia and Assad securing Damascus, Aleppo and the coast, while an ISIS led insurgency lasting indefinitely in the oil producing east. This scenario would satisfy all the involved parties.

I strongly agree with points 1, 3 and 8. I strongly disagree with point 5. Their marketing is modern but overemphasized by Western observers. Their methods of wealth extraction are reactionary, a throwback to a time when wars were immediately profitable for the successful aggressor. When was the last time in modern history that a conflict produced positive cashflows in its first year?

Israel is at war with Assad because of his ties to Hezbollah in Lebanon.

ISIS is also at war with Hezbollah in Lebanon due to their ties to Assad.

Israel and ISIS are on the same side, for now. I don't believe ISIS has attacked Israel directly yet.

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!

I believe that idle hands are the work shop of the devil (it is why I am against the minimum wage) but I have seen no evidence of it with radical Islam, as you posted earlier these are sometimes engineers.
I think it comes from the fact that people tend to be paranoid and really believe worst of others (like many Muslims believe, the Jews are out to get them) and so a people unwilling to turn the other cheek are bound to go down this path. Separation seems like a possible solution. Try to separate the Sunnis the Shiites, the Christians , the Yezities, the and all those other Religions that they have over there. some very small countries do very well I.E. Luxembourg. In fact I think most of the world would be better off if broken into smaller countries.

I don't think I understand #6. Have you previously written about how labor market regulation increases dissafection of these groups?

9. No it won't.

9b. The worst part is that it's not a matter of if messianism will rise again in the region, and end even more badly, but when.

The most important difference between Hong Xiuquan and Mao Zedong was enough time for Taiping to slip out of living memory.

Moreover, the "good guys," relatively speaking, managed to defeat Hong and limit the damage done. Nothing short of death managed to overpower Mao.

I wonder if narrowing down just what is being modeled would be helpful. Are we modeling the causes or the Syrian Cibil War? The Raise of ISIS/ISIL/Daesh? Internal Islamic politics that can be seen playing out here? The interactions between internal Islamic politics and Islam-non-Islam religious politics?

In terms of what's been happing and the riase of ISIS I'd suggest one of the best models would be a physics metaphor: Nature abhors a vacuum. All the rest of the thoughts offered see to be the surrounding forces that will naturally fill the vacuum without some counterveiling force. In that light maybe ask have the vacuum got so large before all these forces really grew to the state they are. Was it purly the lack of power for Assad or were other factors helping to maintain/expand the void the civil war created.

There wasn't really a vacuum at any point. There was Assad, and then there were rebels. The problem from a physics perspective is that there are multiple stable states. For a long time the Syrian regime was stable, now the broken state is unfortunately stable.

A shiny new car and a crashed car are both in stable states.

"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)"

NO. The Ottoman equilibria was not a result of "merging of the legal and the theological", but simply the herd mentality of a swarm. As long as all the energies where aimed at expanding, internal strifes were minimal, but as soon as the Ottoman expansionism faltered after the siege of Vienna and was perceived by the internal factions as permanently blunted (around the early XVIII century), equilibrium was gone and internecine fights came about as demonstrated by the fact that more than half the sultans after 1648 were deposed and/or murdered (Mehmed IV, Mustafa II, Ahmed III, Selim III, Mustafa IV, Abdülaziz I, Mehmed Murad V, Abdülhamid II, Mehmed VI and Abdülmecid II.. and Mehmed V was pretty much a figurehead).

"1. I don’t view Islam as essential to the conflict, though it helps explain some of the second-order causes and effects."

The rebels and ISIS are Islamists who wish to exterminate Alawites and other non-Sunnis. The Syrian army largely consists of Alawites who know that they and their family may all be murdered (due to their religion) if the Syrian government falls. Foreign involvement by Iran, Turkey, and Saudi Arabia is due to religious alignment with particular factions. How is Islam not essential to the conflict? Sure, you can name a few things that aren't mostly involving Islam like Rojava (though they exist in part to defend against genocidal religious fanatics) and the US's bizarre support for al-Qaeda... but those things aren't central to the conflict.

Changing the Great Power in a region results in several small wars as the local balance of power gets rebalanced.

The US has been the local Great Power for many years, but is not currently acting as one. We are arguably trying to switch our local alliance from Saudi Arabia to Iran (whether this has the slightest hope of working is another question). Iran is more powerful than before, and is exerting this power by fighting or financing numerous conflicts.

I believe Obama's plan is to withdraw, but be a "balancer" of power...or maybe that's the step to full withdrawal.

If there is a plan at all.

Tyler Cowen's analysis is not too bad imo. There seems to be too much trashtalk about it.

The Syria Civil War at its core is a standard Civil War in which there too many nations (US, Iran, Saudia, Turkey, Kurds, France, Russia, ISIS, etc.) trying to control the situation. If all the nations stayed out, the Civil War would burn itself out.

What does "not end well" look like exactly?

"It is very hard to model ISIS"

The movie 'Burn after reading' is a near perfect model of this "clusterfuck". And it's very funny.

Hi Tyler,

Is there any writing on how the massive exodus of Syrian refugees will affect the Syrian economy?

I've mostly seen think pieces that talk about the economic impact of refugees in the countries to which they arrive--and those articles tend to do a good job of pointing out how favourable it is to receive them--but nothing on their home country. I would be interested in seeing other examples as well, which discuss the economic impact of refugees on the country they leave behind.

Syria is a complex situation, especially when considering the puppet involvement of countries such as the United States and Turkey. (Right now, there seems to be a kind of irony to the involvement of the United States in escalating the situation in Syria, but that half the country does not want to accept refugees.) I don't mean to found a conspiracy, but is a weakened economy due to the exodus of refugees a benefit to the imperial goals of foreign countries that intervene in a crisis?

Bush settled the country down because his folks got the Sunni tribes to join us. That does not seem to be central to Obama's strategy. Are we not trying? Are they asking too much? Refusing outright?

This is an interesting blog, with some ideas on daesh that I hadn't heard of before. I'm not sure I understand point 3 though: proxy war between Iran and Saudi Arabia. Do you mean at government level? What support has Saudi Arabia and other gulf states given to daesh?

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