Stathis Kalyvas has written a useful piece on uncertainty surrounding the Islamic State’s logic and strategy. In it, he argues that it is exceedingly difficult to predict outcomes in substate violence and civil war, and that the current conflicts in the Middle East are no different. Insurgent, revolutionary, and/or radical groups generally do not pick one single tactic and stick to it from start to finish at all levels. We can’t really say with certainty that strategy/tactic 1 leads to outcome A and that strategy/tactic 2 leads to outcome B. Violent conflicts do not work that way. It is certainly not clear that strategy 1 is best carried out by tactic α and that it will lead to outcome A. The Islamic State is using a vast array of tactics — prisoner killing, selective killing of enemies, punishment of “misbehaving individuals,” and mass killings across sectarian lines. We cannot say for certainty what type of reaction the local population, other rebel groups, and regime forces may have in response to any one of these tactics, let alone a combination of all of them.
Furthermore, Kalyvas wisely points out that the mass killings may not be strategic in nature; that is, they may not be the result of decisions made for the achievement of the organization’s broadest goals. They may in fact be caused by breakdowns in the chain of command or simply local feuds playing themselves out in the absence of a strict order. “In all these instances, this violence may be understood as local and fail to escalate to the sect level.” However, I would argue that if this type of violence occurs enough and is widely known, it does not matter what the origins of these local conflicts are. They may escalate to sect level even if it is not the Islamic State’s intention to provoke a massive sectarian war. Is it reasonable to think that the deliberate, strategic use of a tactic of mass killings may lead to different outcomes than uncontrollable, almost accidental mass killings that are highly divorced from the organization’s strategy. However, the differing responses would depend on whether strategic and “incidental” mass killings actually look different on the ground. Do they have significantly different patterns or intensities or durations? Does the organization take responsibility for the mass killings, or does it attempt to maintain deniability? Either way, the situation is volatile and complex enough that the intention or root of the mass killings may be immaterial to the reaction of other groups.
Kalyvas is absolutely right that we should have no illusions about the opacity of war. We cannot see through the fog and obtain all the salient details of a case of substate violence. And even if we could, there are so many different variables, from systematic to highly individualized, related to each other in such complex ways that we may not be able to fully predict the direction that violence may take. This is a problem inherent in political forecasting — even if we had all of the relevant data, the human world does not operate mechanistically. Individuals make decisions that can be hard to predict even with complete information, and can dramatically change the course of events. Furthermore, we don’t really understand the vast range of how different processes affect one another — when local events escalate to national conflicts, or when even widespread political or violent activity fails to coalesce in a larger movement; how appeals to religious or political ideology knit disparate groups tightly together, or how they fail to make headway in the face of other, more salient issues or cleavages. And it is absolutely insufficient to say that groups will form based around “the most salient cleavages” if we cannot identify what those are, or can make ad hoc adjustments to what “most salient” means when one prediction turns out to be wrong. Violence is heavily dependent on context, and our explanations need to depend on context as well.
One final bit: Kalyvas stresses that there is nothing uniquely Islamic or jihadi about the current violence. Many other combatants in civil wars and insurgencies have used similar tactics. But what, if anything, can we draw from this particular context to help us better understand what’s going on? We obviously don’t want to leap to stereotypes about political Islam, but are sectarian civil wars different from, say, class-based or ideological conflict? In the current Sunni-Shia struggles, there is no switching sides. The Islamic State is clearly trying to win more moderate Sunnis to its side, but there’s no way that it can (or wants to) bring Shia to its cause. Sectarian struggles generally don’t tip one way or another due to defection of enemies. Part of the character of these conflicts is that, if it does erupt into a larger sectarian bloodbath, there is generally only one group each of the parties can seek protection from. And that can intensify the conflict dramatically, if it reaches that point. But, as Kalyvas emphasizes, that’s a big if.