The classic modern war, says Clausewitz, is ‘called forth by a political motive’ and is ‘a political act’: it is the mobilisation of a state, a people, in defence of the interests of that state (1). The form a war takes is determined by those interests, and the stronger the interests and passions the closer will the war approach the extremes of an all-out military conflict.
Now, in Syria and Iraq, we have a quite different model of war: war as the unravelling of political formations. As the war progresses, the various factions become increasingly numerous, fragmented, and estranged from any kind of popular base. There is a return to pre-modern tactics such as siege warfare and mutual avoidance, with skirmishes and deals rather than all-out battles. The cartography of a region or a city resembles a patchwork, with not one or two fronts but fronts everywhere, between or within neighbourhoods. In the city of Ramadi there are now Iraqi government and ISIS flags only yards from one another.
For Clausewitz, the essence of the war was the battle, the combat: ‘the combat is the single activity in war’. The war has the cell form of the duel: it is the ‘shock of two hostile bodies in collision’, each seeking to force the other to ‘do their will’.
Now, people are dying but often not in combat per se. Major cities have been won or lost with only a few dozen casualties. The Iraqi city of Mosul was won by ISIS in June 2014 with few casualties on either side: the Iraqi army just upped and left. Here is a city of 2.5 million people with 500 million dollars in the bank and military helicopters in the airport, and the army would not fight for it. Ramadi and Fallujah were taken by ISIS when the Iraqi army withdrew from the cities, after a dispute with local Sunni tribes: they walked into a vacuum. (The winning back of Tikrit in April 2015 by Shiite militias, led by Iranian commanders, was the exception that stands out as a more old-school battle, with significant fight and casualties on both sides).
Most notable is the woeful weakness of Iraqi state army: commanders defy orders to defend a district, soldiers take off their uniforms and go AWOL. Tribal militias will fight more than the state will fight. The Shiite militias ‘are stronger because they are ideological’, said one Iraqi, explaining why they now prop up the Iraqi army. The tribal and religious is what remains of ideology: they are the ones able to give meaning to battle and to risk their lives.
When Napoleon’s citizen armies first faced the elite, mercenary armies of Europe, the mercenaries were astounded at their numbers and their will to fight. Watching Mosul fall is like watching Napolean’s army in reverse: the state army is now the weakest thing, it is singularly lacking in ‘ideology’. The Americans did not build an Iraqi state but created a racket, a layer of people in their pay, a structure of phantom soldiers and kickbacks which crumbles at the touch.
The avoidance of battle is most glaring with the Western states of the world, who are uniquely obsessed with this patch of Syrian desert but will not put a foot in it. France pledged to ‘destroy’ ISIS but straight away ruled out any kind of ground troops. After a few weeks it admitted that it was ‘running out of targets’: ‘air strikes are of no use while there is no ground force to retake territory’.
There has been a fragmentation too of any international coalition, which were united in the first Gulf War, semi-united in the second, now split into as many parts as the Syrian opposition, often bombing sides being armed by other parties. They tell each other what they are doing only to avoid crashing into one another. Each nation has their favoured targets, which are developed in secret and change without warning – today Russia is bombing the opposition, then ISIS, then the opposition again. France admits that it is bombing Rakka because the government created the ‘narrative’ of the problem being Rakka.
International interests are primarily negative, set against a party, rather than for anybody. They were anti-Saddam, now anti-Assad, anti-ISIS, but they do not have clients or allies. They can destablise but not build; they can weaken but not take territory. It seems that the lesson of the war in Iraq was only not to try to build, not to try to occupy the country you are attacking. To attack them without trying to take them, without having a stake there, without being for anyone there. (Or not to actually know or control the people you are arming – as with US arms to Syrian opposition ending up across the border to be used by ISIS against the Iraqi army).
Battle is no longer the most meaningful thing. The drama lies in other ways of killing: suicide attacks, beheadings, air bombings. These are forms of killing which don’t involve meeting or grappling with the other party. They are not assertions of the will in a duel, but forms of demonstrating your power in a theatrical manner over a prostrate subject.
The bombing functions as a pristine display of power, as in the past two Gulf wars. The French theorist Jean Baudrillard said that the bombing of Saddam in 1991 was an ‘illusionism of force’, the Americans presenting ‘to themselves and to the entire world the spectacle of their virtual power’ (2). Now, films of Russian planes show the military hardware in all its splendour, superior and aloof; you see the bombs fall but not where they land. Or there is the asceptic footage familiar from the last Iraq war of planes fixing on their target, a green square, and then the resulting explosion. The post-Paris French airstrikes on ISIS were mocked by French jihadis, who claimed there had been no casualties and that millions of euros of high-tech explosives had been pounded into dust.
ISIS’s execution videos are dealing with the enemy at a more intimate level, but still this is not a grappling in combat but a null staging of prowess. They don’t even look at the person they are about to kill, they wave their knife at the camera and address watchers of the video or world leaders. The methods of killing are chosen largely for their performative value, the way the person will look as they die. Hence beheading: so unnecessarily difficult! When they are shot then the moment of the person buckling is shown in slow-mo and rewound; the film is all about this moment of buckling. It is a theatre of staged dominance, where the captive stands in for and is made to play the part of the Western adversary.
This theatrical parading of captives goes back to Saddam Hussein’s performance with the captured US airmen in Gulf War 1. At least they were airmen, fighters; the current captives are nobodies, anybodies, bit parts dragged in to be swaggered over and to have their veins spurt blood at the right moment. This great drama around execution is unusual. Execution is normally done surreptitiously or clinically – it lacks the drama of battle, the grappling of wills, there is no glory in it.
Suicide bombings are like drone or air strikes in that they allow you to attack in an area where you have no stake. You can destablise an enemy without trying to take the terrain. Suicide bombings are ISIS’s most feted deaths in war; it is the suicide bombing that is seen as the ‘highlight of the battle’. There is perhaps something ignominous now about dying in battle, dying at hands of enemy, and losses are often covered up and denied. Suicide bombings alone seem to have meaning, and there are many videos of ecstatic bombers about to set out on their mission of blowing up a checkpoint or walls of an army base. Their smiling faces are superimposed over the resulting explosion to indicate their achieved spiritual state.
The suicide bombing is not a grappling with the enemy but the pure sacrificial offering, unsullied by a tussel with another party. The fact that you blow yourself up means your death in a war is can be seen as a gift for God which leaves nothing for the enemy. Suicide bombings are indicative of a battle where you are not seeking to prevail over the other party but to seek destruction per se. You die not in a failed attempt to impose your will in battle but in the great blast you yourself have made. They seem to see a transcendence in the all-encompassing explosion that dissolves its author.
It is in this condition that ISIS can dominate – a condition in which all other interests, particularly regional and international state interests, have fragmented and pull at cross purposes to one another. Many of the cities ISIS now hold were abandoned by state forces, left for the taking.
For several decades, the process of Islamicisation has paralleled the emptying out of politics. Islamicisation means a mystification of the ends of battle, the basis of a conflict, and the basis of the organisation of a society. Since the Iranian revolution and the war in Afghanistan, questions of left or right or national popularism increasingly took an Islamic guise, as cover, as the underlying political motives weakened in their proper ideological language and justification. Now the political interests at the heart of a conflict have eroded further until it is practically only the Islamic mystification which remains.
ISIS is now the sole actor in the region with a universalising claim. They are centralised, coordinated, expansive; they have a body of people who will fight and die. They represent the grand mystification of any underlying political motives to the conflict, whether that is Sunni Arab political ambitions or Syrian national-liberation hopes. Their current dominance shows the inability of political interests to be posed as such, and the lack of viability of Western models of statehood or political interest formations.
(1) Carl Von Clausewitz, On War
(2) Jean Baudrillard, The Gulf War Did Not Take Place, Power Publs, 2006