Photo montage: armed Bolsheviks marching fading into a group of Islamic State fighters.

Islamic State and the Bolsheviks: Plenty in Common and Lessons to Heed

December 16, 2016
Simon Saradzhyan and Monica Duffy Toft

As Iraq’s armed forces and their allies push to liberate Mosul from the Islamic State (IS), it might be difficult to imagine that as recently as last year a Western think-tank asked experts to assess how good this terrorist organization was at governing, while some scholars of international affairs proposed recognizing Daesh as a state. These scholars have argued that if recognized and contained IS will eventually normalize as the Bolsheviks did after seizing power in 1917. Such arguments have persisted even as a coalition of Kurds and other forces prepared to take Raqqa from IS in Syria, while Iraqi armed forces advanced to drive the group out of Mosul in November 2016. In our view, there are indeed important parallels between Bolshevik Russia, established almost 100 years ago, and the Islamic State today, but if the history of the former is any guide, then the rollback of IS should continue until the last piece of territory is wrested from this terrorist group. Otherwise, it will first regroup and then try to expand again, all while killing innocent people on lands it still controls.

Parallels Between Soviet Russia and Islamic State

History has shown that Soviet “normalization” took decades, and during that time the USSR’s expansion proved extremely harsh for those who came under its control. There is little reason to think that IS’s normalization—which we define as discontinuing a policy of brutal repression on territories a state controls and of aggressive expansion to territories it abuts—would be any faster or any less harsh for the new state’s subjects. IS’s state would likely try to regain lost territories and would probably cruelly oppress or murder hundreds of thousands before it is compelled, as most revolutionary states eventually are, to make its treatment of its own citizens more or less compliant with international norms of basic human rights. Furthermore, while the Bolsheviks eventually built a relatively modern state that provided a better standard of living for most of the country’s population—a key pillar of its Marxist ideology—IS is moving in the opposite direction. It is demodernizing: pushing the areas it controls back into the Dark Ages. Why? Because that is what its revolutionary ideology tells it to do. This demodernization program is a deliberate strategy intended to build a global caliphate. IS’s core ideology holds that the closer it can force its subjects to an approximation of its highly suspect (historically) version of glorious medieval Arab social, political and economic life, the greater will be its power and rewards.1

While having suffered setbacks both in Syria and Iraq, IS retains many key attributes of a state, controlling large swaths of territory whose resources it exploits and whose combined population of several million it taxes to maintain an army of religious warriors bent on building a full-fledged, fundamentalist Islamic state. IS is “systematizing, bureaucratizing and formal­izing … its governance structures, which allow it to operate consistently and in parallel across its var­ious wilayat (provinces),” according to a recent study of the group’s territorial methodology by jihadi expert Aaron Zelin.2 And Zelin is not alone in noting the group’s state-like attributes: Other scholars, including Cole Bunzel3 and Mike Pietrucha,4 have convincingly described IS as an emerging state. The notion that the world might have to learn to live with such a state gained enough traction last year that the Brookings Institution polled experts on whether IS was good at governing.5 More recently, veteran Russian diplomat and researcher Vladimir Lukin also noted similarities between those battling today for the establishment of “a global Islamic state” and those who pushed for a “worldwide dictatorship of the proletariat” more than a century ago.6 Another Russian scholar to mention such parallels is Andrey Bystricky.7 American sociologist Jack Goldstone was perhaps the most direct in his comparison: “The Islamic State, like the Bolshevik regime a century earlier, is a rising revolutionary power.”8

There are indeed important parallels between the behavior of IS and the early Bolsheviks. Nine are worth highlighting (on the Soviet side we partially relied on Nathan Constantin Leites’s classic “The Operational Code of the Politburo”9):

  1. The Bolsheviks prioritized the use of violence to achieve their ends and so does IS. Bolshevik leaders believed that if the Party did not use violence against its external and internal enemies, then its enemies would resort to violence in an attempt to save themselves from the inevitable revolutionary aftermath. TheIS also clearly prioritizes the use of violence against its external and internal enemies, aiming for their complete elimination.
  2. The Bolsheviks imprisoned and murdered innocents on a massive scale within territories they controlled. So does IS, though the death toll is so far dwarfed by the Bolsheviks’ numbers.10
  3. Both persecuted/persecute those deemed to be of the “wrong” faith. Not only did the atheist Bolsheviks destroy churches, repress believers and execute priests, they also imprisoned and killed those who held ideological views barely different from their own interpretation of communism. IS, meanwhile, destroys churches and historical monuments, represses those whom they consider not “true” believers and executes those deemed to be infidels and apostates.
  4. Neither tolerates dissent within its ranks. The Bolsheviks believed that the Party must be monolithic in its internal structure and that any group not controlled by the Party is an enemy; IS, too, suppresses dissent among its members and executes “traitors” to ensure that it remains unfractured.
  5. The Bolsheviks took a long view on the struggle for global dominance. So does IS. The Bolsheviks hoped to impose communist regimes throughout the world under the USSR’s autocratic leadership, whereas IS seeks a totalitarian caliphate centered first in its current region and later across the globe.11
  6. Just as the early Soviet regime was encircled (and for some time partially occupied) by hostile Western powers, so too is IS encircled by hostile neighbors, many strongly supported by Western powers.
  7. Just as the Western powers facing a revolutionary communist state lacked the will (and capacity) to commit a sufficient number of ground troops to defeat it, so too are the United States and its allies unwilling to send regular land forces to fight IS, preferring to use air power and special forces.
  8. The Bolsheviks prioritized territorial expansion and managed to secure new territories from which to organize their ideological struggles, and so did IS until it was forced to go on the defensive. The Bolsheviks believed that the Party must take possession of every no-man’s land, or its enemy would; IS has sought to reclaim what it considers the lands of the medieval Arab umma and caliphate using as expansive a historical map as possible.
  9. Both have made advances locally and globally, propelled by highlighting foreign interventions whose organizers sought to reverse the gains made and legitimated through ideology.

Differences Between Bolsheviks and Islamic State

While, like the Bolshevik regime in 1917, IS is best understood as an emerging revolutionary state seeking to consolidate its power while laying the groundwork for later expansion, there are also differences between the two groups that merit consideration. Two of these are worth highlighting in particular.

The first is relative military strength. The modernization of the Soviet armed forces increased the objective military threat posed by the USSR to its foes, and that threat became existential when the Soviets acquired nuclear weapons. By contrast, one major reason for IS’s initial military success is that many of the surrounding states are themselves militarily weak, possessing neither the demographic nor industrial base to create or sustain a modern military capable of deterring IS. The armed forces of regional powers such as Iran, Israel, Egypt and Turkey should be able to crush the IS “army” in a military contest, especially since there are ideological and other limits to IS forces’ ability to modernize. That said, despite its military inferiority, IS might be able to instigate insurgency in some of these states, such as in Egypt, where it claims to have established a wilayat, and in Turkey, where it has established cells. Left to its own devices IS might also be able to reclaim some of the lands it has lost in Iraq, Syria and Libya—and perhaps to seize parts of Saudi Arabia, Yemen and Oman.12

The second, related difference lies in the groups’ respective ideologies. On one hand, as we point out above, is the centrality of violence, which is justified on a massive scale against those who do not share or oppose their ideologies, and both mobilize followers for violence against competitors. However, whereas the Bolsheviks adopted a modern ideology that girded itself for the industrial era, IS would like to take civilization back to the seventh century of Mohammed. This reversion to an earlier era is likely to be a major liability when it comes to modernizing IS’s forces. The group is systematically depriving itself of the educational, economic, industrial, social and military capacity to achieve its grandiose vision of global dominance. The Bolsheviks’ ideology was attractive enough to draw 8,000 volunteers from the ranks of the tsarist Russian army into the newly formed Red Army.13 In contrast, IS’s ideology has drawn thousands of disenchanted civilians with little to no military training from the region and further abroad, but has managed to attract only 100-160 former Sunni officers from Saddam Hussein’s now-defunct Iraqi army.14 The quality and quantity of these volunteers have been sufficient to allow IS to seize parts of weak and militarily backward states, such as Syria, Iraq and Libya, and such recruits may be able to expand on these gains in these states. However, IS will need much more skilled officers and soldiers and in much greater quantities to take on the region’s more militarily advanced states, such as Iran or Turkey. And as IS’s shrinking pool of recruits demonstrates, the ideology of jihadi-Salafism holds little appeal to such military professionals. Modernization is not simply about acquiring killing technology (tanks, combat aircraft, heavy artillery and so on); it is a mind-set—and one diametrically opposed to IS’s medieval authority structure. This might help explain why so many of the people needed to make modern technology work are either murdered by IS ideologues or desert IS when they can.

Calls for Recognition and/or Containment

While formidable, these two differences do not “outweigh” the nine similarities we outlined above. Some scholars have gone beyond drawing parallels between the “emerging state” of IS and the Bolsheviks to craft recommendations on dealing with the former on the basis of these parallels. For instance, Stephen Walt, a professor of international relations at Harvard, publicly pondered in a July 2015 Foreign Policy article: “What do we do if the Islamic State becomes a real state and demonstrates real staying power?”15 His response? Western countries and its allies should “live with it,” focus on containment, but also grant IS recognition as a state in the hope that it will “abandon some (if not all) of its most ferocious practices” and become “socialized into the system” of civilized states. That is, after all, what happened with Soviet Russia, according to Walt.  

In a similar vein, political commentator and risk analyst Vadim Nikitin of the Stroz Friedberg consultancy suggested last year that IS was here to stay and sees parallels between this organization and the Bolsheviks. But Nikitin went further than Walt in his prescriptions on how to treat IS. Removing containment from the formula, Nikitin suggested that recognition of IS alone could be an effective option: “Only by accepting reality and extending diplomatic recognition to IS can the West hope to gain a credible means to moderate and constrain its further advance,” Nikitin claims in an op-ed published by The Independent in December 2015.16

Calls for accepting IS’s statehood continued even as two separate coalitions of forces advanced in their efforts to seize Mosul in Iraq and Raqqa in Syria in late 2016. In a piece published in November, scholars of political violence Hamoon Khelghat-Doost and Matthew M. Koo argued that the international community should accept the notion of an IS “de facto statehood” and focus on containing it: “Containment would place the burden of statehood on IS—forcing it to either moderate itself or risk implosion from within.”17

Why Containment May Not Be Enough

Given the similarities, the aforementioned scholars were right to recall the history of the USSR when thinking about IS. However, while they drew the right parallels, they arrived at the wrong conclusions. If the history of the USSR is any guide,18 then IS will not refrain from trying to expand after being recognized, as Nikitin hopes. Even after Bolshevik leader Vladimir Lenin’s death in 1924, the Soviet government spent decades actively and quite successfully implementing his driving dictum: “Probe with a bayonet: If you meet steel, stop. If you meet mush, then push.” Well after its recognition by Western powers the Soviet Union continued expanding what eventually came to be known as the Socialist Bloc through overt military campaigns and by sponsoring regime change. Winston Churchill observed shortly before delivering his Fulton speech in 1946: “The Russians will try all the rooms in the house, enter those that are not locked, and when they come to one that cannot be broken into, they will withdraw and invite you to dine genially that same evening.”

Moreover, even after the West finally launched a serious, concerted effort to contain the USSR following a series of militarized standoffs, including the Berlin airlift crisis (1948-49) and the Korean War (1950-1953), the Soviet leadership continued proving Churchill right in his observation about the expansionist nature of the Soviet state. Moscow’s efforts to enlarge the Socialist Bloc ended only with the failure of its 1979-1989 campaign to buttress communism in Afghanistan, contributing to the Soviet collapse shortly thereafter.

A recognized IS, even if faced with containment, is not likely to abandon its expansionist agenda, though its tactics would differ from the Soviets’. While it might probe some of its weaker neighbors with Lenin’s proverbial bayonet, overall IS would be less likely than the USSR to attempt overt military invasions. It has neither a large, well-armed military to guarantee success nor nuclear weapons to deter Western states from intervening. Instead, a recognized Islamic State may instigate uprisings in states that are relatively weak and where discontent with governance is greatest (such as Libya), in hopes that it would lead to eventual regime change that would in turn facilitate the integration of these countries into its Islamist bloc. Similar to the socialist revolutions sponsored by the USSR, IS’s sponsorship of Islamist revolutions in neighboring countries and attempts to thereby build a regional bloc of sympathizers would not be prevented by containment. As it is, IS leaders claimed to have established “provinces” in Egypt, Yemen, Saudi Arabia, Libya, Algeria and Russia’s North Caucasus, in addition to Syria and Iraq.19 And instability in the region is likely to keep stoking IS’s ambitions: As Cole Bunzel warned, “political turmoil elsewhere in the Middle East, particularly in Libya and Yemen, is creating conditions conducive to the Islamic State’s intended expansion.”20

Also, if allowed to reverse its recent territorial losses and expand again,21 IS can begin to significantly impact global markets for oil and gas, of which the United States is the world’s largest consumer. Our calculations based on the U.S. Energy Information Administration’s latest production estimates show that if allowed to regroup and seize the rest of Syria, Iraq and Libya, IS would come to control 4.19% of the world’s oil production. If IS were also to seize Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, it would control a whopping 20% of global oil production. In either scenario IS would be able to influence oil prices; its ability to do so would be even greater if it is recognized as a state and allowed to export oil, perhaps impeding global economic growth and stability.  

Even if IS were contained within its current “borders,” its members and supporters can be expected to continue to stage external terrorist attacks to bolster its appeal among its target audience as it has done already in America and Europe. The attacks try to provoke enemy states—in particular the United States and its allies—to continue military strikes, with the attendant collateral damage, and this affords IS its greatest source of legitimacy in the Middle East and North Africa. In short, if the history of the Moscow-led expansion of the socialist bloc is any guide for predicting IS’s behavior, then chances are that Walt’s hopes that IS can be successfully contained and kept from expanding the “Islamist bloc” could prove futile. It is worth recalling that it was not until the fourth decade of its existence that Bolshevik Russia got its hands on nuclear weapons, soon after they were pioneered by Americans. The Soviets never used these weapons even though at that time their leader, Josef Stalin, continued to pursue an expansionist policy. If allowed to exist as a state, IS, whose leaders have displayed a practical interest in acquiring nuclear weapons, might get hold of such weapons much faster than the Bolsheviks, given the increasing diffusion of nuclear know-how and the enduring vulnerabilities in the security of some weapons grade materials. Whether a nuclear-armed IS would choose to rely on these weapons to deter outside powers like a “normal” state or actually use them is a question we cannot afford to answer with a wait-and-see approach.22

We should also keep in mind that the policies recommended by Walt, Nikitin, Khelghat-Doost and Koo ignore the possibility that even if recognition and/or containment of the Islamic State convinces it to adopt the trappings of normalcy in its relations with other states, this regime will not stop killing innocent people on a massive scale on territories it controls in the foreseeable future. In fact, one could argue that the recognition of the Soviet Union by the United States and others in the 1930s relieved some of the external pressure on Soviet leader Josef Stalin and his retinue, who soon thereafter ramped up mass repression of Soviet citizens. The scale and force of these repressions might have seemed unthinkable during the Bolshevik Revolution of October 1917, but they are indeed a historical fact and have left a lasting mark on post-Soviet society. As Lukin notes in his comparison of IS and the Bolsheviks: “Another global trend is gaining momentum today—the creation (or re-creation) of a global Islamic state. When the idea of an inevitable worldwide dictatorship of the proletariat proclaimed in the Communist Manifesto was triumphantly winning minds around the world and becoming a material force, one could hardly imagine what it would lead to in Russia’s labor camps.” The mass arrests and executions of Soviet citizens spanned several decades, first during Lenin’s rule, then under Stalin. In fact, they did not end until after Stalin’s death in 1953.  

Debates persist in the West about whether to classify IS’s actions against ethnic and religious minorities in Syria and Iraq as genocide, though both the European Parliament and the U.S. House of Representatives have already identified them as such, as did the Barack Obama administration’s Secretary of State John Kerry. Containment of IS will not put an end to the murder of innocents, the prevention of which has been described by representatives of America’s realist school as an extremely important U.S. national interest.23 Moreover, if combined with recognition, containment could be interpreted by IS as tacit permission to up the genocidal ante.

It is true that even with the outcome of the battle of Mosul yet to be decided, IS’s future is already looking precarious. Having lost 14 percent of its territory in 2015 and another 12 percent in the first half of 2016, IS was in control of some 68,300 square kilometers of territory in Iraq and Syria as of this past summer, according to IHS Conflict Monitor.24 The number of people living on territories controlled by IS shrank from 9 million to 6 million over roughly the same period of time.25

Yet, while IS’s hopes of building a global caliphate appear all but dead, the group might still be able to build its own state in northern parts of Syria and Iraq if its territorial rollback is discontinued. The area it controlled as of mid-2016—an oil- and gas-rich territory the size of the Republic of Ireland, with a population greater than Denmark’s—would have been sufficient to allow IS to survive and build its own state if external powers had abandoned the military campaign against it and switched to deterrence instead. Moreover, some scholars believe an IS with less land could prove even more dangerous for the Western world. As Dr. Mehmet Nesip Ogun of Columbia University explains, IS seeks to bring more of what it calls “horror and misery to the enemies of Allah” in the Western world to justify its existence and project strength in the face of battlefield losses.26

Therefore, the strategy of rollback should be continued until all of IS’s lands are retaken.

Division of Labor

Non-Muslim powers must be involved in containing IS but they should not be spearheading its territorial rollback because that would give IS too strong an advantage in terms of ideology and, hence, recruitment to its cause. These powers would find it very difficult to defeat and dismantle IS no matter how much material advantage or will to win they possess. Right now it is ideas that are winning adherents for IS and these ideas combine two elements: (1) a Western (i.e., infidel) military assault on the faithful—represented by two separate coalitions of interventionists led by the United States and Russia, respectively—that (2) represents the greatest threat to the awakening and domination of an Islamic caliphate, undermining its resurrection of an earthly paradise not seen since Mohamed. In coordination with Russia, the U.S. and its allies, a coalition of regional powers could deprive IS of one pillar of its legitimacy by simply refusing to participate in any direct military intervention on the ground, even when viciously assaulted as the Russians were over Sinai in October 2015 or the French were in December 2015 in Paris or the Belgians in March 2016 in Brussels or Americans in Orlando in June 2016. Western and Russian involvement in military operations against IS only fuels the ideological fire and the appeal of IS both in the region and abroad.27 Israel should also avoid getting involved in operations against IS, while Iran should scale down its involvement: Neither is predominantly Sunni and neither is ethnically Arab in the main.

As former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak has told one of the authors of this paper: “ISIS must be defeated on the ground in the Middle East, but this should be done by Muslims. If it is done by ‘infidels,’ by ‘crusaders,’ it will strengthen ISIS in a way.”28 Rather, it should be the region’s Sunni states with modern militaries, such as Egypt, Jordan and Turkey that lead the effort to roll back IS on the ground. These three states are apt to be sufficiently competent militarily to get the job done.

While refraining from participating in the ground assault on IS, external non-Muslim powers could provide aid, training and air support. Special attention should be paid to bolstering local allies, particularly Kurdish forces fighting in north Syria and groups fighting both the Syrian regime and the Islamic extremists, such as the Southern Front backed by Jordan. Unless local, regional and global actors jointly commit to deprive IS of territorial control and divide the labor to do so, the Islamic State will keep massacring innocent people and will resume its efforts to expand its zone of influence. There is a reason why some of America’s most decorated military leaders, including Donald Trump’s choice for the next U.S. secretary of defense, James Mattis, and former chief of the U.S. Central Command Antony Zinni have taken a dim view of the current U.S. strategy vis-à-vis IS. “I don’t want to be part of a strategy that in my heart of hearts I know is going to fail,” Zinni said earlier this year.29

Going forward, regional powers and external stakeholders should also work to resolve the Syrian conflict and address other factors that can either directly cause or contribute to the rise and sustainment of violent extremism, including relative deprivation and grievances triggered by ill-planned interventions by external powers.30 Even if IS is deprived of territorial control, that will not guarantee that this terrorist organization will no longer be able to carry out its campaign of terror or further expand its influence, unless these factors are addressed.

Of course there is always a possibility that IS can collapse from the weight of its own contradictions and barbarism even if the rollback is not completed and the factors behind its rise remain unaddressed. But this implosion could take decades and cost too many human lives for the civilized world to tolerate. We do not have time for the normalization of evil.


  1. Bystricky, Andrey, “Islamic State is the Biggest Temptation of the Modern World,” The Russian Academic Journal, Vol. 34, No. 4 (2015).
  2. Zelin, Aaron, “The Islamic State’s Territorial Methodology,” Research Notes of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, No. 29, January 2016.
  3. “The longer the group enjoys a plausible claim to statehood, the more likely its organizational and ideological unity will remain intact. Yet if the Islamic State can again be reduced from a plausible ‘caliphate’ to an ignominious ‘paper state,’ and if its larger-than-life ruler can be eliminated, the group may never recover,” according to Cole Bunzel. Bunzel, Cole, “From Paper State to Caliphate: Ideology of the Islamic State,” Analysis Paper No. 19, Brookings Institution, March 2015.
  4. Pietrucha, Mike, “Treating The Islamic State As A State,” War on the Rocks, March 3, 2016.
  5. “Experts weigh in (part 2): Is ISIS good at governing?” Brookings Institution, February 3, 2016. Available at
  6. Lukin, Vladimir, “How Russia Sees the World,” The National Interest, January 22, 2016. Available at
  7. Bystricky, "Islamic State is the Biggest Temptation of the Modern World."
  8. Goldstone, Jack, “The Great Debate. A strategy for defeating Islamic State from an unlikely source,” Reuters, March 11, 2015. Available at
  9. Leites, Nathan Constantin, “The operational code of the Politburo,” Rand Corporation, 2007.
  10. In Syria IS has executed at least 3,895 people, more than half of them civilians, since announcing the establishment of a "caliphate state" in June 2014, according to a January 2016 estimate by the UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. CNN, January 29, 2016. Available at This NGO revised the death toll up to 4,144 people in April 2016. Another 7,700 were executed by IS in Iraq from June 2014 to September 2015, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. “Revealed, ISIS has executed more than 10,000 men, women and children in Iraq and Syria since last year,” Daily Mail, September 24, 2015. Available at In comparison, millions of civilians were killed during Joseph Stalin’s rule alone.
  11. Stern, Jessica, “What Does ISIS Really Want Now?” Lawfareblog, November 28, 2015. Available at
  12. As Charles Lister warns, “Should it [ISIS] succeed in consolidating its ‘state’ in Syria and Iraq, it is quite possible that it could choose to expand beyond its recently announced wilayat (provinces) in Egypt, Yemen, Saudi Arabia, Libya and Algeria.” Lister, Charles, "Profiling the Islamic State," Brookings Doha Center Analysis Paper 13 (2014): 17.
  13. Prostakov, Sergei, “V RKKA sluzhili 14 tysyach byvshikh belykh ofitserov” (“14,000 Former White Guard Officers Served in the Red Army”), Russkaya Planeta, August 20, 2013.
  14. As of last year, Western intelligence officials estimated that IS had about 100 to 160 ex-officers from Saddam’s army and intelligence services in its ranks. “IS top command dominated by ex-officers in Saddam's army,” Associated Press, August 8, 2015.
  15. As of last year, Western intelligence officials estimated that IS had about 100 to 160 ex-officers from Saddam’s army and intelligence services in its ranks. “IS top command dominated by ex-officers in Saddam's army,” Associated Press, August 8, 2015.
  16.   Nikitin, Vadim, “Why it's time to grant Isis diplomatic recognition,” The Independent, December 15, 2015. Available at
  17. Khelghat-Doost, Hamoon and Matthew M. Koo, “ISIS Can Be Contained,” National Interest, November 6, 2016. Available at
  18. After succeeding in staging a revolution in October 1917, the victorious Bolsheviks proclaimed the establishment of the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic (RSFSR), which then proceeded to reestablish control over much of the adjacent territories of the former Russian empire before co-founding the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics in 1922.
  19. “We are getting stronger every day in Sham and Iraq but it will not end there—of course, one day we’ll defeat all the taghut regimes and bring back Islam to the whole region, including al-Quds (Jerusalem),” IS fighter Abu Omar declared in 2014. Lister, "Profiling the Islamic State": 32.
  20. Bunzel, Cole, “From Paper State to Caliphate: Ideology of the Islamic State,” Analysis Paper No. 19, Brookings Institution, March 2015.
  21. That IS managed to retake the ancient Syrian city of Palmyra in the first half of December 2016 indicates that this organization’s combat potential is not exhausted.
  22. For a recent assessment of Islamist terrorist organizations’ WMD aspirations see Mowatt-Larssen, Rolf and Monica Duffy Toft, "Recommendations to the New President on Countering WMD and Terrorism," Just Security, November 17, 2016.
  23. Ellsworth, Robert, Andrew Goodpaster and Rita Hauser, Co-Chairs. “America's National Interests: A Report from the Commission on America's National Interests, 2000.” Washington, D.C.: Report for Commission on America's National Interests, July 2000.
  24. “IS territory shrinks 12 percent since start of 2016,” Al-Monitor, July 10, 2016, available at
  25. Bremmer, Ian “4 Reasons the War Against ISIS Is Working—and 1 Reason It’s Not,” Time, May 5, 2016. Available at
  26. Nesip Ogun, Mehmet, “ISIS: Less Territory, More Dangerous,” National Interest, November 17, 2016.
  27. Cole Bunzel warns that the military campaign against IS can actually “strengthen the Islamic State’s ideology by lending credence to its conspiratorial worldview: namely, the view that the region’s Shia are conspiring with the United States and secular Arab rulers to limit Sunni power in the Middle East.” Bunzel, “From Paper State to Caliphate: Ideology of the Islamic State.”
  28. Saradzhyan, Simon and Natasha Yefimova-Trilling, “Putin as Bismarck: Ehud Barak on West’s Russia Blind Spots, the Middle East and More,” Russia Matters, November 28, 2016.
  29. Thompson, Mark, “Former U.S. Commanders Take Increasingly Dim View of War on ISIS,” Time, August 31, 2016.
  30. “And in shaping our response, we refused to repeat some of the mistakes of the 2003 invasion that have helped to give rise to the organization that became ISIL in the first place,” said U.S. President Barack Obama. “Remarks by the President on the Administration's Approach to Counterterrorism.”, December 6, 2016.

Simon Saradzhyan

Director, Russia Matters Project, Belfer Center of Science and International Affairs, Harvard University


Monica Duffy Toft

Professor of Government and Public Policy, Blavatnik School of Government, University of Oxford

Photos from flickr, from left to right: by rosaluxemburg and by Day Donaldson.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.