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ISIL has taken war out of the Middle East by bombing a Russian plane and attacking Paris. These attacks follow increased Russian and Western involvement in Syria.

What was the purpose of these attacks? It is useful to examine two polar opposite cases : ISIL’s acts seek to provoke or seek to deter.

If they seek to provoke, the best case scenario for ISIL is that Russia and the West respond by repressing Muslims domestically. This anti-Muslim fervor will generate propaganda that is useful for recruitment. But of course, the attacks will provoke a strong counter-response by France, Russia and their allies in Syria. Finally, a Russia-Western coalition may even come into being. Al Qaeda’s diminished fate then awaits ISIL. A provocation cannot be targeted into only a domestic response and the international response will be so dramatic as to counterbalance any domestic response though, of course, it would also be wise not to give in to the temptation to cave in to anti-Muslim fervor.

If ISIL seek to deter – i.e. they are making us pay a price for increased involvement in Syria and giving us an incentive to retreat – well that’s totally going to backfire. The French, British and Russians are more likely to engage than less as I said above. In this case, ISIL’s strategy would be a complete misreading of the situation.

So, either way, the ISIL strategy is going to fail.


Forty-seven Republican Senators signed a letter to the Iranian leadership claiming that any nuclear non-proliferation treaty signed by President Obama could be vacated at the stroke of a pen by the next President. What is the impact of their tactic on the probability of the deal being signed?

There are many effects but here are four key ones:

1. The Iranians now get further confirmation that President Bush III will be tougher than President Obama. The deal on the table is the best they are going to get. This makes them more likely to sign.

2. Democrats who are skeptical of the deal with now rally round the President, as they did after the surprise Netanyahu speech. This makes a deal more likely.

3. The Iranians now get further confirmation that the deal may fall apart under next administration. This makes it easier for them to renege in the future if circumstances dictate – they can more credibly blame the U.S. for being untrustworthy. Their citizens will not blame them if they exit the agreement as the Iranian leadership can more credibly blame the U.S.

Russia and China can trade with Iran with less international condemnation as the U.S. can be more credibly faulted for the deal falling apart. This makes a deal more likely.

4. The “no deal” option just got better too for reasons outlined in 3. Iran can blame the U.S. for not agreeing to the treaty and try to persuade Russia etc to break sanctions. This makes “no deal” more attractive relative to “deal” and makes the deal less likely. It could also mean that the deal the Iranians now get is improved to reflect their better outside option. If the deal is already better than even the improved outside option, the improvement will have little effect on the chance of a deal.

So, unfortunately, the net effect of the letter on the probability of an agreement is ambiguous. But even if the letter makes a deal less likely, it makes it less likely by making Iran stronger.

Excellent article by Lawrence Wright:

Al Qaeda was originally envisioned as a kind of Sunni foreign legion, which would defend Muslim lands from Western occupation….

Bin Laden had asked Zarqawi [founder of ISIS] to merge his forces with Al Qaeda, in 2000, but Zarqawi had a different goal in mind. He hoped to provoke an Islamic civil war, and, for his purposes, there was no better venue than the fractured state of Iraq, which sits astride the Sunni-Shiite fault line….Violent attacks would create a network of “regions of savagery,” which would multiply as the forces of the state wither away, and cause people to submit to the will of the invading Islamist force….[A] broad civil war within Islam would lead to a fundamentalist Sunni caliphate.

In other words, Al Qaeda is focussed on expelling the West from the Middle East but ISIS is focussed on creating a Sunni Islamic superstate. Hence, Al Qaeda attacks the West but ISIS attacks Shiites. This leads to different “realist” policy prescriptions – self-interest implies attacking Al Qaeda but not necessarily ISIS. It leads to the same neocon policy prescriptions – there will be a humanitarian crisis from civil war and democracy (to the extent Iraq is a democracy) is threatened. Hence, send in the troops say Kristol and Kagan, just as they did before Gulf War II.

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