For the last century or more, the dominant image of the Arab peoples in the West has been been of weak, almost effeminate natural victims. Not the victims in the sense of people you protect, of course, but rather the traditional playground victim whom everybody terrorizes in the sure knowledge that he can never hit them back. Indeed it’s a settled norm of Western policy towards the Middle East that Arabs can’t actually fight; at least not unless they are led by charismatic Westerners like TE Lawrence.
There have been some exceptions to this rule, of course. The Jordanians put up a decent performance against Israel in 1967, although as commentators were quick to point out they had been trained by the British. More significantly, the Egyptians and Syrians mounted a well-planned and co-ordinated attack in 1973 to recover the territory they had lost in the previous war. They did well militarily, and would have done better had it not been for massive support provided by the United States for Israel. And of course they recovered their national territory, which was the point of the exercise
But these examples have not impinged upon the Western strategic consciousness very much. For much of the last 70 years, the Middle East has been a gigantic video game parlor, where both the West and Israel have stamped up and down on vastly inferior forces, winning a succession of easy and one-sided victories. But in the last decade there have been signs that things have begun to change. Surprisingly perhaps, this has had little or nothing to do with enormous Western efforts to arm, train and finance militaries from the Maghreb to Iraq. Indeed, such initiatives seem actually to have made things worse. The Egyptian Army, for example, no longer has the military capability to mount the operation it mounted in 1973, in spite of massive assistance from the United States.
The difference, unfortunately, turns out to be religion. What I mean by that is that the effective fighting forces in the Middle East have turned their backs on nationalism, liberal democracy and professionalism, and all the other things that the West has been trying to inculcate, and gone back to their own warrior traditions. There is no doubt that the effective resistance put up by Hezbollah to the 2006 Israeli invasion of Lebanon came as a real shock to an army used to taking on defenseless women and children. But as the experts began to pick over the fighting, they realised that Hezbollah was actually quite well trained, reasonably well-equipped and highly motivated. Religion in their case acted as a solidifying element, something that gave them purpose, identity and direction, which had been so much lacking in the armies of the region before.
Of course, it was possible to say that Hezbollah was the creation of Iran, and to some extent that was true. But it is not possible to say the same thing about the military forces of the new Islamic State. Although their early victories owed more to the weakness of the Iraqi Army, so expensively trained and equipped by the West, it is clear that they have been rapidly acquiring conventional military expertise. They now seem capable of operating weapons and equipment captured from the Iraqi Army itself, which also suggests the presence of former professional soldiers in their ranks. Moreover, like Hezbollah, they seem to be well trained and disciplined and well motivated in what they do. They also seem to be much more efficient than the nominal Iraqi government in administering the areas that they have captured. Their political strategy seems equally well-considered. Brutality can be an effective military weapon, especially against forces that outnumber you but have poor morale and leadership. And beheading unfortunate American journalists on video sends a clear message: mess with us, and we’ll mess with you.
We will have to see how this develops. It is quite possible that the Islamic State will fall apart because of internal contradictions. And as long as it does not have airpower it will be limited in what it can do. But among the rather hysterical western ideas that it represents some kind of a “threat” to us, is the very real and undeniable fact that in a few months a capable and effective political and military structure has been put together entirely without Western aid or Western ideas. This, more than anything else, is what puts the fear of God (or something) into Western strategists. In a few months, the Islamic state has succeeded where the West has failed for decades. Who can say where this might lead?