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ISIS and the battle for the heart of the Middle East: Towards a non-state theory of war

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The Islamic State (ISIS) has usurped the government in swathes of eastern Syria and western Iraq. It is engaged in a brutal war against an array of state and non-state actors, many of which are also in conflict with one another. There are many theories that seek to explain why and how states go to war. We can use these extant theories to understand the whys and wherefores of state behaviour in the case of the war against ISIS , and much excellent scholarship has been conducted in this regard. However, it is far from clear that we can apply them to the war between non-state actors that is arguably the more important part of this particular conflict. Do the extant theories of war help us understand why and how non-state actors go to war? If they do not, how can we adapt them in order to synthesise an approach with more explanatory power? This paper seeks to test extant theories of war to the case study of the ongoing conflict involving the Islamic State. This is a particularly pertinent case study as many the central protagonists are non-states, and indeed the war itself is against a non-state actor. The paper specifically dismisses the role of state actors in this conflict in order to focus attention on the drivers and factors at play in non-state wars; this is a theoretical assumption rather than a statement of reality. However, in viewing the conflict through a lens that is blind to the state, the paper aims to help us understand the conflict in a novel way, as well as to reveal the contributions that different theoretical approaches can make and the potential ways in which these can be combined to synthesise a non-state theory of war.

Dr Michael David Clark is a lecturer in the department of Defence and International Affairs at the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst. He gained his PhD in Politics and International Studies from Darwin College, Cambridge, in 2016. His doctoral research addressed the formulation of foreign policy in Hezbollah and the Sadrist Movement and built on prior work in the same field undertaken as part of his MSc at Bristol and MRes at Exeter. Michael’s current research focuses on the application of IR theory and theories of war to armed non-state actors, particularly in the case of the war against the Islamic State. He is the author of a forthcoming monograph with Cambridge University Press.

This talk is part of the Darwin College Humanities and Social Sciences Seminars series.

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