As of late September, the “Islamic State” group that formed from the ashes of US campaigns in Iraq has gained control of a considerable amount of territory in Iraq and Syria. Examining their actions and counter actions through Schelling’s lens of threat strategies, we can observe that the US has thus far been attempting to deter the IS, while they have attempted to compel us to into action. With each beheading, the IS attempts to provoke US action (retreat). With the airstrike campaigns of recent days, the US has now also shifted its tactics from deterrence to compellence: the hurt will continue until you desist. This dangerous game continues the deadly war that we are seeing played out daily.
For the United States and its allies, the deterrence goal had been to prevent the IS from killing innocents, establishing a true state and controlling regional resources. The US was able to return control of the Mosul dam to Iraqi forces in August, although “Islamic State” is still obtaining and selling oil to citizens within its controlled territory. In an economic sense, the IS is already functioning as a government by levying taxes. It also generates revenue in oil, extortion and smuggling to fund its control and exert power over people within its territory. Additionally, they have murdered hundreds of people including releasing videos of the beheadings of various kidnapping victims. Among these are 2 American journalists, 1 British aid worker, 1 Iraqi general, and as of 9/24 an Algerian group pledging allegiance to al-Baghdadi has executed a French national in similar fashion. For the US and its allies, preventing the murder of our nationals and deterring such a violent group from establishing statehood was key. Now, with the airstrikes of recent days, we are attempting the compellence tactic of initiating action that will cause enough hurt for them to give in.
The self-proclaimed Islamic State, meanwhile, wants compel the US to withdraw its continued involvement in what it considers to be the Islamic homeland. It has also threatened other governments. In the video depicting the murder of Steven Sotloff, the IS militant warns: “Back off, and leave our people alone.” This warning was directed at the UK, though in recent days the IS and affiliated groups (Jund al-Khilafa in Algeria) have directed their ire at France and Canada; we can expect that Arab states that have allied with the US in airstrikes can be included in these warnings as well. However, the IS murdered a British national shortly thereafter, and the victimized countries have banded together against IS. Rather than meet their demands, allied countries stand in solidarity with determination to destroy the IS.
The US sees significant security threats and the undoing of our decade-long infrastructure-building project in Iraq with the emergence of the IS. We are compelled to act to preserve these interests and the lives of our nationals not by initiating retreat, but by retaliating against IS tactics: initiating airstrikes in Iraq and Syria, recruiting Kurdish fighters, assisting Syrian Free Army rebels, and joining with allies including France, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Bahrain, and Jordan. The IS, meanwhile, beheads victim after victim and encroaches on Iraqi, Kurdish, Syrian and Turkish territory. These governments are threatened and have a stake in the defeat of IS. Thus foreign (especially Western) involvement in the Middle East metastasizes as an indirect result of IS tactics.
In coming days, we will see the results of this new tactic on our part. With each airstrike, and the deepening of foreign involvement in the region, the IS has retaliated with another beheading. We have attempted deterrence; as we attempt to compel them into action, they may respond with more violence in attempts to compel us.