Foreign Policy Blogs

Obama’s Strategy, ISIS’s Coercive Diplomacy, and Escalation Dominance

The headquarters of the DGSE, one of France's numerous intelligence agencies, is known as "the swimming pool." Intelligence will play a central role in efforts to combat terrorism. (Photo:

The headquarters of the DGSE, one of France’s numerous intelligence agencies, is known as “the swimming pool.” Intelligence will play a central role in efforts to combat terrorism. (Photo:

Whenever something unexpected happens, the airwaves immediately fill with the sound of pundits calling for the President to scrap whatever it is the government has been doing that is tangentially related, and start over again with something else. Thus, the recent terrorist attacks in Paris were met with assertions that Obama’s strategy against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) was not working and had to be changed. This, however, is not the right way to look at it. I think it is more accurate to say that the president’s strategy has been working in Iraq and Syria, but ISIS is now reacting to the setbacks in innovative ways.

In 2014 ISIS spread across eastern Syria and western Iraq in a rapid, sudden, and unexpected way. The advance left such a strong impression that some people seem to think that it is continuing. Yet, at this point, ISIS has largely been brought to a halt. Moreover, it has been losing territory.

According to the Pentagon, as of April 2015, ISIS “can no longer operate freely in roughly 25 to 30 percent of populated areas of Iraqi territory where it once could.” (This calculation, presumably, leaves out the extensive empty desert areas that fall within ISIS’s borders.) The road between Raqqa and Mosul has been cut. Thousands of fighters have been killed. The Iraqi army has not been vigorous in its attempts to retake the most recent ISIS acquisition, the city of Ramadi (and in some cases may actually be happy to see the Sunnis kept outside of Baghdad’s jurisdiction and elections), but even there ISIS is physically surrounded and isolated.

War, however, is a highly interactive enterprise. Rather than simply taking its hits on the ground, ISIS has responded by shifting part of the fight to a different theater—one that features a different balance of advantages and disadvantages. As I have noted before, ISIS does not have a tradition of terrorist attacks against distant targets. This was a point of dispute between al-Qaeda’s Osama bin Laden and the founder of ISIS’ predecessor organizations, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi.

Both sought ultimately to depose the (un-Islamic or insufficiently Islamic) regimes of the Middle East (the near enemy). Bin Laden, however, saw these regimes as sustained by the West (the far enemy) and therefore directed his attacks at the West to induce Western countries to drop their support. Al-Zarqawi attacked Middle Eastern regimes directly or sought to incite civil conflicts within these countries as a way to increase local support for his cause. The 2003 invasion of Iraq, by bringing the far enemy near, led to a temporary alignment between the two, and to Zarqawi’s founding of al-Qaeda in Iraq.

In recent weeks, however, ISIS and its affiliates have engaged in an unprecedented series of attacks at distant targets.* Although some of the details have yet to be confirmed, these acts include suicide bombings at a Kurdish peace rally in Ankara, Turkey; the destruction of a Russian airliner over Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula; suicide bombings in a Shiite neighborhood in Beirut, Lebanon; and most recently, the  attacks against random civilians by three coordinated teams of gunmen and suicide bombers in Paris. Unable to prevail against technically advanced forces on the battlefield, ISIS is shifting the battle to a place where it is in a better position to inflict costs directly on those countries that have taken up arms against it.

It is highly unlikely that the leaders of ISIS have ever read the works of Thomas Schelling, but these actions can be interpreted in terms of his notion of coercive threats, which include both deterrence and compellence.** Schelling, who played a large role in the development of deterrence theory, was the originator of the notion of compellence. The basic concept, deterrence, uses threats of retaliation to induce an adversary not to engage in some behavior that you want to prevent (e.g., Don’t attack me!). The derivative concept, compellence, is the use of threats or actual violence to compel an adversary to stop or change some behavior that is already under way (e.g., Stop attacking me!). Schelling reasoned that compellence would be the more difficult of the two inasmuch as it required a change in the status quo rather than the maintenance of the status quo. Both, however, entailed the manipulation of the adversary’s perceived costs and benefits so as to convince the adversary of the wisdom of avoiding, or ceasing, the undesired behavior.

Thus the recent attacks most likely represent a further round in the “natural” escalation of the sectarian war in Iraq and Syria—one carried out in the spirit of compellence. The expanding war on the ground has drawn in a number of outside powers who are concerned about the balance of power in the Middle East and eager to prevent an ISIS victory. These interventionists supply their preferred local factions, directly participate in ground combat, or in the case of the Western powers, bomb ISIS positions from the air.

Unable to defeat modern air forces, ISIS is raising the costs of intervention by attacking their homelands and killing their citizens, hoping to undermine their willingness to remain engaged in a distant fight in a foreign land. In the Vietnam War, the United States similarly used bombing in an attempt to raise the costs of war to the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong, in the hope that they would recalculate their relative costs and benefits, pack their bags, and go home. Unfortunately for the strategy in that instance, the Vietnamese were already home and it was the United States that packed its bags. Compared with that, ISIS’s use of compellence is far more logical.

ISIS runs the risk, of course, of eliciting a backlash in the form of even more intense bombing. Deterrence theory suggests an additional response. The Western powers should strive for “escalation dominance.”*** ISIS is seeking to fight on a battlefield of its choosing, one where the circumstances favor it over its adversaries. Its adversaries will have to make sure that no such battlefield exists. That does not necessarily mean changing strategy in Iraq and Syria (although one may choose to adjust it for other reasons). It means creating the capacity to defeat ISIS at other levels—thus removing the incentive to escalate—while the fight in Iraq and Syria continues.

Since the nature of the fight differs, the means will have to differ as well. Stealthy terrorist attacks against soft civilian targets in home cities cannot be combatted with battalions or fighter jets. It calls for police action, surveillance of suspected terrorists, cutting communications and travel links between ISIS headquarters and its operatives abroad, countering ISIS ideology and recruitment efforts, and improving relations between Muslim communities in the West and their host societies.

This approach will not satisfy those seeking a quick and easy answer. Unfortunately, quick and easy answers have a tendency to make things worse.

*For this argument’s sake, we shall assume that these actions have been directed by a central ISIS command and are not simply the products of inspiration or loosely networked organizations.

**The noun normally associated with the verb “compel” is compulsion, but Schelling was not happy with all of that word’s existing connotations, so he invented a new word.

***Herman Kahn developed this notion with reference to escalation among finely measured gradations of nuclear war. In my opinion, the expectation of controlling nuclear war with such precision is unrealistic. In the present context, however, the idea might be more useful.



Scott Monje

Scott C. Monje, Ph.D., is senior editor of the Encyclopedia Americana (Grolier Online) and author of The Central Intelligence Agency: A Documentary History. He has taught classes on international, comparative, and U.S. politics at Rutgers University, New York University (SCPS), and Purchase College, SUNY.