Even putting aside the excellent ethical arguments for non-intervention in the Middle East, a complete analysis of the Islamic State’s motivations, methods, actions and history indicates that they want to be attacked by the US alliance. This is an incredibly strong reason not to play into their hands.

All warfare is based on deception. Hence, when able to attack, we must seem unable; when using our forces, we must seem inactive; when we are near, we must make the enemy believe we are far away; when far away, we must make him believe we are near. Hold out baits to entice the enemy. Feign disorder, and crush him.

– Sun Tzu, The Art of War

Blatant Provocation

The US alliance has been drawn into action against the Islamic State as a reaction to actions that the Islamic State has taken. The most blatant and transparent attempt to provoke the US was the recent beheading of two US and one UK citizen – beheadings that were videotaped with an English speaking spokesman and deliberately released to the internet.

Stated and actual motivations

The media has been content to repeat the stated motivations that the Islamic State give in the video – that the beheadings are retribution and a warning of more to come if the US continues to oppose the Islamic State. However, this purported motivation does not stand up to any sort of scrutiny. The Islamic State has demonstrated elsewhere a competent understanding of world history and US foreign policy (for example, their English language magazine, Dabiq, provides analysis of foreign policy and a cogent theory of assymetric warfare). So it is obvious that the Islamic State would realise what anyone else would realise – that the beheading videos would not scare the US off, but rather that they would help build a political case for further intervention.

If they understood this would be the result of the videos, which they must have, then they must actually be motivated to manufacture these results – the inescapable conclusion is that the Islamic State wants to increase intervention by the US alliance.

If your opponent is temperamental, seek to irritate him. Pretend to be weak, that he may grow arrogant.

– Sun Tzu, The Art of War

The US will win anyway?

At this point, those who favour dominance and intervention will be tempted to say “OK, fine, the Islamic State wants the US to attack. But they have misjudged the US alliance – we will bomb them into oblivion and destroy them anyway”.

Unfortunately for the US, this view doesn’t stack up. It relies on the Islamic State having less information and understanding of the US’ capabilities than the US has of the Islamic State. Just the opposite is the case. By the US’ own admission, the establishment of the Islamic State earlier this year took them by surprise. Western military sources have consistently underestimated the strength of the Islamic State and revised upwards again and again the number of available fighters it has. The Islamic State, on the other hand, has been adapting and changing it’s organisation whilst fighting the US for 10 years (the Islamic State is a re-badged, re-purposed Al-Qaeda in Iraq). They have fought the US alliance as an insurgency movement and understand the tactics, weaponry and capability of the forces they are up against.

Ready and waiting

They must have predicted a widening air-strike campaign, and predicted that they could withstand it – otherwise they wouldn’t have released the beheading videos. They must have predicted the possibility of special forces raids inside their territory. They must have predicted further arming, training and direction of their enemies. None of these will be surprising developments.

Everything the US alliance is doing has been predicted by the Islamic State leadership and it is not implausible that they anticipate growing in strength even as the US alliance attacks them.

Given their history as an insurgency movement, we know that the Islamic State are comfortable ceding ground and employing guerrilla tactics. They survived despite airstrikes whilst actively opposing the US in Iraq. Their full strategy remains to be seen, but if the recent past is any guide, they will continue to surprise the US and it’s allies.

If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles. If you know yourself but not the enemy, for every victory gained you will also suffer a defeat. If you know neither the enemy nor yourself, you will succumb in every battle.

– Sun Tzu, The Art of War

Blundering forward anyway

Without even getting into why the Islamic State might want the US Alliance to engage (although there are some very plausible explanations), doing exactly what the enemy wants and expects you to do is never a good idea in warfare. History has shown that it will almost certainly lead to defeat. This is an incredibly strong reason for the US not to react predictably to the Islamic State’s crude provocations.