March 24, 2015
In September 2014, Bilal Y. Saab, Resident Senior Fellow for Middle East Security at the Atlantic Council's Brent Scowcroft on International Security, and Michael S. Tyson, Marine Corps Senior Fellow at the Scowcroft Center, predicted in a simulation exercise (for results, see "ISIS War Game: The Coming Stalemate") conducted at the Scowcroft Center's Middle East Peace and Security Initiative that the most likely scenario was a military stalemate. They also realized that such a stalemate was not stable. Since the conclusion of the first war game, ISIS's regional attacks have increased in scope, lethality, and level of sophistication, as evidenced by its military and terrorist operations in Libya, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Lebanon.

To continue to study the evolving strategic interaction among ISIS, the US-led coalition, and other state actors involved in this crisis, ISIS War Game series co-chairs Saab and Tyson ran the second simulation on February 25, 2015. In this all-day exercise, held in partnership with Foreign Affairs magazine, they focused on the potential for escalation on the part of ISIS and how Washington and its allies and partners could anticipate and better prepare for such contingencies.

This second war game was specifically designed to be military-operational in nature and approached from the prism of operational containment. It sought to accomplish three tasks: First, to assess how ISIS might fully test existing US strategy by resorting to various forms of escalation; second, to simulate the response of the United States and that of its allies and partners to potential escalation by ISIS; and third, to provide recommendations to US officials that could help mitigate the repercussions of likely escalatory actions by ISIS, and more broadly protect core US interests in the region.

In "ISIS War Game II: The Escalation Challenge," Saab and Tyson describe the proceedings of the simulation and provide some key takeaways, including:

  • Neither scenario of escalation by ISIS caused a fundamental change in current US policy. US messaging was focused on not withdrawing, but the actual response to the scenarios was primarily tactical in nature;
  • ISIS had the strategic initiative and momentum, and had more confidence than its adversaries in its capabilities and plans;
  • The European powers and regional partners were confused about US intentions and concerned about lack of US leadership; and
  • There was an inherent tension between immediate/primarily kinetic US responses and strategic objectives.

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