“Degrade and ultimately destroy” ISIL is the mission for Syria. But few people have considered what it would take to make good on those seemingly simple and direct words. The complexity of the mission is implied by the name of the target itself: are we at war with the “Islamic State”? Or is it the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS)? Or perhaps it is the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL)?
The true answer is none of the above. We are not at war with an organization, but an ideology. This ideology is not even radical Islam. It is anti-Americanism. In his speech announcing airstrikes in Syria, Obama made clear that his intent was not simply stopping ISIL, but also “countering its hateful ideology.” He repeated the point at the UN that “the ideology of ISIL or al Qaeda or Boko Haram will wilt and die.” In other words, the U.S. will bomb any group that is insufficiently pro-Western (i.e. “extremist”), which is why the U.S. also bombed a group known as al-Nusrah last night.
Interventionists have known from the beginning that a mission to destroy ISIS would entail much more than limited strikes against one group. When ISIS renames itself the “Jihad Forever” or when its fighters join al-Nusrah or al-Qaeda or some other rebel group, the U.S. cannot plausibly claim victory over it. Because Obama refuses to limit our operation to a definable group – such as those members who killed two U.S. journalists like Reps. Raúl Labrador (R-ID) and John Duncan (R-TN) have suggested – we are either just fighting a name (“ISIS”) or fighting any group that subscribes to a “radical” ideology.
In defending the use of the 2001 Authorization of Force against al-Qaeda to justify air strikes against ISIS, Secretary of State John Kerry made clear that we are at war with any group that is “radical” regardless of what they call themselves. Kerry argued that ISIS used to be affiliated with al-Qaeda, and the fact that they are now a separate organization at war with al-Qaeda is meaningless. “By trying to change its name, it doesn’t change who it is,” he said. In other words, even if we break up “ISIL” into groups that are at war with “ISIL,” we will soldier on until everyone who subscribes to the ISIL “ideology” is dead.
We have already received confirmation of this fact when the administration decided to bomb members of the al-Qaeda affiliate al-Nusrah Front. The administration has decided to re-label the al-Nusrah targets the “Khorasan Group” to avoid the implication that it is at war with the entire group, which is currently working with U.S.-backed “moderate” rebels in Syria to overthrow the Assad regime. But make no mistake: Obama has avoided mission creep by jumping the mission forward at the start.
Tomahawk Missiles Launched at al-Nusrah in Syria (BBC)
The impossibility of defining and eliminating “ISIS” has not stopped the U.S. from further complicating their task by adopting a Mission Impossible strategy of destroying both anti-Western rebels and Assad. The U.S. got locked into an anti-Assad position after it called on Congress to authorize air strikes against the regime last year. But to “destroy” ISIS, someone will have to recapture its territory. If that is not the Syrian government, the U.S. must train and arm certain rebels – as it is currently doing in Saudi Arabia – to act as a U.S. proxy army to hold back both sides.
Even with the much less complex situation in Iraq, the U.S. airstrikes have “scarcely budged” ISIS, largely due to the incompetence of the Iraqi military. The failure of the $25 billion we spent to arm and train its army has not stopped the president from touting the insane notion that providing a meager $500 million in aid to disorganized rebel groups fighting a two-front war will somehow work better.
This “bomb-everyone” strategy will fail. We have made clear to the world that there will be no victory – no peace – until the anti-Western ideology is crushed. In fact, the official end-game for Syria, according to Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel, is “a free Syria, where men and women and their families have rights to choose and have rights to choose their own leaders and their own futures.” In other words, our mission will not be complete until we have imposed a liberal democratic utopia.
America has not learned anything from its years of Middle East wars. Adopting open-ended conflicts with wildly-unrealistic goals will not make us safer. In fact, the more bombs we drop and the more civilians are killed – such as the woman and three children killed last night – the more enemies we will create. Peace will only come when the U.S. learns to refrain from stoking fights without end.