In any conflict, the most important consideration is the definition of success. As George W. Bush found, it’s critical to know when to hang the “Mission Accomplished” banner. In Syria, the White House’s definition of success is the destruction of ISIS, but the question is: when will they be “destroyed”? If ISIS changes their name or its fighters join other rebel groups in Syria, is the war over?
No one has asked the administration this question directly, but Secretary of State John Kerry has already implied the answer when he explained how the U.S. already had legal authority to attack ISIS under the 2001 Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF) against al-Qaeda. When it was pointed out that ISIS is actually at war with al-Qaeda right now, Kerry pointed out that ISIL used to be an al-Qaeda affiliate, he responded: “By trying to change its name, it doesn’t change who it is, what it does.”
Actually, it does—it completely changes who it is. It is no longer an al-Qaeda ally. In fact, it wasn’t even “ISIL” at the time it was an al-Qaeda ally. It was a different organization with a different name (“Jabhat al-Nusrah”), a different leader (Abu Mohammad al-Golani instead of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi), and different tactics—it focused its attacks on the Assad regime, not fellow Muslims.
Kerry is arguing that even if we completely destroy the “Islamic State”/ISIS/ISIL so much that all of their fighters join organizations that want to destroy the Islamic State, our war will not be over because that doesn’t change “who it is, what it does.” We have no definite enemy. It isn’t those who killed American journalists. It isn’t those who are trying to overthrow the Iraqi government. It isn’t those who are rebelling against Assad. Our enemy has no specifics, no leader, no tactics, no ends.
We are not fighting a war on “ISIS”—we are waging a war on an ideology: anti-Americanism. This is why the U.S. has already bombed Jabhat al-Nusrah targets in Syria. Success means, as Sec. Hagel put it, “a free Syria.” We won’t stop until we force Syrians and Iraqis to recognize that “men and women and their families have rights to choose and have rights to choose their own leaders and their own futures.” This crusade allows for no exit strategy.