The President gave his speech on strategy towards ISIL…except everyone calls it ISIS in the West. ISIL is Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant and ISIS is Islamic State in Iraq and Syria or al Shams, which is roughly the same territory as Syria. And the group calls itself the Islamic State or IS. What gives?
The dogged retention by the President of the term ISIL may be related to the legal powers he wishes to employ. Broadly, the force he wants to bring to bear derives from counter terrorism authorities that single out Al Qaeda as the objective. It seems ISIL is linked legally if not genetically to Al Qaeda or politically to Al Qaeda. We have a well-established legal and intelligence structure in place to kill Al Qaeda targets and the President has been making great use of it.
However, ISIS (I will use the popular term) is clearly not Al Qaeda. Because we are playing catch-up with this threat, our thinking and legal authorities have not been revised to accommodate something that is radically different than Al Qaeda. Is ISIS a terrorist organization? They want to be a state. Of course, this is the last thing we want (hence our aversion to accepting their name—Islamic State, IS). Maybe they think they can eventually be accepted as the PLO eventually transitioned from a terrorist group to a state with acknowledged legitimacy. Seems dubious now, but many never dreamed Yasser Arafat would be welcomed at the White House.
ISIS is exploiting some key voids. One is geographic. The territory of Syria is up for grabs. In a different way, the territory of Iraq is up for grabs.
A second void is that the US is not structured legally or bureaucratically to kill ISIS. We have a well-oiled machine for tracking and killing Al Qaeda, but ISIS…not even close. Moreover, no one wants to take the lead. President Obama reacted because it was no longer avoidable given the brutal videos that ricocheted around the planet. But so far, the local governments have priorities that are not congruent with ours. Iraqis all have different objectives. The new government is not going to be any better than the last. The Kurds, whom the President called out separately in his speech in tacit recognition of their long held goal of being an independent state, are fighting only for their own piece of territory. And Syria, well, we either go full bore in standing up a rebel group or accept that the Russians and Iranians were right and Bashar al Assad is more in our interests because he is only killing his own people, not threatening the US.
None of these things are yet addressed in the current strategy. This will be a mess for the rest of the current administration.