Following the horrific execution of journalist James Foley this week, President Obama vowed that the United States would be “relentless” in its efforts to protect Americans from the militant group ISIS. “When people harm Americans, anywhere, we do what’s necessary to see that justice is done,” he said. On Thursday, Pentagon officials discussed the threat from ISIS in more detail, raising questions about how far the U.S. will go to defeat the terrorist group. Earlier this month, the U.S. began conducting air strikes against ISIS in Iraq, but at a Pentagon news conference, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff said eliminating the extremists will require taking the fight into Syria.
“This is an organization that has an apocalyptic end-of-days strategic vision that will eventually have to be defeated,” said the chairman, General Martin Dempsey. “Can they be defeated without addressing that part of the organization that resides in Syria? The answer is no.”
So far the air strikes against ISIS have been successful, but the New York Times notes that the military’s current strategy is to contain the group, not destroy it. ISIS has been building up its base in Syria for more than a year, and General Dempsey said the threat would eventually have to be “addressed on both sides of what is essentially at this point a nonexistent border.”
That isn’t necessarily happening anytime soon. “That will come when we have a coalition in the region that takes on the task of defeating ISIS over time,” Dempsey said. “ISIS will only truly be defeated when it’s rejected by the 20 million disenfranchised Sunni that happen to reside between Damascus and Baghdad.” When pressed on whether the U.S. is considering conducting air strikes in Syria, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel would only say “we’re looking at all options.”
Representative Brad Sherman, a California Democrat, predicted that Foley’s killing will “cause the Congress and the American people to push toward additional, limited actions against ISIS.” This week several Republicans said Obama should be doing more to stop ISIS — such as Senator Marco Rubio, who said the president “continues to appear unwilling to do what is necessary to confront ISIL” — but they haven’t been specific about what they think he should be doing.
When Obama was considering taking action against the Assad regime a year ago, Congress didn’t seem enthusiastic about greater U.S. involvement in Syria’s civil war. And as disturbed as Americans are by Foley’s execution, it’s unclear if lawmakers are willing to risk deeper U.S. involvement in the Middle East. “This horrendous event has got a lot of folks in Congress talking,” said Representative Peter Welch, a Vermont Democrat, referring to Foley’s execution, “but it doesn’t give us a license to ignore the lessons of George W. Bush in Iraq.”