Infuriated by Foley's grisly death, Obama is considering all options that might protect Americans from a threat that could reach the United States and other Western nations, a top advisor said, insisting that the president wouldn't be "restricted by borders."
"If you come after Americans, we're going to come after you wherever you are," said Ben Rhodes, deputy national security advisor. "And that's what's going to guide our planning in the days to come."
So far, the U.S. air campaign against Islamic State has been contained to Iraq, where the group's stunningly fast takeover of a large swath of the country's north and west led Obama to order more than 90 airstrikes this month, reviving the American military presence in Iraq.
If Obama targets the militants in Syria, he'll be doing so in response to a direct threat to Americans, Rhodes said.
At the heart of President Obama's quandary over the Islamic State militants is their haven in Syria.
The president may continue helping Iraqi forces try to reverse the group's land grabs in northern Iraq by providing more arms and American military advisers and by using U.S. warplanes to support Iraqi ground operations.
But what if the militants pull back, even partially, into Syria and regroup, as Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel on Thursday predicted they would, followed by a renewed offensive?
"In a sense, you're just sort of back to where you were" before they swept into Iraq, said Robert Ford, a former U.S. ambassador to Syria who quit in February in disillusionment over Obama's unwillingness to arm moderate Syrian rebels.
"I don't see how you can contain the Islamic State over the medium term if you don't address their base of operations in Syria," he said in an interview before an intensified round of U.S. air strikes this week helped Kurdish and Iraqi forces recapture a Tigris River dam near Mosul that had fallen under control of Islamic State militants.
On the other hand, Obama has been leery of getting drawn into the Syrian civil war, which began in 2011.
Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said Thursday that the Islamic State militants can be contained only so long, and that at some point their Syrian sanctuary will have to be dealt with.
Reminder from WSJ
why Syria's Assad is not our best bet here:
The Islamic State, which metastasized from a group of militants seeking to overthrow the Syrian government into a marauding army gobbling up chunks of the Middle East, gained momentum early on from a calculated decision by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to go easy on it, according to people close to the regime.
Earlier in the three-year-old Syrian uprising, Mr. Assad decided to mostly avoid fighting the Islamic State to enable it to cannibalize the more secular rebel group supported by the West, the Free Syrian Army, said Izzat Shahbandar, an Assad ally and former Iraqi lawmaker who was Baghdad's liaison to Damascus. The goal, he said, was to force the world to choose between the regime and extremists.
President Obama said Wednesday that the Islamic State is a cancer that threatens all governments in the Middle East. But that raises the question of what the U.S. could or should do.
Two former U.S. ambassadors to Syria, Robert Ford and Ryan Crocker, have advocated different approaches to a conflict where there are many different options. But none is appealing and there's no guarantee, or even a likelihood that U.S. action would ultimately determine the outcome.
Ford, who stepped down from the post in February, has wanted the U.S. to do more to arm moderate rebels, who are battling both President Bashar Assad's regime and Islamic State militants.
Crocker, on the other hand, has long argued that the Assad regime may be bad, but it doesn't pose nearly the same threat compared with the Islamic State, which previously called itself the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, or ISIS.
"I am no apologist for the Assad regime. I was there under father [Hafez Assad] and son [Bashar Assad]," says Crocker, who served as ambassador to Syria from 1998-2001. "They are a brutal bunch of bastards, without question. But in terms of our security, ISIS is by far the largest threat.
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