Obama Now Says the U.S. Will “Destroy” ISIS. That Means We Have to Go Into Syria.

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Sept. 3 2014 12:20 PM

What Does “Destroying” ISIS Really Mean?

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U.S. President Barack Obama departs the White House August 29, 2014.

Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images

When the United States decided to make its latest military intervention in Iraq, it was difficult to discern the goal of the mission based on President Obama’s statements. Given that lack of clarity, it was hard to avoid the conclusion that the object was to make Iraq just stable enough that the U.S. could go back to ignoring it.

Judging by the president’s statement following the killing of journalist Steven Sotloff, that’s no longer the case. “The bottom line is this,” he said at a news conference. “Our objective is clear, and that is to degrade and destroy [ISIS] so that it’s no longer a threat not just to Iraq but also the region and to the United States.”

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It seemed obvious that continued videotaped killings of U.S. citizens would provoke a more steadfast response than what we’ve seen so far. The goal of the U.S. operation has now expanded from averting a “potential act of genocide”—or recapturing control of a critical dam, or even propping up the Iraqi government—to eliminating ISIS as a force entirely.

The thing is, Obama’s own military commanders say that destroying ISIS is impossible without strikes against its strongholds in Syria, a step this administration has been extremely reluctant to take. U.S. strikes on Syria probably aren’t imminent—for one thing, more intelligence gathering is probably needed before the military would take such a step—but eventual military action against ISIS on the other side of the border is starting to feel inevitable.

My colleague Fred Kaplan smartly laid out the probable pitfalls of such action last week. And there certainly don’t seem to be any “good” options on the table. But if Obama really intends to “degrade and destroy” ISIS in any meaningful way, it’s hard to see how this conflict will remain within Iraq.

Joshua Keating is a staff writer at Slate focusing on international affairs and writes the World blog. 

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