The debate about whether to intervene in Syria’s civil war has waned and waxed for three years, but the execution of James Foley has reignited it — and changed its direction. For most of that time, the advocates of intervention focused on the need to get rid of Bashar al-Assad, while opponents insisted that intervention would only boost radical Islamic extremists and create a failed state. Now we have a failed state where extremists control vast swaths of territory, and where containment no longer looks like an option.

Now the White House, which had been reluctant to commit to military action against Assad, may end up intervening against one of his enemies instead:

The Obama administration is debating a more robust intervention in Syria, including possible American airstrikes, in a significant escalation of its weeks-long military assault on the Islamic extremist group that has destabilized neighboring Iraq and killed an American journalist, officials said Friday.

While President Obama has long resisted being drawn into Syria’s bloody civil war, officials said recent advances by the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria had made clear that it represents a threat to the interests of the United States and its allies. The beheading of James Foley, the American journalist, has contributed to what officials called a “new context” for a challenge that has long divided the president’s team. …

American officials said they would also take a look at airstrikes by fighter jets and bombers as well as potentially sending Special Operations forces into Syria, like those who tried to rescue Mr. Foley and other hostages on a mission in July. One possibility officials have discussed for Iraq that could be translated to Syria would be a series of unmanned drone strikes targeting ISIS leaders, much like those conducted in Yemen, Somalia and Pakistan.

Whether Mr. Obama would actually authorize a new strategy remained unclear and aides said he has not yet been presented with recommendations. The president has long expressed skepticism that more assertive action by the United States, including arming Syrian rebels as urged in 2011 by Hillary Rodham Clinton, then the secretary of state, would change the course of the civil war there. But he sent out a top adviser on Friday to publicly hint at the possibility a day after the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff said ISIS could not be defeated without going after it in Syria.

That advice came from Joint Chiefs chair Gen. Martin Dempsey, who made the obvious observation on Thursday that there isn’t much difference between Iraq and Syria any longer anyway. Neither country controls much of the border, and ISIS operates freely in both areas. Military pressure on one side of the border would just mean that ISIS would flex back into the other temporarily, and then vice versa when needed:

Dempsey said for ISIS to be defeated, it would have to be addressed in Syria, possibly in part by airstrikes.

“And that will come when we have a coalition in the region that takes on the task of defeating ISIS over time. ISIS will only truly be defeated when it’s rejected by the 20 million disenfranchised Sunni that happen to reside between Damascus and Baghdad,” he said.

“It requires a variety of instruments, only one small part of which is airstrikes. I’m not predicting those will occur in Syria, at least not by the United States of America. But it requires the application of all of the tools of national power — diplomatic, economic, information, military,” he said.

In other words, it doesn’t take Carl von Clausewitz to know that attacking an enemy only in one theater when they control two won’t win the war in the long run. The irony in this case is that any American intervention in Syria against ISIS will have the immediate effect of bolstering Assad. That can’t be helped, unfortunately, because the short-term threat to the US and to the various minorities that live in the region comes from ISIS and has to be addressed now, not later. Clearing the ground of ISIS might eventually make it easier for the so-called moderate rebels to displace ISIS, but, er … don’t bet on it. Stability is suddenly looking a hell of a lot better in Washington DC than it did during the so-called Arab Spring.

Dempsey is also correct that it will take an uprising of Sunni tribes to crush ISIS, but it will take substantial outside intervention to get them to do that, just as it did during the Anbar Awakening. And this time, they will take a lot of convincing that the West won’t just walk away to leave them in servitude to their Shi’ite-majority leadership in Baghdad, which is why a significant number of these tribal leaders threw in with ISIS over the last three years since the American withdrawal. Don’t bet on them switching sides soon, unless the new government in Baghdad offers real reform and power-sharing, which the Iranians probably will discourage.

The butchery of ISIS in its beheading of James Foley at least has awakened the Obama administration to the nature of ISIS as an enemy, rather than just a local outfit of “jayvees.” CBS News reports this morning that the administration has now acknowledged that Foley’s beheading marked a “point of escalation,” to which they are still struggling to respond:

A senior administration official told CBS News’ Julianna Goldman that this week marks “a point of escalation” in the fight against the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, or ISIS, because of the gruesome beheading of journalist James Foley and the ISIS threats against the U.S. that have to be taken seriously. …

Former U.S. Ambassador to Iraq James Jeffrey said the danger from ISIS isn’t new, but this week, its savagery hit the world stage.

“These people are capable of anything, we’ve long known that,” said Jeffrey. “Now Americans are seeing that what happened to tens of thousands of people in the region has happened to an American.”

Intelligence sources tell CBS News that ISIS and other Syria-based terror cells don’t have the capability to carry out a large-scale attack, but dozens of Americans and about a thousand Western Europeans have linked up with radical Islamist groups in Syria. They have passports that allow them to travel freely to the U.S. and pose a growing threat.

The return of these jihadists to their home countries, and the havoc they will wreak on their return, represents the most direct threat from ISIS — at least for the moment. I spoke to Senator Rob Portman about that threat earlier this week, and he says that the Senate will address that when it returns after Labor Day:

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