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Other Hostages Are In Danger, White House Official Says


Next we're going to talk about the foreign policy challenges facing the Obama Administration in the wake of the brutal killing of an American journalist and the advance of the militant group known as the Islamic State. Ben Rhodes is President Obama's deputy national security adviser. He joins us on the phone from Martha's Vineyard. Good morning.

BEN RHODES: Good morning, Kelly.

MCEVERS: The Pentagon says that Special Forces - U.S. Special Forces tried but failed earlier this summer to rescue Jim Foley and other American hostages. What do we know about these other hostages? Who are they? And what is their condition?

RHODES: Well, Kelly, there are a number of American hostages who have been held in Syria. We're careful not to go into too many specifics beyond the fact that we believe they've been in captivity for some time now. We are deeply concerned that every single day that they are in the custody of a terrorist organization like ISIL. They are in danger. We do whatever we can to try to locate them but it's an incredibly difficult challenge. And it's one that we're going to continue to be focused on, particularly after this horrific killing of James Foley the other day.

MCEVERS: A State Department official said yesterday that the U.S. will not rule out military action in Syria. Are you considering airstrikes against the Islamic State - you call it ISIL - in Syria, where we know they have a major base there?

RHODES: Well, we have launched a focused military mission in Iraq that is protecting our people in Baghdad and Erbil. And it has stopped the advance of ISIL inside of Iraq. And it has helped the Iraqi security forces begin to regain some territory that was claimed by ISIL. We've also launched a humanitarian mission to save many dozens of people who are trapped in Mount Sinjar. At the same time, we don't rule anything out when it comes to the protection of Americans and the disruption of terrorist plotting against the United States. So we would not restrict ourselves by geographic boundaries when it comes to the core mission of U.S. foreign policy which is the protection of our people. We haven't made decisions to take additional actions at this time. But we certainly don't rule out additional action against ISIL if it becomes warranted.

MCEVERS: A former U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan and Iraq, Ryan Crocker, has suggested the U.S. should work with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to combat these Islamic State militants. Is that something the U.S. is considering?

RHODES: No, Kelly. We basically think that the reason that ISIL was able to get the safe haven that they establish in parts of Syria is because of Assad's policies. His barbarism against his own people created an enormous vacuum. That type of environment of violent conflict and sectarian conflict also attracts people who are drawn into ISIL. So he's part of the problem - Assad. We believe the long-term strategy for defeating ISIL and shrinking steadily the space where they operate is to strengthen the Iraqi security forces on the Iraq side of the border so that they are able to dislodge ISIL from their communities and to strengthen moderate Syrian opposition forces so that they, too, are able to fight against ISIL. That moderate opposition is the same alternative that we have supported to Assad, as well.

MCEVERS: You know, this seems like a moment of escalation. You know, continuing strikes in Iraq, not ruling out military action in Syria. Isn't this what the Administration was worried about all along? I mean, are we backing ourselves into another war in the Middle East?

RHODES: Well, we're dealing with a very serious and focused challenge from a terrorist organization - ISIL. And I think what people need to understand in terms of what those concerns may be is that we do place a degree of limits on how we are going to get after that challenge. The president has made clear in Iraq, for instance, that we're not going to reintroduce U.S. forces into combat, which if you compare what we're doing today to when we came into office when we had 140,000-some troops in Iraq, it's a very different type of approach. However, we are going to need a mix of tools to combat the threat that ISIL poses to the region and to the United States. That has included military action through airstrikes. It includes intelligence. It includes cooperation with security forces on the ground. And what we want to do and what the president called for yesterday is make sure that we are building and mobilizing a broad coalition of countries - regional, states who have no interest in seeing ISIL get a foothold, international partners like the United Kingdom and others who have stepped up to the plate and said and said that they want to be a part of this effort. If we have that type of coalition that is working together in these different areas, we can squeeze the space that ISIL is operating in. And again, we got a big step forward towards getting that coalition together when Iraq moved forward with the formation of a new government. If they complete that, we believe it will be easier to get buy-in from regional states and from Sunni communities in Iraq to dislodge ISIL.

MCEVERS: That's Ben Rhodes, White House deputy national security advisor. Thanks for joining us this morning.

RHODES: Thanks very much, Kelly. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.