Ben Rhodes, President Obama's deputy national security advisor, told NPR that the American military effort against ISIL may not be restricted to Iraq.
In an early morning interview from Martha's Vineyard, where the president is vacationing, Rhodes confirmed that there are other American hostages still being held by ISIL. As we wrote on Wednesday, U.S. special forces went into Syria earlier this summer on a mission to rescue American hostages held by ISIL including James Foley, who was executed earlier this week.
But then things got interesting. When asked about future American airstrikes against ISIL targets in Syria, where they have "a major base," Rhodes outlined the renascent U.S. efforts in Iraq and then added:
"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."
Rhodes went onto to say that no decisions on additional actions had been made, but that they weren't being ruled out.
The subtext was meaningful:
When Kelly McEvers floated an idea put forth by Ryan Crocker, former American ambassador to both Afghanistan and Iraq, that the U.S. work with Syrian dictator Bashar Assad against ISIL, Rhodes dismissed the idea out of hand.
Citing a "vacuum" caused by Assad's policies and "barbarism against his people," Rhodes explained that ISIL was able to grow because of Assad, not in spite of him.
He's part of the problem, Assad. We believe that the long-term strategy for defeating ISIL and shrinking steadily the space where they operate is to strengthen Iraqi forces on the Iraq side of the border so that they are able to dislodge ISIL from their communities and to strength moderate Syrian opposition forces."
Those moderates, he explained, are part of the same coalition that would battle Assad. When asked if this signaled an escalation, Rhodes said there is "a degree of limits to how we're going to get after that challenge [of ISIL]." Military action, Rhodes added, is part of "mix of tools" needed to combat ISIL, but U.S. forces wouldn't be reintroduced into combat.
Of course, President Obama's critics will point to the president's decision to stay out of Syria in the early stages of its rebellion, theoretically, when the option to arm more moderate Syrian groups was a possibility.
The statement also cuts a strange figure against last summer's crisis involving the president's red line on the use of chemical weapons, which he ultimately didn't enforce despite proof that Assad had killed hundreds in chemical weapons attacks.
Instead, through a deal brokered by Russian President Vladimir Putin, all chemical weapons were said to be removed from Syria. Earlier this week, President Obama said Syria's chemical weapons arsenal had been eliminated.
Nevertheless, Rhodes' disclosure of American action in Syria as well as the potential for more (in addition to the arming of moderate rebels) has the sense of the surreal given last summer's fever pitch.