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Kobani Airstrikes Highlight Limit Of U.S. Strategy Against ISIS

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

Fighters from the self-proclaimed Islamic State or ISIS may be poised to take over another town in Syria, Kobani. The fighting has played out live on television around the region, but U.S. officials are trying to downplay the town's significance. And the Obama's administration says the coalition it's leading to counter ISIS is just getting started. As NPR's Michele Kelemen reports, U.S. strategy, especially in Syria, is still very much a work in progress.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: As he hosted his British counterpart at the State Department, Secretary of State John Kerry said there is good reason for the U.S. and UK to be part of this anti-ISIS coalition.

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JOHN KERRY: We've both seen our hostages brutally murdered in barbaric acts that shock the conscience of the world. But the response of both of our countries is not to wilt, it is to fight.

KELEMEN: The Royal Air Force is taking part in the strikes against ISIS in Iraq. Asked whether the UK would join in airstrikes in Syria though, Philip Hammond says he wouldn't rule it out, though that would require another vote in parliament.

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PHILIP HAMMOND: This is a coalition. There are many players in it and many different tasks to be carried out. There's some division of labor here - specialization of roles.

KELEMEN: And all eyes right now are on Turkey and what, if anything, it will do to stop ISIS from taking over Kobani, a mainly Kurdish town in Syria just across the Turkish border and in eyesight of Turkish military forces. U.S. officials have expressed frustration with Turkey's reluctance to act, though Kerry says Turkey understands the threat along its border. He says U.S. envoys will have intensive talks in Turkey over the next couple of days. And, Kerry adds, this coalition against ISIS is only now coming together.

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KERRY: I think you will see over the next hours - days, the fullness of that strategy evolving and decisions being made about the Turks and others as to exactly what role they're going to play.

KELEMEN: As he defended U.S. strategy, Kerry is trying to downplay the potential fall of Kobani, saying the U.S. is focused on ISIS command and control centers.

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KERRY: As horrific as it is to watch in real time what's happening in Kobani, it's also important to remember you have to step back and understand the strategic objective and where we have begun over the course of the last weeks.

KELEMEN: Turkey has been encouraging the U.S. to do more to support rebels fighting against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's regime and to create a buffer zone inside Syria - a difficult military task. Kerry reacted cautiously to that idea, as did British Foreign Secretary Hammond.

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HAMMOND: We are at the stage of exploring, as the secretary said. This is very new territory. I mean, we're only in the first week or two of the coalition's existence and operation. The idea of a buffer zone is one that has been floated. We'd have to explore with other allies and partners what is meant by a buffer zone - how such a concept would work. But I certainly wouldn't want to rule it out.

KELEMEN: Kerry said only it's worth examining, though U.S. military officials say a buffer zone is not on the table, and they're asking for, quote, "strategic patience." Michele Kelemen, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.