Biden’s deputy national security adviser on U.S. raid in Syria, tensions with Russia

The United States on Thursday stepped up its accusations that Russia is plotting a fake attack by Ukrainian forces as a pretext to invading Ukraine. It came after a U.S. commando raid led to the death of the ISIS leader in Syria. Jonathan Finer, President Biden's deputy national security adviser, joins Judy Woodruff to discuss both the situation over Ukraine and the raid in Syria.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    And now we turn to the president's deputy national security adviser, Jonathan Finer, to discuss both Ukraine and the commando raid early today that led to the death of the ISIS leader.

    Jon Finer, welcome back to the "NewsHour." Very glad to have you.

    Let's start with this raid in Syria.

    We know that ISIS is not the great force that it once was across the Middle East. We know it's an organization that's been able to regenerate itself. So, what does the depth of the most recent leader really do to degrade its capability?

  • Jon Finer U.S. Deputy National Security Adviser:

    Judy, Hajji Abdullah, the leader you're referencing, has been involved in ISIS from the very beginning.

    He is a terrorist who played a role not only in driving the genocide that took place against the Yazidi people back in 2014, but, just last week, in an attack that took place on a prison in Northwest Syria — Northeast Syria — excuse me — where ISIS tried to free a significant number of its senior leaders who were held captive there. Fortunately, that event was thwarted by U.S. partners, the Syrian Democratic Forces.

    But this is someone who plays a significant operational role day in, day out in an organization that remains potent and that is still trying to target the United States, our people and our allies. And taking him off the battlefield is a significant blow to the organization and a benefit to our safety and security.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    I want to ask you, Jon Finer, about the death of civilians involved, family members. I know the president said today everything possible was done to avoid that.

    And yet, the ISIS leader, al-Qurashi, blew himself up. His wife and two children died. My question is, was everything possible done to avoid that, or is the decision simply made, since these innocents are so close to the target, this is just part of doing business?

  • Jon Finer:

    Well, what I can say, Judy, is that, from the very beginning, from the moment the president was first briefed on this operation, frankly, from the moment the operation began being planned months ago, the desire to avoid at — almost in every way civilian casualties was foremost in the minds of the planners, of the president himself, and I know of the service members who took part in this operation.

    That is a major part of why this was not a drone strike that took place against this target. We put U.S. service members on the ground, in harm's way to, conduct this action precisely to avoid civilian casualties.

    This is why, when they arrived at the target, they gave the people inside every opportunity to come out of the house and be detained, as opposed to a different outcome. And what Hajji Abdullah, the terrorist who we were just discussing, chose to do instead was to blow up the third floor of the building, where he was living with his family, cave in the roof, and cause significant harm and damage to the civilians inside.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    At the same time, Jon Finer, we know that there have been a pattern of airstrikes where civilians have died.

    There's, frankly, also been reporting on dissembling by the military about what's happened in these situations. How can the American people have confidence that we're getting a straight story from the military now?

  • Jon Finer:

    Well, I think you have seen the leadership of the Pentagon stand up and talk about the fact that they know that there have been issues in the past and take — and they are taking significant steps to try to get their arms around this issue and announced some improvements and steps they're taking to make sure that these incidents are minimized to the greatest extent possible going forward, as they were in this case.

    But what I can say is, the accounts that we have of this incident are drawn from eyewitness accounts from the service members who were on the site, not from people who showed up afterwards and tried to assess what happened based on what they encountered.

    And I think those reports from our most experienced, most professional, most capable service members are highly credible.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Going back to the initial question about the ISIS threat, where exactly is it still a major threat to U.S. interests?

  • Jon Finer:

    Well, ISIS, like al-Qaida and other terrorist organizations, in large part because of the United States and our partners in the coalition that is fighting it have been so successful at degrading it over now a period of three successive administrations, it has moved beyond its original geography, emerging first in Iraq and Syria, and now maintains a presence on the African continent, in South Asia, and in other places.

    But what this raid shows is that, even in an obscure part of Northwest Syria, in a small town that most people have never heard of, the United States will find the leadership of these organizations that are targeting the United States and bring them to justice.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Jon Finer, I want to turn you now to Ukraine.

    And we just heard this report from Lisa Desjardins, a lot of concern among senators. She said the sense of urgency is growing.

    Take us for a moment inside the thinking of the — of you and others in the Biden administration. How do you determine whether Vladimir Putin is serious about his threat, or what he says is not a threat, but which looks like a threat, to go into Ukraine?

  • Jon Finer:

    So, all we can do, Judy, is judge by what we are seeing on the ground.

    And that is a significant Russian troop presence on the Russia-Ukraine border, tens of thousands, more than 100,000 Russian forces, increasingly a Russian troop presence in the neighboring country of Belarus, just north of the capital city of Kyiv, capital of Ukraine.

    So, whatever Russian officials are saying in public about their intentions, we have to take that with a grain of salt because of what we're actually seeing with our own eyes.

    And because of that, that is why the United States is being so explicit about the cost that Russia will face if it chooses to launch another military invasion of Ukraine, why we are laying out the fact that they will face financial sanctions, why we are talking openly about the security assistance that we are providing to the Ukrainian government and military, and why we are now, as of just this week, talking about moving U.S. forces and starting to move U.S. forces into the European theater to give reassurance to our NATO partners and allies.

    That is an important step that is just defensive and intended to reassure because of the buildup that Russia is conducting.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Well, I would — I do want to ask about those troops, 3,000 troops the U.S. is repositioning.

    I understand that something like 40,000 NATO troops can be called on in a crisis situation. But you're up against over 100,000 Russian troops. It looks like the Russians have a huge advantage. Explain why that's not the case.

  • Jon Finer:

    I want to be clear, Judy, that NATO is a defensive alliance.

    And the president has been very clear that U.S. forces are not going to be deployed to Ukraine to fight in any conflict that may emerge. That does not mean we do not have options for making this as difficult for Russia as possible. I just described a few of them, financial sanctions, security assistance to Ukraine.

    But the president has also been clear that the NATO alliance, under which we have commitments to defend the security and safety of our allies, many of whom border either Russia or Belarus, where Russia is now amassing forces, means that we owe those countries, and we will live up to our commitments, to make sure that their security and safety is looked after.

    And that's what these deployments are all about.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    But the numbers are lopsided.

  • Jon Finer:

    Judy, there are significant U.S. force numbers in Europe, and there are significant capabilities the United States can draw on to provide defense and reassurance to those countries.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    You mean in addition. The forces that are already positioned in Western Europe, you mean.

  • Jon Finer:

    I mean, those countries should have every reason to be confident in the president's sacred commitment to defend them.

    But this is really, first and foremost, about what Russia is doing on the border with Ukraine. And I think the attention when it shifts to our deployments is, frankly, sometimes a tactic by the Russians to take the focus off of what they are doing and what we are forced to respond to, 100,000 plus-troops on the border of a sovereign country that, frankly, has no desire for Russian forces to be engaged in conflict with them.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And circling back again to my colleague Lisa Desjardins's reporting, talking to senators today discussing, debating whether or not there should be sanctions now added to what the U.S. already has imposed on Russia, whether it's better to impose harsh sanctions now, mild sanctions first or later.

    Where is the administration thinking on this as of today?

  • Jon Finer:

    So, I think we're in close consultation with a number of our friends and colleagues on the Hill about some of the measures that are being debated.

    We have laid out what we think is an extremely strong, extremely powerful set of economic sanctions that we would take in the event that Russia chooses military action, and not diplomacy, which, frankly, would be our preference for resolving this situation.

    I don't want to get ahead of these conversations that are taking place on Capitol Hill. But our partnership is close, and the consultations, I think, are productive.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So it sounds like nothing before a potential invasion?

  • Jon Finer:

    What we have been focusing on up until this point is sanctions that would take place in the aftermath of Russian military action.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    We're going to leave it there.

    Jon Finer, deputy national security adviser to President Biden, thanks very much.

  • Jon Finer:

    Thanks, Judy.

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