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Trump Says Chemical Attack In Syria Crosses Many Lines


One week ago, the U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said Syrians would be the ones to decide the future of their president, Bashar al-Assad. The same day U.N. ambassador Nikki Haley made clear that the U.S. would focus on getting rid of ISIS in Syria, not on regime change. But a deadly chemical attack in Syria may be changing the administration's calculus. President Trump said this yesterday.


PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: It crossed a lot of lines for me. When you kill innocent children, innocent babies - babies, little babies - with a chemical gas that is so lethal - people were shocked to hear what gas it was - that crosses many, many lines - beyond a red line, many, many lines.

MARTIN: President Trump also said the attack had changed his opinion of Bashar al-Assad. Ambassador Haley seemed to underscore that new thinking yesterday during an emergency session of the U.N. Security Council. She said the U.S. would be willing to act alone if the Security Council won't take action.

So what does this mean for U.S. strategy in Syria? We're joined now via Skype by Michele Flournoy. She was the undersecretary of defense in the Obama administration. She is now the head of the Center for a New American Security. Thanks so much for being with us this morning.

MICHELE FLOURNOY: Good morning, Rachel.

MARTIN: Is it your understanding that the Trump administration has a clear strategy when it comes to Syria?

FLOURNOY: I don't think they've sorted out their strategy for Syria as yet. As you mentioned, the president's been very clear that he wants to go after ISIS, but to date, I don't think he's understand - stood how intertwined fighting ISIS and dealing with the Syrian regime really are on the ground.

MARTIN: But, as you know, the Obama administration was kind of locked in this push and pull between these two objectives - getting rid of Assad and getting rid of ISIS. And there was a lot of blowback on the administration for them not being able to achieve either. Can you do both?

FLOURNOY: You have to do both in that, you know, you - if you go after ISIS by itself and you don't deal with the criminal nature of the Syrian regime which has been slaughtering civilians for many years now, you know, you can push ISIS out. But if you don't create the conditions that are causing the radicalization, that are causing people to oppose the government, you're not going to come up with a sustainable solution.

So, ultimately, you have to come to some kind of negotiated outcome in Syria. And I think what Trump is now realizing is that Bashar al-Assad cannot really be part of that ultimate outcome.

MARTIN: So what does that mean? I mean, we heard Ambassador Haley say the U.S. may act if the U.N. Security Council doesn't. Does that mean the Pentagon is drawing up plans at this moment for some airstrikes in Syria?

FLOURNOY: You know, I would expect that President Trump will ask what his military options are, and there are certainly symbolic strikes that he could take on Syrian military objectives to symbolically signal that use of chemical weapons are not acceptable. But at this point in the conflict, those are not necessarily going to change the outcome or direction of the war.

MARTIN: So what would?

FLOURNOY: Well, I think that the key to getting - this is not a war that's going to be settled on the battlefield. You have to create the conditions on the battlefield for negotiations to then happen. I think...

MARTIN: So what does that mean - creating the conditions?

FLOURNOY: It means that you have to support the Syrian opposition so to the extent that they have a real seat at the table, and I think you have to use events like this to pressure Russia to distance itself from Assad or at least to accept an ultimate outcome that does not have Assad governing Syria.

MARTIN: You talk about the need to bolster the groups that the U.S. has seen perceived as allies in this civil war. But are there clear good guys in this conflict?

FLOURNOY: Look, the longer a civil war goes on, the less moderate the opposition forces are able to stay. I mean, but that said, we do have clear allies. We've had Kurdish and Arab forces that we've been able to support to take territory from ISIS and to push back against them and to do so effectively. I think we are poised now to help them take Raqqa in Syria by providing them additional support. And that's important to do.

Raqqa is the center of ISIS's external attack planning. So they're attack planning against Europe and the United States, and that's a very important objective to continue through on. But, ultimately, again, I don't see the U.S. invading Syria, nor would that be in our interest. We have to set the conditions to actually enter into real negotiations and to try to separate Russia from supporting Assad as the, you know, ultimate leader of Syria.

MARTIN: Lastly, is that likely to happen? We've heard Russia giving a counter-narrative about how this chemical weapons attack happened. They're protecting the Assad regime.

FLOURNOY: Well, here again - this is where diplomacy matters. These are not things that have a military solution. The Trump administration needs to be rallying the international community to push back given the chemical attacks, and it needs to put Russia in a corner and realize that it cannot continue its support.

MARTIN: Michele Flournoy - she is the CEO of the Center for a New American Security. Thank you so much for your time this morning.

FLOURNOY: Thank you, Rachel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.