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What are Trump’s options in Syria?

April 5, 2017 at 6:40 PM EDT
A chemical weapons attack in Syria on Monday crossed “many lines,” according to President Trump. But what options could the president pursue to help end the six-year civil war? Judy Woodruff speaks with former Defense Department official Andrew Exum and Kori Schake of the Hoover Institution about how the Trump administration could tackle foreign policy on Syria.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: As we reported earlier, President Trump said that the chemical weapons attack yesterday in Syria has crossed many lines for him. But what options could the president pursue in the six-year civil war?

I’m joined now by two experts with deep experience in military strategy and planning.

Andrew Exum was a deputy assistant secretary of defense for Middle East policy in the Obama administration. He’s now a contributing editor at The Atlantic magazine. And Kori Schake, she was the director for defense strategy at the National Security Council during the George W. Bush administration.

And we welcome both of you to the program.

Kori Schake, to you first.

When the president said today — it was a striking comment. He said what happened with this chemical attack this week had caused him to completely rethink his attitude towards Syria, toward President Assad.

For those of you who know, who have been watching Syria, watching Assad, should this have been such a shocking move?

KORI SCHAKE, Hoover Institution: It shouldn’t have been such a big surprise, because there have been dozens and dozens of chemical weapons attacks by the Syrian government against its own population.

Still, it’s a welcome development that the president is paying attention to the war crimes that are being committed by the Assad regime and by their supporters in Iran and in Russia.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Andrew Exum, when you left the Defense Department just a few months ago, were you and others aware that the Assad regime still had this capability of using banned chemical weapons?

ANDREW EXUM, Former Defense Department Official: Well, we were certainly worried about the deployment of chemical weapons across Syria by all parties, frankly, by the Islamic State as well. So it was a concern.

I think the diplomatic efforts in 2013 accomplished a lot, but it certainly appears as if the Assad regime kept the remainder of those weapons back and is employing them today.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Does that square with your understanding, Kori Schake?

And I guess my question is, the administration has been saying that they were not prepared to go in to Syria to remove President Assad. Those are the signals we have been getting. So, if they were to change that approach, that would be a significant change, wouldn’t it?

KORI SCHAKE: It would be a significant change.

And the president’s comments today certainly sound 180 degrees out from his policy, stated just two days ago by Secretary of State Tillerson, that they supported keeping the Assad regime in power.

I don’t think that’s changed, though. My guess is that what they are likely to do is retaliate with punitive strikes. I think the long shadow of the Iraq War is that they are going to want to leave Assad in place because they’re fearful of the squalor of regime change, but that they are going to try and constrain his behavior by penalizing him for the kinds of actions that the Syrian government undertook against its own population today — yesterday.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, Andrew Exum, we’re obviously in speculation territory here, because we don’t know what the Trump administration is going to do.

ANDREW EXUM: Sure. Sure.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But if there was a decision to follow through on what the president said today, when he said I have got — I have changed my mind about my attitude toward President Assad, what could they do? What conceivably could they do?

ANDREW EXUM: Yes.

Well, the president, first off, strikes me as somebody who listens to the last person that he spoke with, and is probably just as shocked viscerally by the images that he saw on television as all Americans and people worldwide.

I think, after he gathers his team — I actually disagree with Kori here. I think he’s likely not to act, for a couple different reasons. First off, he has got to ask, what are his priorities? And I think this president has communicated his priority is the fight against the Islamic State.

If he were to strike the Assad regime, it’s worth bearing in mind that, for the past two years, the U.S. aircraft and coalition aircraft have flown through a pretty robust integrated air and defense system over Syria without being harassed.

If they were to strike the Assad regime, they could then interfere with the U.S. campaign against Raqqa, against the Islamic State elsewhere. Additionally, you have got to ask yourself, how willing are you to kill some Russians?

Because, especially since the fall of 2015, when you have seen a lot more Russians in Syria, if you strike any site in Syria, you may end up killing some Russian advisers. And I wonder if that’s a risk the Trump administration is prepared to take.

JUDY WOODRUFF: What about these arguments, Kori Schake? Could these be reasons why this administration is going to think twice, think three times or more before they were to take any aggressive steps against Assad?

KORI SCHAKE: Yes, I think Andrew is right.

I think those are both sensible concerns to have. My guess though, is that the more thoughtful people in the Trump administration, after the president’s comments today, are going to be looking for ways to penalize the Assad regime without triggering either of those problems. Deconflicting the activity with the Russians is certainly a possibility.

I do think they will continue to leave Assad in place because they’re thinking about, what happens after the defeat of the Islamic State? And they don’t want to take on the responsibility for governing Syria.

But I do think there are options available to them, especially if you can find ways to target Assad forces that were involved particularly in the attack against civilians and the follow-up destruction of hospitals that was undertaken.

JUDY WOODRUFF: You mean specifically this attack that took place this week?

KORI SCHAKE: Yes.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, I wanted to ask you to expand on what you mean. I mean, what are the options, if they’re going to take limited steps, if you will, in response?

KORI SCHAKE: Yes, it looks to me like their general strategy for fighting the Islamic State is to step up the pace of operations, to increase arming and training of the Free Syrian forces, to coordinate much more closely with the Saudis, the UAE, the Israelis.

They seem to be having some problems still bringing Turkey into effect. But given that they are tightening the noose around ISIS, that will give them much greater leverage for dealing with the Assad regime subsequently, because Assad’s justification right now is that he is protecting Syria against terrorists.

If you take that excuse away from him, it actually gives them a lot more leverage for reining in Assad’s behavior.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Are these the kinds of steps, Andrew Exum, that President Assad, his regime would see as a kind of punishment or retaliation for what they have done?

ANDREW EXUM: I think if you take — end up taking direct strikes against, for instance, chemical weapons facilities, places where you know that chemical weapons may be manufactured or stored, I think they would certainly see that as punitive. They would get that message.

I’m still not sure that the Trump administration is going to want to be able to — is going to want to do that. I think I disagree with Kori just a little bit in terms of, I’m not sure we actually gain leverage by defeating the Islamic State. I actually think that, once you get past Raqqa, the need to coordinate even more with the Russians, perhaps even with the regime, grows more important as you get closer to Deir el-Zour, where the regime actually has a pretty strong toehold and where I think the Islamic State is going to go after they flee Raqqa.

So, unfortunately, I see a bit of a contradiction between the fight against the Islamic State and the desire to remove the Assad regime. And even if you work with Russia, I’m just not sold that working with Russia is an effective way to hasten the end of the Assad regime or to enact any type of punitive measures.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Just about half-a-minute.

Kori Schake, do you want to respond to that?

KORI SCHAKE: Well, I agree with much of what Andrew says.

I think deconfliction with the Russians is probably the maximum that we can do. But deconfliction is enough to prevent us killing Russian soldiers when we are attacking the Assad regime.

And I think there’s so much more that can and should be done, because this isn’t just a problem internal to Syria, terrible as that is. But the norm against chemical weapons use is extraordinarily important internationally.

I agree with Andrew that the president’s all over the map on this, and I don’t think that’s going to change. I don’t think administration policy is going to smooth out over time.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Kori Schake, Andrew Exum, thank you both.

ANDREW EXUM: Sure thing.

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