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U.S. Action on Syria Might Send Message to Other Nations, Reinforce Taboo

August 26, 2013 at 12:00 AM EDT
How might the United States and other allies respond to what Secretary of State John Kerry calls "undeniable" evidence of chemical weapons used by the Assad regime? Judy Woodruff discusses options with Richard Haass of the Council on Foreign Relations and Jeffrey White of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

JUDY WOODRUFF: To discuss what U.S. actions against Syria might look like and the strategic objectives behind them, I’m joined by Richard Haass, a former top State Department and National Security Council official. He’s now president of the Council on Foreign Relations. And Jeffrey White, formerly a senior analyst at the Defense Intelligence Agency, currently, he’s a defense fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

Welcome back to the NewsHour the both of you.

Richard Haass, to you first. If there has been undeniable use of chemical weapons by the Assad regime against its own people and if the U.S. is saying, we’re going to hold them accountable, what then is the administration waiting for?

RICHARD HAASS, Council on Foreign Relations: Well, what they’re waiting for is to essentially put into place the international political context.

That means there’s some kind of a coalition of the willing, a number of the NATO allies, possibly NATO more formally, any number of Arab states, Australia, you heard from, essentially a fairly broad-based international coalition essentially that would back the action and in a couple of cases would actually participate in it, and would also talk about what to do if there’s various forms of retaliation from either Syria or any of the countries that is backing Syria.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And what would the purpose be, Richard Haass, of an action the administration would take?

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RICHARD HAASS: It would really be twofold.

Principally, it would be to underscore the norm that chemical weapons, like any weapon of mass destruction, including biological and nuclear, cannot become a normal weapon, cannot be used. The taboo, the barrier cannot in any way be diluted. This far transcends Syria.

Secondly, the United States made clear that there was a so-called red line. The president basically threw down the gauntlet over the last, what, year or so telling the Syrians that if they were to use chemical weapons it would be a game changer, it would change his calculus and so forth.

Well, the Syrians have now used chemical weapons apparently twice, last June and now. And it’s important, not simply to discourage them from using chemical weapons again, but to send a message to Iran, where the United States has also put down red lines, to North Korea, where again the United States has made real threats, that the word of the United States is to be taken seriously.

So the stakes, as large as they are in Syria, Judy, actually far transcend what is going on there.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Jeff White, if there were to be an attack, what would the targets be? What would the weapons likely be?

JEFFREY WHITE, Washington Institute for Near East Policy: Well, it really depends upon how expansive the administration wants to be in punishing the regime.

It could be anything from a small strike with cruise missiles alone, up to a very large military operation, including aircraft. In all likelihood, they will focus, at least initially, on targets that are associated with the chemical warfare operation, with command-and-control of Syrian forces, with the units that probably were involved in firing the weapons.

But it could also be broader than that and to include attacks on surface-to-surface missile units and air force units.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But you don’t mean — when you talk about chemical weapons, command-and-control, you’re not talking about the storage locations, the stockpiles of chemical weapons, are you?

JEFFREY WHITE: I don’t think those will be attacked.

There’s the potential there for release of agents into the air or into the ground or whatever, and that would leave the U.S. open to accusations that we’re actually causing the chemical warfare problem in Syria.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But it sounds like you’re saying there’s a pretty wide range of what the allies, the U.S. and any allies, would choose to hit. You’re saying from command-and-control to, what — I mean, what size targets are we talking about?

JEFFREY WHITE: I think we’re talking about a target set, right, made up of various types of targets ranging from ground force units, artillery units and so on, to command-and-control nodes, to the headquarters of units in the Damascus area, and maybe to the Ministry of Defense and Syrian army headquarters.

So, I think the — it’s up to the administration and its allies to decide exactly what target set they want to hit. But they have got a wide variety to choose from. They have got the means to do it. So it’s a matter of an internal decision.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, Richard Haass, you talked about consulting with others. What allies are you — is it your understanding the U.S. would do this in concert with? Would there need to be a United Nations involvement?

RICHARD HAASS: There wouldn’t need to be United Nations involvement, Judy.

Quiet honestly, we couldn’t get it. The Russians and possibly the Chinese would prevent it. But the United Nations is not the sole locale of legitimacy. It’s not the only form of multilateralism. There’s lots of precedents historically for so-called coalitions of the willing to give this a degree of international support and considerable legitimacy.

Could I just make one other point, though? I also whatever it is we’re going to do here, Judy, there’s going to be a ceiling on it. What the United States I believe is going to try to do is react to Syrian use of C.W., of chemical weapons. But it’s going to stop short of anything open-ended.

This is going to be a punitive attack. There’s going to be limits to it. There’s going to be an end to it, because the administration, while wanting to respond, wants equally to avoid becoming a protagonist in any open-ended fashion in this civil war in Syria.

So, my hunch is they’re going to look for a way to split the difference, to thread the needle, to use another saying, doing enough to make the message on chemicals, but without again getting involved in any open-ended fashion in what could be a long, expensive, and in the end very difficult undertaking.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And you’re saying, in other words, get involved, but not change the balance of the power equation right now in Syria?

RICHARD HAASS: If we wanted to change the balance of power, I would argue a better way to do it, rather than using U.S. military forces directly, would be to provide significant help to those members of the opposition we could work with, to give them the kind of anti-armor and anti-aircraft capabilities we have so far at least been unwilling to provide them.

Over time, that would make a difference without bringing the United States into what quite honestly could be a long-term quagmire in ways that could be reminiscent of Afghanistan and Iraq.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Jeffrey White, what about concerns about a retaliation on the part of the Syrians?

JEFFREY WHITE: I think there’s some possibility of that, but I don’t think it’s very likely.

My sense is, the Syrian government will roll with the punch, as they have with the Israeli strikes, the putative the Israeli strikes that have occurred.


JUDY WOODRUFF: Why do you think that?

JEFFREY WHITE: Because I don’t think they want to commit suicide by retaliation.

Attacks against the United States or its allies or its interests would lead to I think even greater strikes against the Syrian government.

JUDY WOODRUFF: What about Iran? What about Hezbollah, which is very much their partners and backers?

JEFFREY WHITE: I think, for Hezbollah, sort of the same logic applies. They’re not interested in getting into it with the United States.

And Iran I think will be very cautious in kind of its traditional — traditional way. There’s always the possibility for some kind of covert act against U.S. interests, a terrorist type attack or so on. Hezbollah and Iran could certainly mount those, but I don’t think we’re talking any kind of large-scale in direct retaliation against anybody.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Richard Haass, just a few minutes ago, the office of House Speaker John Boehner issued a statement saying that they have let — that he, in conversation with the White House — they didn’t say with the president, but the White House — said that, “Any military action

has to be preceded by consultation with Congress, clearly to find objectives, broader objectives for stability.”

What does this statement introduce? Is this now going to be an element in consulting with Congress?

RICHARD HAASS: Well, the consultations have already begun.

I don’t believe the administration will require or slow down for any formal congressional authorization, but it would be foolish not to consult with Congress. And I think what these consultations will do will reinforce the idea that the United States does need to respond to the use of chemical weapons, but there needs to be a ceiling on that response.

There’s just as much concern in Congress of doing too much as there is too little. And I thought Senator Reed in your prepared piece got it about right, that we — it’s important that we underscore this norm, this taboo against the use of chemical weapons. It can’t go without reaction.

But this shouldn’t be the beginning, if you will, of an open-ended American participation in the Syrian civil war. And I think that’s what the — any consultations with Congress would reinforce.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Richard Haass, Jeffrey White, we thank you both.


RICHARD HAASS: Thank you, Judy.