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Natl. Security Official: If Assad Goes Unchecked, He’ll Use Chemical Arms Again

September 4, 2013 at 12:00 AM EDT
With bipartisan support mounting, Deputy National Security Adviser Tony Blinken says "the momentum is there" to win approval from Congress to use force in Syria. Judy Woodruff talks to Blinken about the goals of a military strike and the increased assistance now being sent to the Syrian opposition from the U.S. government.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: Secretary Kerry also said today that he believes President Obama will address the nation on Syria in the next few days.

Now, for more on the White House perspective, Tony Blinken is President Obama’s national — deputy national security adviser. I spoke with him a short time ago.

Tony Blinken, thank you very much for joining us.

Let me just start by asking if you think the administration will have the votes it needs in Congress to take military action.

TONY BLINKEN, U.S. Deputy National Security Adviser: Judy, I do.

Look at what we have seen over the last couple of days. Yesterday, we saw the emergence of strong bipartisan support for this authorization. We had Speaker Boehner. We had leader Cantor, Leader Pelosi in the House. We have a strong bipartisan group in the Senate, including the leaders of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Senator Menendez and Senator Corker.

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And then just today, we have the passage in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee of our resolution authorizing the use of force. So the momentum is there, and I think we’re heading in exactly that direction.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Tony, in an interview with the NewsHour last week, the president said the main point of any military strike would be to punish and deter the Assad regime.

Now, though, we hear Senators McCain and Graham saying, in their conversation with the president, he’s talking about degrading the capabilities of the Assad regime. That’s going a step farther, isn’t it? What does that mean to degrade?

TONY BLINKEN: So, Judy, there are two things going on here that are important to understand.

First, with regard to the underlying conflict in Syria, there has been a civil war going on, as you know. And we have been working very hard to end that war, and we think the best way to do that is through a negotiated transition that moves Assad out through a political process. In order to do that, we have got to get him to the negotiating table, and that involves, in part, putting the pressure on him, isolating him, and building up the opposition, which we have been doing over the — in recent months, as well as having a diplomatic track.

And there, we will be, I think, doing more to support opposition as they try and convince Assad that he needs to negotiate an end to this. Within that, we have this terrible chemical weapons attack of August 21. And we believe that it’s imperative that we respond to that, because there’s been a norm against the use of chemical weapons for nearly 100 years. If we allow this to go unchecked, Assad will continue to do it with impunity.

Other countries around the world and in the region who have weapons of mass destruction or seek to acquire them will conclude that they can use them with impunity. So, the action that we have — that we’re proposing would be focused on the chemical weapons and making sure that Assad is deterred from using them again, and that his ability to use them again is degraded.

And that’s what this is focused on. Now, it’s also true in any action we take, Assad is very likely to conclude that things he holds dear are at risk, and, in that sense, he’s likely to have a greater incentive to want to negotiate an end to this underlying conflict.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, in other words, in addition to punishing, you want to weaken the Assad regime, make it easier for the opposition to take over the government.

TONY BLINKEN: So, the focus of this military effort that we’re proposing is limited and focused on his chemical weapons capability. And it’s to deter him, just to tell him, don’t do it again.

But it’s also to make it a lot harder to do it again if he makes the mistake of trying to do it again. But, in that context, he’s also going to learn that things that are important to him militarily are at risk, and that can have the effect of convincing him that he needs to negotiate an end to the underlying conflict as well.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, in terms of helping the rebels, we know there was a very prominent news report yesterday that help — or military lethal aid had not yet reached the opposition.

Now we’re hearing that it may be close to reaching the opposition. Can you tell us whether it has at this point, and, if not, is it about to?

TONY BLINKEN: So, Judy, a number of countries have been providing assistance to the opposition, including the United States.

And some months ago, you will recall that when our intelligence community concluded initially that Assad had been using on a small scale chemical weapons over the past year, the president said that we would be increasing our support to the opposition. And we have spent some time putting in place an effort to do just that.

And what I can tell you now, without detailing any of the support, is that we have moved out on that.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So lethal aid has reached the opposition, is reaching it now?

TONY BLINKEN: So, Judy, what I can say is, without detailing the kind of assistance we’re providing, is that we have significantly increased the assistance that is getting to the opposition.

JUDY WOODRUFF: How long do you any campaign strike against the Assad regime will take? The reason I ask, Tony Blinken, is that we know, in striking Kosovo many years ago, the Clinton administration spoke about it lasting a few days. It went on for something like 72 days.

How — once something like this get started, how do you know you can put an end to it?

TONY BLINKEN: Judy, it’s really important that people understand what this is and what this isn’t.

And it’s understandable that people have concerns about this being some kind of open-ended potential action. It is not. The reason people tend to have that as an initial reaction is, they are looking at this through the frame of the last decade, a war in Iraq, a war in Afghanistan, hundreds of thousands of American troops committed.

Well, what this is, is a very targeted, very focused, time-limited action to deter Assad from using chemical weapons again, and to make it harder for him to do so. What it is not is open-ended. It is not boots on the ground. It is not Iraq. It is not Afghanistan. It’s not Kosovo. It’s not even Libya.

I can’t be any more precise than that, but it is a very limited, targeted action, but an effective one, to deal with the use of chemical weapons.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And is the administration prepared for unintended consequences? The Syrian foreign minister is saying today there’s no way of knowing what will be the repercussions of a U.S. strike. He talks about Syria striking back at Turkey, at Israel, and at Lebanon if the U.S. hit his country.

TONY BLINKEN: We are very well-prepared.

We know that any action has risk, any action can have unintended consequences. We do a lot of work to make sure we anticipate what those might be and to take steps to mitigate them. But we also believe fundamentally that not acting would have far greater and far graver consequences.

If we don’t act to enforce a norm of the use of chemical weapons that has been around for nearly 100 years that Congress has gotten strongly behind over the last decade. If we don’t do that, Assad will conclude that he can use these weapons again with impunity. Other countries in the region and beyond who have such weapons or aspire to get them will also conclude that they can acquire them and use them with impunity.

That would do terrible damage to our security and to the security of countries around the world. So, there are always dangers in acting. We work to mitigate them. There are far greater dangers in not acting.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Final question about Egypt. There’s an Associated Press report this afternoon that the administration, top national security advisers to the president are recommending that he cut off aid to the Egyptian military, hundreds of millions of dollars, in retaliation for the removal of the Morsi presidency.

Is that the case? Is that what you and others are recommending to the president?

TONY BLINKEN: So, Judy, we know that, after what happened in Egypt, as the president has said, it’s not going to be business as usual.

And in the wake of the violence that we saw after Morsi was pushed out of power, we suspended the delivery of F-16s. We suspended a major military exercise. And the rest of our assistance is under review. We also have a strong incentive to encourage the Egyptians to get on a democratic track, to have an inclusive process that brings an inclusive government into power.

And we’re working with them on that. And beyond that, at this point, all I can tell you is, we look at this on a regular basis, and we have already taken steps to suspend some of our assistance.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Tony Blinken, who is the deputy national security adviser to President Obama, thank you.

TONY BLINKEN: Thanks for having me, Judy.