What do you think? Leave a respectful comment.

The potential for escalation if U.S. launches a Syria strike

President Trump aimed new threats against Syria on Twitter Wednesday, in response to a suspected chemical attack and Russia's suggestion it would intercept any U.S. missiles. What options are available to the U.S. and its allies if there is a military response? William Brangham talks with former NATO Ambassador Douglas Lute.

Read the Full Transcript

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And now to Syria and the increasing likelihood of new American strikes against the regime of Bashar al-Assad.

    As we reported earlier, the president telegraphed his intention today to strike Syria again.

    William Brangham charts the potentially dangerous road ahead.

  • William Brangham:

    So, what options are available to the United States and its allies if there is a military response to last weekend's chemical attack?

    To walk us through the complex battlefield, I'm joined by Ambassador Douglas Lute. He was U.S. ambassador to NATO from 2013 to 2017, served on the national security staffs of Presidents Bush and Obama, and is a retired U.S. Army lieutenant general. He's now at Harvard's Kennedy School.

    Welcome back to the "NewsHour."

  • Lt. Gen. Douglas Lute (Ret.):

    It's good to be back.

  • William Brangham:

    First off, let's jut address this issue of, can you confidently said that this chemical attack that happened last weekend was carried out by Assad?

  • Lt. Gen. Douglas Lute (Ret.):

    Well, I think we have some degree of confidence, largely because of the scale of the attack.

    This wasn't an assassination attempt of one or two people, but, rather, dozens of people were involved here. And that suggests a military attack. And, of course, it's the Assad military, the Syrian military that has this capability.

    So, at least circumstantially, all fingers point towards the Syrian military.

  • William Brangham:

    OK.

    President Trump treated this morning, the missiles are coming.

    Let's say we do go forward. What are the options for the U.S.?

  • Lt. Gen. Douglas Lute (Ret.):

    Well, I think the first thing to consider here is that the options will flow from the purpose of the attack.

  • William Brangham:

    Meaning what we want to get out of it.

  • Lt. Gen. Douglas Lute (Ret.):

    The objectives, right?

    And these have to come from a very deliberate process inside the Situation Room, led by National Security Adviser Bolten, and ultimately approved by the president.

    So once the objectives are set — and, here, I imagine the objectives are reasonably simple, and that is to punish those responsible for this particular attack, to impose costs, and, by way of those costs, attempt to deter future attacks.

    And if that's the objective, from that flows tasks to the intelligence community, tasks to the diplomatic community, and tasks to the military.

  • William Brangham:

    And we have heard that the Russians have said, if the U.S. strikes, they might strike back. Not only will they try to knock our missiles down, but they might even target the platforms from which we launch those attacks.

    Is this Russian just saber-rattling? How seriously do you take this?

  • Lt. Gen. Douglas Lute (Ret.):

    Well, the thing that concerns me about this sort of exchange of rhetoric, on our side, but then the response on the Russian side, is that can already see a pattern of escalation, even in the rhetoric.

    And the challenge here is that such escalatory steps can be imagined to be controllable. From inside the Situation Room, they might — we might imagine that these are discrete, controllable steps. But, in practice, they're often out of control, and we can lose control, and they can spiral in an escalatory manner because of miscalculation and misperceptions.

    So the danger here, I think, is that we launch into something that becomes escalatory.

  • William Brangham:

    And, obviously, we have got so many different actors at play in Syria. You have got the Turks. You have got the Russians. You have got the Americans. You have got ISIS.

  • Lt. Gen. Douglas Lute (Ret.):

    The Iranians.

  • William Brangham:

    The Iranians.

    Do you worry those people might also be drawn into this?

  • Lt. Gen. Douglas Lute (Ret.):

    Well, I think inevitably there's that risk. We know that Russian forces and Iranian forces are intermingled with Syrian forces, advising them and assisting them.

    So, a U.S. strike, which is intended to precisely strike Syrian forces responsible for this attack, could inadvertently strike Russian and Iranian forces as well.

  • William Brangham:

    What do you think about the option of not responding? Is that a viable option?

  • Lt. Gen. Douglas Lute (Ret.):

    Well, that's always an option as well. The challenge here is that the rhetoric has already put us on the path towards — in setting expectations towards a response.

    So, there's a certain cost by now, if now, we were not to do anything.

  • William Brangham:

    Do you think that these attacks, however we do it — we saw that the president launched 59 Tomahawk missiles a year ago to try to curtail this kind of behavior.

    Is there a sense that we can stop Assad from using chemical weapons? I mean, he has done this dozens of times in Syria.

  • Lt. Gen. Douglas Lute (Ret.):

    I would be very careful in suggesting that we are in the driver's seat here, and that we can actually effectively deter Assad.

    Why is that? Deterrence rests on the notion that we can impose costs sufficient on Assad to change his calculus, to change his behavior. The challenge here is that, for Assad, this is existential. This is survival. So how do you raise the cost above survival?

    And because of this disparity in interests, he's all in and we have only limited interest, it's very difficult to deter him. And I think that's why we have seen over the last year-plus that these sorts of attacks continue.

  • William Brangham:

    Ambassador Douglas Lute, thank you, as always.

  • Lt. Gen. Douglas Lute (Ret.):

    Good to be with you.

Listen to this Segment

The Latest