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U.S. Must Have 'Clear Policy' On Syria, Ex-Obama Senior Adviser Says


Secretary of State Rex Tillerson flies to Moscow today. And Syria will be the focus of those talks. The secretary is carrying a unified message from a meeting he just had with his counterparts in the G7. And the message is this - Russia needs to end its support of the Syrian regime, and the reign of the Assad family is coming to an end. This marks a rare moment of unity for the Trump administration and America's main allies. The White House decision last week to carry out airstrikes on Syria over a chemical weapons attack created some bipartisan support in Washington, as well.

However, one of President Obama's senior advisers thinks otherwise. Ben Rhodes was Obama's deputy national security adviser. He's been on Twitter defending the Obama administration's decision not to take military action in Syria. Ben Rhodes is in our studios this morning. Welcome to the program.

BEN RHODES: Good to be with you.

MARTIN: John Kerry, former secretary of state, was the person in charge of implementing the U.S. strategy in Syria. He thinks the strike was a good idea. Why don't you?

RHODES: Well, I think it depends on what strategy the strike is a part of. And what concerns me is we're days after this strike was taken, and we still don't know. Is it a part of a military campaign to remove Assad? Is it a part of an effort to protect civilians, which would be a more expansive military mission? Or is it just a one-off that essentially damaged an airfield for a few hours and we had to return to the status quo in Syria? So I think the absence of the strike being nested in a clear strategy raises issues for me.

MARTIN: President Trump has taken this opportunity to berate the Obama administration. And it's, in his words, his inability to act in Syria, not retaliating when the Syrian regime crossed that now infamous red line. We talked with Susan Rice, the former national security adviser, back in January. And when I asked her if the president's articulation of a red line was a mistake, this is how she answered.


SUSAN RICE: I think the president stated the U.S. view, which is the use of chemical weapons is not something we're prepared to allow to persist, and we didn't. We managed to accomplish that goal far more thoroughly than we could have by some limited strikes against chemical targets by getting the entirety of the declared stockpile removed.

MARTIN: And now she's referring to this agreement that forced Syria supposedly to get rid of all of its chemical weapons. Clearly that did not happen.

RHODES: Yes, but we're dealing in a place where the U.S. cannot direct outcomes. And often the debate about Syria suggests that we can take an action, and therefore the situation in Syria can be resolved or the issue of chemical weapons even can be resolved. If you look at the deal itself, over a thousand tons of chemical weapons were removed from Syria and destroyed. Those are weapons that were no longer at facilities that could have been overrun by ISIL, that could have been used by the regime. Clearly, there was some violation of that deal.

But if you look at diplomacy versus military action, the military action destroyed an airfield for a few hours. And there are now apparently missions being flown by the Syrian regime from that airfield. Diplomacy removed over a thousand tons of chemical weapons and had them destroyed. So I would argue that there was a greater effect from the diplomatic agreement than from that airstrike.

MARTIN: But there's, at the very least, a misunderstanding about what was accomplished through that deal. The U.S. intelligence community as recently as February of 2016 concluded in its annual threat assessment that the Syrian regime never did declare all of its chemical weapons, and the regime had been using chemical warfare since that agreement in 2013. So where was - was there an intelligence failure somewhere along the line? Did the administration not have a full view of the situation?

RHODES: Well, what we saw, which was deeply concerning, is they started using chemical agents like chlorine as a weapon that are not actually banned chemicals under the laws of war. But they should not be used in warfare. This latest attack appears to be a nerve agent that would be banned under the deal that was reached. So clearly, either there was some effort to hide a portion of chemical weapons, or there was some subsequent production of chemical weapons.

I would argue still though you had over a thousand tons of chemical weapons in different sites across the country that could have been vulnerable to al-Qaida, that could have been vulnerable to ISIL. I would rather have that deal than not. And we see militarily - the test is always are you serious because you took military action? Militarily, you cannot destroy those chemical weapons. We were able to damage an airfield for a few hours. That, in my view, has less of an impact than removing over a thousand tons of chemical weapons and destroying them.

MARTIN: But is it either or? I mean, does the strike against that airfield - granted, it only struck that airfield a nd incapacitated it for a period of time - but is there not value in the message it sends?

RHODES: There is potential value. You want to send a deterrent message. The problem that we have seen though is Assad has not been deterred in his actions in large part because of his Russian and Iranian sponsors. And again, I do not think there's anything about Russia's behavior over the course of the last several years that suggests that this strike is going to change its calculus with respect to Assad. That is why a diplomatic resolution to the situation in Syria that brings all of these different parties to the table remains the only plausible end to that conflict.

MARTIN: Why couldn't you get it done?

RHODES: We couldn't get it done because there were too many different forces pulling Syria apart. Fighting on the ground you had not just the type of opposition that we would support but ISIL and al-Nusra that was associated with al-Qaida. You had an Iranian-backed Hezbollah that was going to fight literally to the death for Assad. You had a Russian sponsor backing Assad. All of the different sectarian forces and external forces at play in the Middle East all came to bear in Syria.

And what President Obama determined is that getting down an escalatory path with our military would put us right into the middle of that war without solving it. And I worry that the Trump administration, with the mixed messages we see from their own administration officials, is not thinking through whether or not an escalatory path could lead to a very damaging place.

MARTIN: So in the seconds remaining, if you by chance were invited to the White House to give some advice, what guidance would you give about the next steps the administration should take?

RHODES: Number one, I think they need clarity. I think we hear different things from different officials. And there needs to be a clear policy. Number two, I do think that the only solution here is to try to initiate the broadest possible diplomatic initiative that frankly has to bring in the Russians and the Iranians. We can't make a deal about the future of Syria without the people that have the greatest influence there.

MARTIN: Ben Rhodes was deputy national security adviser under President Barack Obama. Thanks so much for coming in this morning.

RHODES: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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