The Broader International Question: What To Do About Syria?

The Obama administration acknowledged last week that there's evidence the Syrian government had used chemical weapons. President Obama warned Syria not to cross that "red line," and now some Washington lawmakers are urging the president to take forceful action — including military intervention. Renee Montagne talks with Robert Malley, Middle East and North Africa program director at the International Crisis Group, about Obama's options in Syria.

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It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

And I'm Renee Montagne. Few people would approve of using chemical weapons, but few Americans are persuaded the U.S. should go to war over their use in Syria. The Obama administration has acknowledged evidence that Syria's government used chemical weapons in its civil war. At the same time, a survey by the Pew Research Center finds that there's more support for military action but fewer than one in five Americans is even paying attention to the war there.

To consider what options President Obama may have we've called on Robert Malley of the International Crisis Group. And thanks for joining us again.

ROBERT MALLEY: Thanks for having me.

MONTAGNE: Now, the administration has effectively put off action by saying that they want more evidence. How strong is the evidence of chemical weapons?

MALLEY: Well, obviously it's hard for me to say. I know from talking not only to administration officials but officials from European and other countries, many of whom have a strong suspicion that Syria has used chemical weapons, that we're still not quite at the point where they could make a conclusive case.

And I think it's understandable, certainly in the case of the United States, to have a pretty high threshold. First, it's always hard to establish such claims, particularly when you're at a distance. Unfortunately, Syria is not allowing U.N. inspectors to go and check whether chemical weapons were used. So all of this was done on the basis of samples and of samples of blood or of soil and all that...

MONTAGNE: Right. But...

MALLEY: ...is not entirely reliable.

MONTAGNE: Let me just very briefly, though, what is being said about this? I mean, how people are supposedly killed or affected by the chemical weapons? I mean just very briefly.

MALLEY: I don't think people know. You can't know when you're at a distance. You have allegations from opposition members but you don't have any hard evidence. There's a lot of - there's a lot of evidence that something has happened and from what I understand, people are pretty confident that chemical weapons are used. But that's not enough at this point to trigger action.

MONTAGNE: OK. So some lawmakers, as we've said, have called for a military intervention of some kind, maybe establishing a no-fly zone or targeted air strikes. Are these options viable?

MALLEY: Yeah. All these options are viable. The question is whether they're wise and useful. And I think that's true from the gamut of arming the opposition to no-fly zone to airstrikes against air fields or against delivery systems. All of these can be done. The U.S. certainly has the means to do them. I don't think that's the question. The question is whether they would have a positive impact in Syria and whether they serve U.S. national interests.

MONTAGNE: Well, let me just ask you, though, as part of that question, Syria is well-armed.

MALLEY: It's well-armed but obviously the comparison between what it means to be well armed in Syria and what it means to be well-armed in the United States is huge and there's a huge gap between the two. I have no doubt - I'm not a military expert, but I have no doubt that if the U.S. set its mind to doing something it could do it. And again, the question is whether it ought to.

MONTAGNE: One thing the president has emphasized is that the U.S. is not willing to go it alone. Russia, of course, is firmly against any military move against its ally Syria, but what about other countries like France, Turkey, Saudi Arabia? Where do they stand on this?

MALLEY: Yeah, every country is a little bit different. A number of them are saying we will do what you want - you, the United States - if you take the lead. Which ends up being a game in which each side says you go first. Some countries are more eager to see some action, others are more worried. I mean, this is a region that is now living through an arc of crisis that extends from Lebanon to Syria to Iraq, Jordan. And any step could have repercussions in all those countries. So there's a mixture of anxiety at what's happening and, as I say, countries that want to see something done by the U.S. but also that anxiety at a further militarization of a region that is really on the precipice.

MONTAGNE: Well, Robert Malley, in 15 seconds is it time for the administration to take a new approach?

MALLEY: I think we shouldn't conflate two questions. There's the questions of what to do about the chemical weapons and then there's a broader question about what to do about Syria. The question about what to do about Syria is one that predated the allegation about chemical weapons and will persist even - whether we prove the chemical weapons were used or not.

Let's not let the tail wag the dog. Let's not let the issue of chemical weapons determine what we should do about Syria, which is a very serious question and which we do need to look into more deeply.

MONTAGNE: Robert Malley is the Middle East and North Africa program director at the International Crisis Group. Thanks.

MALLEY: Thank you.

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