White House Still Divided On Further Action In Syria

Melissa Block talks to The New Yorker's Dexter Filkins about the debate over involvement in Syria inside the White House.

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And I'm Melissa Block.

The broad regional implications of the war in Syria were made very clear this weekend as Israel carried out airstrikes on a military complex near the Syrian capital, Damascus. Those strikes reportedly targeted missiles headed from Iran to Hezbollah in Lebanon. Syrian activists claim dozens of government soldiers were killed. Israel has not formally confirmed it carried out those attacks, but the Assad regime called the strikes a declaration of war.

As for the implications for the U.S., well, Dexter Filkins of The New Yorker has been writing about the White House debate over whether and how to intervene in Syria, and he joins me now. Dexter Filkins, welcome.

DEXTER FILKINS: Hi.

BLOCK: We heard Senator John McCain over the weekend say that these Israeli airstrikes showed that Syrian air defenses can be penetrated, he said, rather easily. So does this, do you think, increase the pressure on the U.S. to carry out its own targeted precision strikes against Syrian military targets?

FILKINS: Boy, I don't know. I mean, I think to answer your question, yes, the U.S. can penetrate their air defenses, but I don't really think that was ever much of a problem to begin with. I think the larger question, though, you know, does this increase the pressure on Obama, I think it probably increases the political pressure on him.

But I think for, you know, frankly, anybody who is going to recommend military action needs to have a really clear idea about what that action is going to be and what the consequences are going to be and how easily we can turn it off and get out. I think, you know, this is the debate that we're having that's literally going on inside the White House: Do we or don't we?

BLOCK: Well, of course, President Obama has said that the game changer, in his words, would be Syria's use of chemical weapons, that that would be the red line. Today, at the White House, spokesman Jay Carney was asked about the likelihood that chemical weapons have been used by the Assad regime. Let's take a listen.

JAY CARNEY: We are highly skeptical of suggestions that the opposition could have or did use chemical weapons. We find it highly likely that any chemical weapon use that has taken place in Syria was done by the Assad regime.

BLOCK: So the real question then, Dexter Filkins, is then what? What does - how does the U.S. respond? And you say that the Assad regime has been testing the U.S. resolve on that vow.

FILKINS: Well, it seems pretty clear. And I have a piece in The New Yorker magazine that came out today, and we spoke at length to an eyewitness to one of these attacks. And I have to say he was - he's pretty convincing.

It looks as though there's been about five places where Assad has - and it appears that it's the Assad regime that's used these - used chemical weapons, very small scale, hasn't killed a lot of people. They've been in contested areas, so they're very, very hard to get to. They're hard to verify. That's what it looks like he's doing. He's testing his arsenal, and he's testing us, frankly.

BLOCK: Well, if the United States were to try to take out Assad's chemical weapon sites, what are the concerns you've heard from administration officials and others on the dangers that that would pose?

FILKINS: Well, they're pretty terrifying. I mean, that's basically what - I just - I had an interview with Gary Samore, who is, until February, the chemical weapons chief in the White House. And he said all the options are horrifying, and I think what he meant by that was, OK, what can we do? Can we bomb? Can we just do the whole thing from the air? Maybe.

But, you know, you're talking about anywhere between 15 and 60 sites where there are chemical weapons. They're in civilian areas, heavily populated areas. Not in - it's not clear that we know where all the sites are. So if you bomb these sites, it's going to be pretty messy, and that means you're probably going to kill a lot of civilians, and you may end up actually releasing chemical gas, sarin gas, VX, that sort of thing, the very things that you're trying to stop.

And so the second option is obviously putting people on the ground to secure those sites. That - I think there was one Pentagon study that they did. This is some time ago. This is several months ago. The estimate was 75,000 troops.

BLOCK: People that it would take to secure the sites.

FILKINS: Yes. Yeah, yeah. Now imagine that. That's as many troops as the United States had in Afghanistan when President Obama came into office. Think about that for a second, what that means. 75,000 American soldiers will have to get into Syria, which is in the middle of a civil war, fight their way in, probably fight the regime, probably have to fight some of the rebel groups to get to the chemical weapons. Once they do that, if they do that, what conceivable incentive does Assad have against using whatever he has left against the Americans? So - chemical weapons against the Americans - so there is nothing easy there. That's like, all the options are pretty bad.

BLOCK: It would be one thing to try to take out the chemical weapons' sites from the air. Is anybody seriously talking about, you know, securing the sites on the ground, actually having boots on the ground to do that?

FILKINS: No. I think they're not, and that may be the problem. If bombing is as difficult as people say it is and if it may not work and we still want to take out those chemical weapons, then that's what we're talking about, talking about putting people on the ground.

BLOCK: I want to circle back to those Israeli air strikes in Syria. We mentioned that the targets, apparently, were missiles heading to Hezbollah from Iran. And you've written in the past, Dexter Filkins, about that Shiite axis: Syria, Iran, Hezbollah in Lebanon.

FILKINS: Yeah.

BLOCK: How vital is the Syria link for Hezbollah?

FILKINS: It's totally vital. I mean - so, yeah, just for the people listening out there. If you just kind of stand back and look at a map of the Middle East, you can just draw a line, basically, from Iran to Damascus to Lebanon, where Hezbollah is, and then, of course, from Lebanon to Israel, it's right across the border. You can stand on the Lebanese border, you can literally see the Israeli houses.

And Iran was instrumental in creating Hezbollah, which is, you know, this very sophisticated armed group. It's huge. It's stronger than the Lebanese state. Iran was instrumental in creating them, and they have been instrumental from - since the 1980s in sustaining them. And Syria is kind of the conduit. So Hezbollah, the estimates are that they've got about 50,000 rockets and missiles, and most of that comes through Syria, from Iran. I mean, that's basically - that's the link.

So these - what the Israelis, I think, have made clear is that there's a very sort of, you know, delicate balance of power right now between Israel and Hezbollah, kept the peace, and everyone's being real careful. But the Israelis have made it clear that if Iran or Hezbollah tries to introduce weapons into Hezbollah's theater, into Lebanon, that would tilt the military balance against Israel, then they're going to act. But, yeah, the strikes over the weekend, not really related to the civil war, you know, per se. It's Hezbollah, and that's what, in a word, that's what Israel was going after.

BLOCK: That's Dexter Filkins. His article about U.S. policy in Syria in this week's New Yorker magazine is titled "The Thin Red Line." Dexter Filkins, thanks very much.

FILKINS: Thank you.

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