Hagel's Indonesia Trip Consumed By Thoughts On Syria

The Syria government says it will allow U.N. weapons inspectors to access the site of an apparent chemical weapons attack outside Damascus. Last week's attack left hundreds of civilians dead, and could lead to a military response by the U.S. and other western nations. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel is on a planned trip to Indonesia.

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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

This is MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. Good morning. I'm David Greene.

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

And I'm Renee Montagne. This morning on the outskirts of Damascus, Syria, United Nations inspectors are examining victims of last week's alleged chemical weapons attacks. Syrian rebels say poison gas killed hundreds of civilians. Now, the U.S. military is poised to respond.

GREENE: U.S. warships are in position in the Mediterranean Sea, in case President Obama decides to take action against the Syrian regime. The president is weighing how to react to what the administration says was almost certainly a chemical attack by the Syrian military.

MONTAGNE: In an interview with a Russian newspaper yesterday, a defiant Syrian President Bashar al-Assad said the U.S. will encounter, quote, "failure" if it tries to attack. As events unfold rapidly in Syria, we'll get analysis from former Mideast peace negotiator Aaron David Miller.

GREENE: But first, we turn to NPR's Larry Abramson, who is traveling with Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel on a pre-planned trip in Indonesia. Larry, good morning.

LARRY ABRAMSON, BYLINE: Good morning.

GREENE: So Larry, you're on this trip in Indonesia, Malaysia. The defense secretary is holding these meetings that were planned, but I gather a lot - if not all - of his attention is being diverted by the situation in Syria.

ABRAMSON: Right. This was a pre-planned trip, to pursue the administration's policy of rebalancing U.S. forces toward the Asia-Pacific, which is supposed to be the future for the Pentagon. But he's been kind of pursued by concerns about old conflicts. In this case, it's Syria.

GREENE: The rhetoric we've been hearing - I mean, it really seems to have hardened from the White House, and from the administration, after this apparent chemical weapons attack. What are you hearing right now on this trip about what might unfold?

ABRAMSON: Up until now, the administration has been very reluctant to talk in more aggressive terms about intervention in Syria. But the news of this latest attack - outside of Damascus, recently - have changed things. Secretary of Defense Hagel has insisted during this trip that the U.S. has not decided how it's going to respond. But we saw much tougher talk from the White House today, saying that the Syrian government's decision to allow in U.N. inspectors is too late, basically; and that the time that's passed has probably degraded some of the evidence, that they might have been able to find possible chemical weapons use.

The administration is now saying there is very little doubt that the Syrian regime has used chemical weapons against civilians and that the president is weighing intelligence on how to respond, not whether to respond.

GREENE: OK. How to respond - that raises the question of potential military options. What options, are you hearing, might be on the table?

ABRAMSON: Well, the main thing we're hearing about, right now, is a possible cruise missile strike. Nobody wants to send troops in, and that's one of the reasons why the administration has been so reluctant to talk about any kind of intervention - is the president's desire to end the conflicts in the Middle East, with the war in Iraq over and the war in Afghanistan winding down.

So the likely scenario would be some sort of cruise missile strike. They would be aimed, likely, at command and control sites, in an effort to avoid any sort of civilian casualties. But of course, you know, with any kind of military action, David, there is the risk of civilian casualties, and that's one of the reasons why Gen. Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has been reluctant to get involved. But at this point, the question is: Would those missile strikes change the equation in Syria? Would they actually help the rebels? And it's not clear that they absolutely would.

GREENE: And Dempsey not the only one who's been reluctant to use the military; that there have been divisions in the administration for a while now, as they've talked hypothetically about some sort of military option for Syria. Is there some sort of consensus forming now, after this apparent chemical attack?

ABRAMSON: I think they're moving in the direction of some sort of response, but I think they are also committed to trying to get some sort of international consensus behind them. The French and British have been talking tougher than the United States, in this particular conflict. But I think the United States would like to see a United Nations resolution. or something to give it a little bit stronger backing.

That's unlikely since Russia is likely to continue to use its veto power to reject any sort of initiative against Syria. But I think that the administration sounds, anyway, from this end, committed to at least seeking some sort of backing, either from the United Nations or at least from European countries.

GREENE: All right. We've been talking to NPR's Larry Abramson, who's traveling with Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel in Indonesia.

Larry, thanks a lot.

ABRAMSON: Thank you.

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