U.S. Aims For International Support In Action Against Syria

Secretary of State Kerry has pronounced an all-but-final U.S. verdict against the Syrian government for suspected use of chemical weapons in an "indiscriminate slaughter" of civilians. U.S. warships are within missile range, and U.S. envoys are talking to allies to see what kind of action they might support. David Greene talks to Frederic Hof, who was a special State Department adviser on Syria for the Obama administration. He is now a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

And I'm David Greene. Good morning.

As President Obama considers military action against Syria, U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel was pressed by a BBC interviewer this morning on whether American forces are poised to strike.

(SOUNDBITE OF INTERVIEW)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: But if the order comes, you're ready to go - like that.

SECRETARY CHUCK HAGEL: We are ready to go - like that.

MONTAGNE: The administration says there's virtually no doubt that Syria used chemical weapons against rebel-held areas last week, an accusation Syria's foreign minister compared this morning to American claims before the Iraq war.

GREENE: Secretary of State John Kerry has cited the many videos of gas victims dead or choking for breath as evidence of what he called the indiscriminate slaughter of civilians.

MONTAGNE: Warships are within missile range and American envoys are talking to allies about what kind of action they might support. This morning we're going to look at how a U.S. attack would be viewed in the region.

GREENE: In a few minutes we'll hear how the Israeli government sees the conflict. But first let's turn to Ambassador Frederic Hof. He was a special State Department adviser on Syria in the Obama administration.

Ambassador Hof, thanks for coming on the program.

FREDERIC HOF: Good morning, Mr. Greene, pleasure to be with you.

GREENE: Let me start by asking you about something you said some weeks ago to my colleague, Scott Simon. You said that the memory of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq is still raw. The administration, quote, "wants to get it right this time, it wants to be able to present a case that's accurate and irrefutable when it comes to chemical weapons in Syria."

Does the United States have that case now?

HOF: Well, I believe so. Look, I think it's very clear that President Obama is not looking for an excuse to hit Syria. His reluctance to engage militarily is well-established. Yet if he's able to conclude - as apparently he has to his own satisfaction - that the Assad regime was indeed responsible for the chemical attack in question, essentially he'll have no choice.

His credibility will be at stake after having defined regime chemical use as a red line and a game changer. So he's not looking for an excuse and he's going to be absolutely certain before he makes a move.

GREENE: Who does he have to convince? I mean it looks like the United Nations path might be a tough one for the United States. I mean what countries do they really need to get on board if they go forward with this, to have a credible coalition here?

HOF: I think it's very important for the president to reach out primarily to allies and friends, both in the region and around the world. You're quite right, there's no way forward with the U.N. Security Council, and the Russian Federation and China will see to that. They've been quite consistent in enabling the Assad regime's terror program and they'll continue.

GREENE: Is support from the Arab world crucial?

HOF: I think it's important and I think it will be forthcoming in some quarters, perhaps not across the board.

GREENE: Well, you're a longtime expert on Syria. And I wonder if, I mean if you take us into Damascus as best you can, how is the Assad regime viewing this threat of a strike right now? And are they taking it seriously?

HOF: I think they should be taking it seriously. There's actually no way of knowing, Mr. Greene, whether they are or not. I think up to a few days ago, the regime and its Iranian and Russian supporters would have waged heavy bets that there was just no way at all that the Obama administration would consider military action in Syria.

But what's really turned things upside down is the decision, for whatever reason, of Syria's Bashar al-Assad to challenge the president directly, to really go after the credibility not only of President Obama but the United States of America in this matter. And I think that's what's really changed things.

GREENE: Well, if U.S. credibility is on the line, as you say, if President Obama wants to show Syria that it will face consequences for using chemical weapons, what needs to happen? What sort of military action has to take place?

HOF: Well, you know, I think there's a range of options available. You know, at one end would be a very limited, largely symbolic strike perhaps against a target related to chemical weapons. That, frankly, would be more trouble than it's worth because I think it would only compound the credibility problem.

At the other end of the spectrum might be an intense, sustained series of attacks against regime delivery systems, delivery systems that have already killed tens of thousands of people on a random basis. And here we're talking about artillery, military aircraft, military airfields.

You know, I think we have to keep in mind that chemicals have killed a small proportion of those civilians already slaughtered by this regime.

GREENE: Ambassador Frederic Hof is a senior fellow with the Rafiq Hariri Center for the Middle East at the Atlantic Council. Ambassador, thank you so much for coming on.

HOF: It's been my pleasure, Mr. Greene.

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