Trump Condemns Chemical Attack In Syria
RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
The photos are difficult to look at - Syrian children visibly shaken and in pain, suffering the effects of what looks to be a chemical weapons attack. Reports of this attack by the Syrian government has garnered widespread condemnation. And today, the U.N. Security Council will meet to talk about how to respond. The suspected chemical weapons attack hit the town of Douma, which had been controlled by rebel groups. Dozens of Syrians appear to have died from asphyxiation. The Syrian regime is denying any responsibility. But President Trump condemned the attack, saying on Twitter that there will be a, quote, "big price to pay." And the president's homeland security adviser, Tom Bossert, told ABC the U.S. will not rule out a missile attack in response.
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TOM BOSSERT: I wouldn't take anything off the table. These are horrible photos. We're looking into the attack at this point.
MARTIN: The U.S. is weighing a military response in Syria. Meanwhile, a major air base in Syria was hit by missiles overnight, and Syrian state media are blaming Israel for that attack. For more, we are joined by NPR's national political correspondent Mara Liasson.
MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: Hi, Rachel.
MARTIN: So it was just a few days ago that President Trump said he wants the U.S. to pull out of Syria altogether. Now he's talking about a big price to pay for this alleged chemical weapons attack. Could we see a U.S. strike?
LIASSON: Well, we might see a U.S. strike. We know that the Trump administration has taken action against the Assad regime before, almost exactly a year to the day. There was another chemical weapons attack back then. The president said it crossed a red line. He talked about the effect that those horrific television pictures of children suffocating had on him. He said it was a red line, and he accused President Obama at the time of putting a red line in the sand for Syria and then letting Syria walk right over it. He did conduct a military strike at that time, and here we are again.
MARTIN: I mean, as you know, President Trump likes to bring up the fact that the Obama administration constructed this so-called red line when it comes to Bashar al-Assad and the use of chemical weapons. And then the Obama administration did not strike when Assad used those weapons. It's worth remembering, though, there was an internal divide in the Obama administration about Syria, wasn't there?
LIASSON: That's right. There was an internal divide. But now the president is faced again with his own choice. He could call for another limited strike, which he did before, but it didn't seem to have the deterrent effect that he wanted it to. He could support another country, like France, who's also threatened unilateral action, or he could do nothing, although I think the pressure on President Trump to do something, especially because he laid down the precedent last time - he's criticized Obama for not acting - I think the pressure on him to do something is pretty great.
MARTIN: In the context of all of this, President Trump has done something unusual here. He's criticized Russia's president, Vladimir Putin, for supporting the Syrian regime, doing so by name. That's a big deal. He doesn't do that a lot.
LIASSON: That's right. This is the very first time that he has criticized Putin by name. This might mark the end of his very disciplined reluctance to exempt Putin from any criticism. And he seems to have gone out of his way to criticize Putin. He tweeted Putin, Russia and Iran were responsible, in that order as if Putin and Russia were two separate actors. This, of course, follows the administration leveling those sanctions on Russian oligarchs. And, of course, the definition of Russian oligarchs are friends of Putin. So this, you know, could signal a new low in Russian-American relations and a new evidence that the president is willing to criticize Putin after all this time.
MARTIN: So one of the advisers that is no doubt going to weigh in on any U.S. response in Syria - whether or not to launch a missile strike after this alleged chemical weapons attack - is the national security adviser. And today, that's a new person. John Bolton has his first day on the job. He is a hawk, by all definitions, on national security issues. Does that mean we can expect Bolton to push the president to intervene in Syria?
LIASSON: Well, we don't know that. But John Bolton, as you said, is a noted hawk. He's a hawk on Russia. He's a hawk on Iran. He has previously argued in favor of pre-emptive or preventive strikes on Iran and North Korea. He was a supporter of the Iraq War. We don't know what he'll counsel the president to do here. We know he is hawkish like the president. In a lot of ways, there is a mind meld between John Bolton and the president. He has a dislike of multilateral institutions like the president, but he's not a noninterventionist.
And don't forget, this whole discussion comes right after the president said he wants out of Syria. He said he wants to pull our troops out, and he only very reluctantly agreed in the short term to his military advisers' argument that the U.S. can't pull its few thousand troops from Syria just yet because that would let Russia, Iran and Assad fill the vacuum there.
MARTIN: All right, NPR's Mara Liasson for us this morning. Thanks so much, Mara.
LIASSON: Thank you.
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