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What Trump's Syria Airstrikes Accomplish


President Trump's missile strike on a Syrian airfield in response to a suspected chemical weapons attack has so far largely been supported by both parties, but what will it accomplish for the Syrian people? We're joined now by Kori Schake. She's a research fellow at the conservative Hoover Institution. She was on the National Security Council under President George W. Bush and worked in the Pentagon under the Clinton administration. She's also the editor, with Jim Mattis, now secretary of defense, of the book "Warriors And Citizens: American Views Of Our Military." Thanks so much for being with us.

KORI SCHAKE: It's a great pleasure.

SIMON: You've supported the airstrikes. What will they do in this - for the situation in Syria this weekend, though?

SCHAKE: Well, I think they do a few things. First, they reinforce the norm that weapons of mass destruction - that there are limits even in warfare. And it constrains the Assad government in how it's fighting its war. It provides some potential leverage for Syrian negotiations about ending the war.

And outside of Syria, I think it does a couple of important things for the U.S., generally. It reassures America's allies - those reliant on our security guarantees - that we won't just act in our own interest but in the broader good. And it also showed the president can do many things at once because he was entertaining the Chinese president at the same time. So internal to Syria, I think it will have a marginal effect of reinforcing the norm. External to Syria, it also has some advantages.

SIMON: As we noted, there's a lot of congressional support for the president's actions, but should he have sought that support before ordering the strikes?

SCHAKE: No. I think as commander in chief, he can afford to take prompt action in circumstances like this, but he definitely should follow up with a request for authorization of the use military force from the Congress. The president's temptation to tell people he has a secret plan - you know, it's partly true that free societies fight at a disadvantage when we do everything in public. But having a public conversation of the kind that congressional AUMF negotiations would entail also builds a broad base of public support for the president's policies. And it helps our allies align their actions to support us, so there are downsides to the way he's doing this.

SIMON: But what should follow now? I mean, do - have we just set the table for the Assad regime to launch even more terrible attacks against Syrian civilians?

SCHAKE: Well, it looks like - looks to me like the Assad regime uses chemical weapons when they're failing militarily. So I think the likeliest outcome is more Russian and Iranian assistance in the conventional field. I do think Assad's going to keep killing civilians - may even continue to kill them with chemical weapons - to see if we'll actually allow ourselves to be drawn deeper into the fight. But I think it - what - it looks to me like the approach the Trump administration is taking is that they will destroy the forces involved in any chemical attacks, over time diminishing Assad's military advantage if he keeps using those weapons.

SIMON: Every scenario I've read still seems headed to a negotiated settlement of some kind with the Assad regime. And that, we should note this week, is the regime that negotiated with the Obama administration to remove its chemical weapons. Can any agreement with Assad be trusted? Can we expect any Syrian to feel safe living in the country as he - as long as he's still in power?

SCHAKE: It's a great question. No, I don't believe any Syrian should feel safe living in the country as long as Bashar al-Assad's running it. But can an agreement enforced by the United States hold with them? Yes, if we continually penalize him for cheating on the agreement, which I think he will continually do.

SIMON: And in the half a minute we have left, should the United States step up military action?

SCHAKE: I personally believe that regime change is the only outcome that's going to make the Syrian civil war come to an end. Being on a trajectory to that - it doesn't have to happen immediately, but we actually do have good examples of growing better leadership, most notably in the Kurdish areas of Northern Iraq after the 1991 war. It just takes patience, commitment and the provision of security while you do that. That's a very big ask that it doesn't look to me like the Trump administration has any interest in doing.

SIMON: Kori Schake, thanks so much for being with us again.

SCHAKE: It was a pleasure, Scott. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.