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Former Ambassador: Syria Will Fight No Matter What U.S. Does


From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Audie Cornish.


And I'm Melissa Block. There are growing calls for international military action if it's proved that Syria used chemical weapons in an attack this week that's believed to have killed more than 1,000 people. Britain, France and Turkey are among those calling for a forceful response. In an interview today on CNN, President Obama sounded a cautious note.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Folks will call for immediate action, jumping into stuff that does not turn out well, gets us mired in very difficult situations.

BLOCK: To talk about the wisdom and likelihood of military action in Syria, I'm joined by Ryan Crocker, former U.S. ambassador to many countries, among them Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria, where he served from 1998 to 2001. Ambassador Crocker, welcome to the program.

RYAN CROCKER: Thanks, Melissa. Very pleased to be on.

BLOCK: First off, I wonder if there's any doubt for you that this was, indeed, a chemical weapons attack launched by the Assad regime this week.

CROCKER: I strongly suspect it is, but judgment continues to be withheld until there are some indications that make it absolutely certain. But there's very little doubt in my mind.

BLOCK: Very little doubt. Well, the chairman of the joint chiefs, Martin Dempsey, sent a letter to Senator Carl Levin laying out his assessment of military options in Syria, among them limited standoff strikes, establishing a no-fly zone, controlling chemical weapons, all with varying levels of cost and risk to the United States. What would be the most minimal, do you think, effective military action if there were to be one against Syria?

CROCKER: The problem with the lower end of the spectrum, limited standoff strikes, is that they probably would do little to seriously degrade the capabilities of the Syrian regime. As General Dempsey noted, they could disperse their assets and it could force us to steps that are toward the higher end of the spectrum and carry significant costs and risks for the United States.

BLOCK: Well, we all know that a year ago, President Obama said that if a whole bunch of chemical weapons, in his words, were used by Syria, that would be the red line that Syria would have crossed. It would change his calculus. What do you think the message is for the Assad regime if the president has talked about this red line and then military action is not taken?

Senator McCain has raised just this question that then the regime thinks it can act with impunity and nothing will happen.

CROCKER: Melissa, the regime is going to act with impunity no matter what. This, for the, obviously is a fight for survival. So whatever we say or don't say, they are going to continue the fight. There's just no question about it. Whether we talked about red lines a year ago or did not talk about red lines a year ago, it doesn't change, I think, the calculus of the Syrian regime at all. They are utterly ruthless and utterly determined to win a fight for their survival.

BLOCK: One last thing before I let you go. What's known about Syria's air defenses and its ability to repel attacks?

CROCKER: I was in Lebanon when the Israelis invaded in June of 1982 and the entire Syrian air force was basically just destroyed in a matter of hours because of inadequate air defenses. The Syrians learned from that and have spent decades with their Russian allies developing a highly advanced well-integrated air defense system. That's what makes a no-fly zone so much more dangerous in Syria than in, say, Iraq or Libya. There's every chance we would lose aircraft.

BLOCK: Ambassador Crocker, thanks for talking with us.

CROCKER: Thank you, Melissa.

BLOCK: That's Ambassador Ryan Crocker, former ambassador to Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq, among other countries. He's now dean of the George Bush School of Government and Public Service at Texas A&M University. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.