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What Are The U.S. Options Regarding Syria?


And to expand on some of the decisions facing the administration, we go to Aaron David Miller, a Middle East expert at the Woodrow Wilson Center.

Thank you for joining us.

AARON DAVID MILLER: Pleasure to be here, Renee.

MONTAGNE: As we have just heard, the U.S. has moved from will it to what will it do in terms of taking action. What do you think are the key elements in that?

MILLER: Look, you have a president who literally has been the avoider-in-chief when it comes to Syria. For the last two years, he - in my judgment, wisely and willfully - has avoided militarizing the American role. And his explanation is that the United States is just moving off the two longest wars in American history in Iraq and Afghanistan, where the standard for victory was not could we win, but when could we leave. So what you are seeing right now, I think, is a significant shift in the mind and policy of the president. It may well be that no decisions have been made, but I think it's almost inevitable that the president will authorize some form of military action in response to what is probably the largest single-use deployment of chemical weapons against civilians since Saddam Hussein deployed them against the Kurds in the late '80s. So, the avoider-in-chief is moving reluctantly, I believe, to a situation where he is going to be forced - I'm not sure he's happy about it - to take military action.

MONTAGNE: It also sounds like this action will come whether or not the U.N. gets behind it, because, of course, as we know, Russia is not likely to approve any action, at least from the Security Council.

MILLER: I think that's right. The Russians and the Chinese, presumably, will block action in the Security Council, which will leave the president with the unhappy task of assembling at least a political coalition. And I think he'll get it. I mean, this is not Iraq 2.0, at least the latter stages of it. The Europeans, frankly, seem to be more assertive and more aggressive than the president in wanting to do something - the French, in particular. The British are convinced, I think, that Assad has deployed chemical weapons. And there will be significant support in the region, as well. So, with a NATO endorsement, I think you'll see an American action. Unlike Libya, though, I think, where this unfortunate phrase, leading from behind, was coined, I think in this case, the United States, because of the complexity of the operation, sensitivity of it, is going to have to assert itself up front and essentially carry out whatever strikes the president authorizes.

MONTAGNE: What would be the goal here? Does the U.S. intend to threaten the regime's survival? Or would it be, in a sense, just hoping to maintain what's been a stalemate for more than two years?

MILLER: You know, Renee, this is the key question, and it's the reason that Barack Obama has not militarized the American role so far. The relationship between means and ends here is critical. What is it that military action by the U.S. is going to achieve? I suspect it will not be an effort to fundamentally change the battlefield balance. In effect, it'll try to be a strike that looks to alter Assad's behavior, not the regime itself.

It'll either be a warning, which lays down, this time, a redline that the president intends to enforce - not one that turns pink - that if, in fact, you deploy chemical weapons again, the response on the part of the United States, NATO, the coalition that is going to support this is going to be more severe. And that's why the president's response this time has to be significant. It cannot simply be a couple cruise missiles into a storage shed somewhere. It's got to look real. It's got to look credible, if, in fact, it's going to serve to deter future use of chemical weapons. This will not solve the situation in Syria. The president is not on the verge of becoming the cavalry to rescue the country. But there's no question that without a response, this president will have zero credibility to operate in this region.

MONTAGNE: Aaron David Miller is a vice president at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington, D.C. Thanks for joining us.

MILLER: You're welcome, Renee. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.