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News Brief: U.S. Strategy On Assad Lacks Details, North Korea Aggression


Up first, Syria - officials within the Trump administration are sending mixed messages about how to handle Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Over the weekend, the U.S. ambassador to the U.N., Nikki Haley, told NBC's "Meet The Press" in no uncertain terms, peace is impossible under Assad.


NIKKI HALEY: In no way do we see peace in that area with Assad as the head of the Syrian government. And we have to make sure that we're pushing that process.

MARTIN: On "Fox News Sunday," President Trump's national security adviser, H. R. McMaster, gave a more measured explanation. Let's listen.


H R MCMASTER: It's very difficult to understand how a political solution could result from continuation of the Assad regime. Now we're not saying that we are the ones who are going to affect that change. What we're saying is other countries have to ask themselves some hard questions.


OK. Let's talk through this with Scott Detrow who covers Congress for NPR News. Good morning, Scott.


INSKEEP: And also NPR Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman. Tom, good morning to you.


INSKEEP: So help me out here. Nikki Haley says Assad must go. McMaster says Assad is going to go - a little bit different. Days after, Haley said that's not a priority. And then, yesterday, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson says this to CBS.


REX TILLERSON: I think the president's been quite clear. First and foremost, we must defeat ISIS.

INSKEEP: Different priority. So what does this all add up to in Syria, Tom?

BOWMAN: What it adds up to is pretty much the same strategy as President Obama. And what that is is focus on ISIS first. They're really focused on Iraq. That's the de facto capital of the Islamic State 'cause that's where operations against the West are being planned, suicide attacks and the like. And they're going to move forward on that in the coming weeks. And also, President Obama said back in 2011, Assad must go. And then John Kerry as secretary of state kind of backed away from that. But the only way that's going to happen is by working with Russia.

INSKEEP: When you say the same policy as Obama - Obama's policy in effect was Assad must go, but we're not really sure how we want to do that. So we're not really going to try that hard.

BOWMAN: They were pushing. They were working through Moscow to get rid of Assad over time. It's a political settlement.


DETROW: And I think that when you listen to those statements - and they do kind of contradict each other, or the focus is in different places at different points - I think that's one reason why congressional leaders from both parties say - you know, there's, by and large, bipartisan support for the airstrike that happened last week. But going forward, leaders of both parties say there needs to be a conversation, an engagement with Congress, and you need to tell us what your long-term plan is more than one step at a time.

INSKEEP: Is Congress ready to give a majority vote to anything?

DETROW: To anything (laughter) - that's a broader...

INSKEEP: Well, anything regarding Syria - yes, exactly.

DETROW: ...Philosophical question, I guess. But in terms of Syria, I think there's bipartisan support for a more aggressive action in Syria to a point. But remember - in 2013, there were not the votes for that use of force that President Obama wanted to launch strikes in Syria. I think there's a lot of wariness of any sort of ground troop engagement. But I think when it comes to, at minimum, taking a step toward dealing with chemical weapon attacks from the Assad regime, there's bipartisan support for something (unintelligible)...

BOWMAN: And you're not going to see any ground engagement by U.S. troops. They're there as trainers now. Some of them are close to the front lines with Kurdish and Syrian rebels but no large numbers of U.S. ground troops.

INSKEEP: Tom, very briefly - Russia wasn't happy about the strike last week - said it was ending this communication over different flights over Syria with the United States. How is the U.S. going to operate without communicating with Russia?

BOWMAN: Well, my sense is they'll work this out over time. It's in everyone's interest not to have planes run into each other or any mistaken shots. But also, you have to remember that Russia and the U.S. kind of operate in different areas. The U.S. is off to the central northern part of Syria going after ISIS. And Russia and Syria - just after that strike with the 59 Tomahawk missiles, they flew out of that same airfield the next day...


BOWMAN: ...To go after Idlib province. So they're going to - operating in separate areas, and they're going to continue.

MARTIN: So there seems to be an emerging consensus - a harder line against Assad, a harder line against Russia - some wondering if this is representative of an evolution happening when it comes to the Trump White House and foreign policy in particular. Worth noting - Rex Tillerson heading to Moscow this week so we should look to see what Trump surrogates, officials in the White House - whether or not they try to give him space by being neutral about Russia or if they double down on the hard-line rhetoric.

INSKEEP: OK. So let's examine a tense situation that is at the other side of Asia.

MARTIN: Right. So the U.S. sent an aircraft carrier toward the Korean Peninsula Saturday night. Three guided missile destroyers and cruisers went along. The Trump administration ordered this move after North Korea launched yet another missile test. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson talked about what this means on ABC.


TILLERSON: The message that any nation can take is if you violate international norms, if you violate international agreements, if you fail to live up to commitments, if you become a threat to others - at some point, a response is likely to be undertaken.

INSKEEP: That's some point, not necessarily now. But there's the aircraft carrier heading toward North Korea. Tom, how big a deal is this?

BOWMAN: It's not that big a deal. This is a floating version of the Tomahawk missile attack in Syria basically. Now, a carrier, when you see it off the coast, is very impressive, and it focuses the mind. But it's not like planes are going to be flying off this aircraft carrier, taking out targets in North Korea. It is basically sending a message.

INSKEEP: Are there realistic military options available for some kind of targeted strike, some kind of narrow strike that takes out North Korean weapons or punishes them in some minor way?

BOWMAN: Not in a minor way. If you're going to head down this road, it could be - quickly escalate. Now what I'm hearing is the military is talking more about a military option in North Korea. They think it's doable. But it's very difficult getting all their weapons - nuclear weapons...

INSKEEP: Oh, because you want to clear up everything - you would want to destroy everything that North Korea could use to retaliate (unintelligible)...

BOWMAN: Right. It's very difficult now. They're using mobile missiles. They have hardened structures. But the big thing is this, Steve - they have short-range missiles pointed towards South Korea. And if you did start attacking North Korea, there's a sense that they would start using those missiles. Twenty-five million people are at risk as well as 33,000 U.S. troops. It would be horrific.

INSKEEP: Scott, let's remember that North Korea's neighbor China is huge here, a huge factor here. Is China OK with the United States leaning forward a little more on the military option?

DETROW: Well, the one thing that both President Trump and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson have said a lot recently is that China needs to be a part of this process. President Trump was pretty blunt about that before he met with Xi Jinping last week - saying if China won't act, we will. But Tillerson said that even though we didn't get a public readout of what the end result of this recent meeting was between...

INSKEEP: President Trump and China's Xi Jinping.

DETROW: Yeah, yeah. Tillerson said that the topic came up a lot and that China takes this seriously and, you know, is willing to work with the U.S. going forward. What that means, we'll see.

INSKEEP: Willing to work with the United States but not necessarily thrilled about the idea of military action - they certainly haven't said that.

DETROW: I think that is the case. One thing Tillerson said was that, you know, China realizes this is an increasingly serious problem and it's a danger to them as well.

MARTIN: Although we should note - there is this kind of perspective now that the U.S. is not afraid to go it alone, especially after that strike in Syria. So what does that even look like? What does a U.S. aggressive posture against North Korea look like, especially if you don't have China? Also worth noting, April 15 is the anniversary of the birth of Kim Il Sung, North Korea's founder, grandfather of the country's current leader. They have a history - North Korea does - of testing missiles on that day.

INSKEEP: My birthday is coming up. Would you guys think about...

MARTIN: Testing a missile?

INSKEEP: ...Some missile tests or something like that? That might a good way...

MARTIN: Maybe - if you're lucky.

INSKEEP: Or maybe a podcast or something.


INSKEEP: Anyway - our guide to this day's most important stories includes a story where the news here is what's not happening today, Rachel.

MARTIN: So this is about this new rule that was established to protect Americans saving for retirement. It was supposed to go into effect today. This thing would have required financial advisers to act in their client's best interest in retirement planning. But it has been delayed.

INSKEEP: And let's talk about this with NPR's Chris Arnold who heads up our Money and Life coverage. He's on the line. Hi, Chris.

CHRIS ARNOLD, BYLINE: Hey, Steve. Hey, Rachel.


INSKEEP: OK. So why the delay?

ARNOLD: Well, the industry has been raising all kinds of concerns about this rule for years as it was being crafted. And we should note - none of these are new concerns, but they say one thing is that, OK, a financial adviser - it might be harder to work with somebody who hasn't saved up that much money if they can't make as much money working with them. Donald Trump's top economic adviser Gary Cohn - he was very recently the president of Goldman Sachs - he's come out saying this is a bad rule. Supporters disagree with all this, but the president has gone ahead to delay it.

INSKEEP: I think you've touched on one reason that there would be a delay now. This is an Obama-era rule that's being changed, or revisited, I guess, would be the word by the new administration. But people still wonder why this wasn't already the rule. Why wouldn't you be required to act in the best interest of the person who's giving you money?

ARNOLD: Well, a lot of people always assumed that was the case. The fact is, though, that many Americans get bad advice because their financial advisers are not required to act in their best interest. And too often what happens is an adviser gets paid more money to steer you into investments that have very high fees because they get a bigger commission, just like any salesman...

INSKEEP: It's in their interest, yeah.

ARNOLD: Yeah, exactly. So the Obama administration looked into this. They said - whoa, this is costing Americans $17 billion that's being leached out of their retirement accounts, and they said this is totally not OK. They spent years crafting this rule, and it requires financial advisers to act in their clients' best interests.

INSKEEP: Couple seconds - is the rule really delayed as we're saying, or is it pretty much actually dead?

ARNOLD: Well, you might think it's dead. There's this executive order to look into it, and that is the $17 billion question, I guess we could say. But look, the president's other executive orders have run into some trouble, as you remember. And supporters here - there are a lot of them. They're powerful - the AARP...


ARNOLD: ...All kinds of interest groups - they're saying we're going to sue. And there's some precedent in the courts that they'll have a case.

INSKEEP: OK. That's NPR's Chris Arnold. Thanks very much. We also heard a summary of the day's news from NPR's Scott Detrow and Tom Bowman. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Tom Bowman is a NPR National Desk reporter covering the Pentagon.
Scott Detrow is a White House correspondent for NPR and co-hosts the NPR Politics Podcast.
NPR correspondent Chris Arnold is based in Boston. His reports are heard regularly on NPR's award-winning newsmagazines Morning Edition, All Things Considered, and Weekend Edition. He joined NPR in 1996 and was based in San Francisco before moving to Boston in 2001.