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U.S. Signals Further Action Against Syria For Use Of Barrel Bombs


Now that the United States has attacked Syria for the regime's use of chemical weapons, many are wondering what's next. The Trump administration has signaled that it would be willing to go further, perhaps even retaliating against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad for using barrel bombs, which are far more common. Now, to talk through this, we're joined by Ambassador Frederic Hof, a former State Department adviser on Syria under President Obama. He's now with the Atlantic Council. Welcome to the program.

FREDERIC HOF: Audie, it's a pleasure to be with you.

CORNISH: Now, you've been quite critical of the Obama administration's reluctance to take direct military action in Syria, especially back in 2013 when the first apparent chemical attack took place. Do you think that the Trump administration did the right thing in attacking the Syrian air base?

HOF: I think it did the right thing, Audie. The real question now, though, is, what next? If this turns out to be a one-time, fire-and-forget response to a chemical incident, it will go down in history ultimately as a losing gesture, unless of course it suffices to get Bashar al-Assad out of the mass-casualty business once and for all.

CORNISH: Talk more about that because you have said that even if the U.S. was successful in getting Syria to back down from the use of chemical weapons, it, in effect, can push the Syrian government to use other weapons against civilians - as we mentioned, barrel bombs.

HOF: Yeah, that's right, Audie. I mean, there's a - there's a history here, and it's a bloody history. In the summer of 2013, the United States and Russia did succeed in binding Syria to an agreement where most, but certainly not all, of its chemical weapons and chemical weapons capability were removed from Syria.

But at the same time, Assad doubled down on civilian mass slaughter. In effect, he put the chemicals on the shelf and went after civilians with literally everything else, including elements of kitchen sinks packed into barrel bombs. That's the history. It's a very clear history, and God - God forbid, it could be repeated.

CORNISH: Basically you're saying without some kind of intervention by outside forces, the world is simply saying, go ahead and do what you like. We're not going to interfere.

HOF: I think that is precisely the message that Bashar al-Assad has received over the years, and this counts for his absolute sense of impunity. Now, look, I don't think there's any appetite in the Congress or in the administration for invading and occupying Syria. But surely exacting a price of this horrible regime is totally necessary.

CORNISH: We've made some comparison here between the reaction of the U.S. from 2013 to now. But much has changed. And do you get the sense that - that the action we might have been able to take in 2013 is still on the table now, or have things become far more complicated when it comes to military response?

HOF: You know, things are more - things are more complicated. Russia intervened militarily in September, 2015. So it is more complicated, and those risks definitely have to be taken into account. Russia did not react operationally in any particularly significant way to the operation on April 7.

If we find ourselves obliged to continue with these kinds of operations, I think we should tell the Russians there will be no surprises. We'll let you know when we're going to do something. But by far, the best course of action here is for you to get your client out of this dirty business once and for all. This conflict needs some adult supervision. The United States and Russia can help provide that. But it's going to be very, very difficult if the Russians are going to tolerate mass murder on the part of their client and then try to cover it up internationally.

CORNISH: Ambassador Frederic Hof, thank you so much for speaking with us.

HOF: It's been my great pleasure, Audie.

CORNISH: Frederic Hoff is the director of the Atlantic Council's Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East. He was a special adviser for transition in Syria at the State Department under President Obama. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.