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Middle East Analyst Discusses Syria Attacks And Bashar Assad's Strategy


Now let's talk about a claim we just heard that the regime of President Bashar al-Assad launched this chemical attack in Syria's Idlib province as a provocation and a test, a test of whether the Trump administration was serious when it said last week that Assad is no longer the problem in Syria and the real problem is ISIS.

Assad has been known to test world leaders in this way in the past, like in 2013 when his regime launched a similar chemical attack. At the time, the U.S. said it would retaliate but then ended up forging a deal with Russia and others for Syria to destroy its chemical weapons. I asked Faysal Itani who follows Syria at the Atlantic Council about what Assad's strategy might be with this latest attack.

FAYSAL ITANI: I think what he and his regime have done in the past is push the envelope as much as they can, partly because they want to test the sort of international environment, but also because they have, you know, military concerns. They're fighting a very long war. They're stretched pretty thin. So there's a reason why they escalate in this manner using these particular types of weapons. There was a reason in 2013 and there's a reason now as well.

MCEVERS: To see what they can get away with.

ITANI: It's more to demonstrate to others what they can get away with than to see what they can get away with, and to demonstrate to their domestic or proximate opponents and their foreign supporters. That's what I believe happened yesterday in Idlib.

MCEVERS: We talk about how he uses attacks like this to send messages to his allies and to his enemies. What message would he be sending with this particular attack to the U.S. on the enemy side and to Russia and Iran on the ally side?

ITANI: I think to the United States, it would be testing his boundaries. I think the more interesting question is what about his allies on the other side? That would be primarily Iran and Russia. I don't see Iran as particularly objecting to action like this, to be honest with you, because they are viewing the Syrian conflict through a very narrow prism of their local regional interest.

The Russians are different. The Russians are placing Syria in the context of their international position. And they are the ones that agreed with the Americans to get the chemical weapons out of Syria. Presumably they got a commitment from Assad to respect that. He, I think, has an interest in showing them the limits of how much authority they have over him and their ability to make concessions on his behalf.

MCEVERS: Maybe the message here was being sent to Russia more so than it was being sent to the U.S.

ITANI: I think the United States sent its own message a couple of days ago by telling him essentially they're fine with him staying in power. He has nothing to tell them. It's the Russians who there's a slightly more complicated position with. But again, I think primarily I would place this on local military motivation, and that's the secondary international one.

MCEVERS: And just today, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson called on Russia and Iran to make sure Assad does not launch more chemical attacks. What does that tell you?

ITANI: That's what was supposed to happen to begin with. It was the Russians that were going to restrain him from doing this sort of thing. That hasn't happened. So I think really we're sort of scraping the barrel by asking the Iranians and Russians to do something like this. No such thing is going to happen unless there's a credible threat of force to the regime itself.

MCEVERS: You talk about a credible threat of force to the regime. What options does the U.S. have right now? I mean, is striking Syria the best option in your opinion?

ITANI: The problem is that we haven't decided yet under this administration exactly what we want to see out of Syria. I think that we need to separate the question of what we do about Syria - about the regime, about the war, et cetera. I think we have some good ideas about that and some bad. I think we should act more aggressively. But I want to put that aside. We're talking about a long-established international norm, first of all.

MCEVERS: Of not using chemical weapons, yeah.

ITANI: Of not using chemical weapons. We are also talking about something the regime violated. I frankly think A, it's embarrassing and B, it signals to the world that there is no cost involved in using this kind of weaponry. And I think that cost needs to be re-established. I think something should be done. I think some sort of limited targeted military action should be taken.

MCEVERS: Right. It's separate from a larger objective in Syria. And that was exactly what was talked about in 2013 under the Obama administration - pinpoint strikes, right?

ITANI: Yes. And it was the right thing to do. And it wasn't done.

MCEVERS: Faysal Itani of the Atlantic Council. Thank you so much.

ITANI: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Corrected: April 5, 2017 at 12:00 AM EDT
A previous version of this story incorrectly referred to Faysal Itani as Fisal.