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World

Former Obama Official Calls For 'Smart Diplomacy' In Syria

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

When Antony Blinken was in the Obama administration, he helped shape U.S.-Syria policy. Blinken was a deputy national security adviser, later a deputy secretary of state. In an op-ed piece for The New York Times today, he writes President Trump was right to strike at the Syrian regime and also that the real test for Mr. Trump is what comes next. Antony Blinken joins us now. Welcome to the program once again.

ANTONY BLINKEN: Thank you.

SIEGEL: And before we look to the future, let's revisit the past just for a moment. President Trump contrasts his reaction to this alleged chemical attack to President Obama's decision not to conduct airstrikes after a much larger chemical attack in 2013. In hindsight, was President Obama wrong not to have registered American disapproval with force?

BLINKEN: No. I think that President Obama, at the time, acted effectively to deal with the problem that was before us and that was the use of chemical weapons by Syria. Had we used military force, which we were prepared to do, and we were in a debate with Congress seeking their support for it, we would not have been able to strike the chemical weapons themselves. That would have created an environmental humanitarian disaster. The diplomatic agreement that was reached, instead, with Russia's support, actually removed the vast bulk of chemical weapons that were in Syria at the time and destroyed most of the infrastructure.

SIEGEL: It wasn't supposed to remove the vast bulk of them. It was supposed to remove all of them. And you write that what should come next is smart diplomacy. One question is, how effective can diplomacy be if, for example, Syria did not swear off chemical weapons?

BLINKEN: Let's imagine where we would be, if God forbid, we hadn't reached that agreement in 2013. There'd be 1,300 tons of chemical weapons floating around Syria falling into the hands, not just of the regime, but also the Islamic State, Nusra, other extremist groups. As horrific and as bad as what we saw this past week was, it would be exponentially worse if those weapons were still in Syria.

SIEGEL: And do you hear in the Russian reaction to last night's airstrikes and their version of what happened this week with what is viewed as a chemical attack by the U.S. and many other governments, do you see a - still a viable diplomatic partner toward a solution in Syria in the Russians?

BLINKEN: Yes. Russia, for all of its unhappy comments about the actions taken by the Trump administration, has to be even more livid with Bashar al-Assad. The Russians helped him regain the upper hand in the Civil War, and his thanks to them is to use weapons that had not been used since 2013 in this deal brokered by Russia. Absolutely not necessary to do it. Besides being horrific, has grossly embarrassed the Russians. And the more they continue to be seen as complicit with Assad, particularly, in these kinds of atrocities, the more Sunni Muslim world is going to stand up against them.

SIEGEL: I'm just curious. When you say that the Russians would likely be furious with Assad over this attack, what do you make of the suspicion that if, in fact, there were Russians nowadays at Syrian air bases that they might very well have known what he was doing and either passively let it happen or actively took part in some way?

BLINKEN: It's certainly possible. I think it is really playing with fire for Russia if that's in fact what's happening or what happened because, again, that would make them directly complicit in this in this attack. It would make them directly complicit in the use of a chemical or biological weapon in direct contravention of their sworn obligations.

SIEGEL: I'm just curious. If there were an attack next week that didn't involve any chemicals but involved barrel bombs being dropped on civilian populations, and we saw horrible images of people of all ages who had been killed or maimed in that explosion, would that merit another U.S. air strike against the Syrians? Or does the use of chemical weapons - can that be framed as a limited purpose for the use of force in Syria?

BLINKEN: It's terrible to talk about a hierarchy of horrors, but I think there is something different about the use of these weapons, and it calls for a very, very significant response. It can't happen with impunity. Now, you can argue, if you're killed by a chemical weapon or by a barrel bomb, it doesn't make much difference. You're still dead. But in terms of the norm that it egregiously violates, I think there is a difference. That's why this response by the Trump administration was the right one.

SIEGEL: That's former deputy secretary of state in the Obama administration, Antony Blinken. Thanks for talking with us again.

BLINKEN: Good to be with you. Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.