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Former U.S. Ambassador Encourages Trump To Develop Broader Syria Strategy

KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:

Robert Ford was the U.S. ambassador to Syria from 2011 to 2014. That means he was the top U.S. diplomat on Syria in 2013 when the Assad regime launched a massive chemical weapons attack on civilians. President Obama took a lot of criticism for not striking Syria for crossing that red line. When I talked to Ambassador Ford today, I asked him what he makes of President Trump's response to this latest apparent chemical attack.

ROBERT FORD: First, I was surprised, given what candidate Donald Trump had said about not striking Syria, even over chemical weapons use. And my second impression was not clear that it's going to be more than a one-off and things go on pretty much the same as they were both in Syria and in terms of the president's broader foreign policy.

MCEVERS: Right, because you served in the region for many years. And, you know, we saw strikes like this under the Clinton administration, correct?

FORD: Right. The first thing I thought of was wow, just like Bill Clinton used to lob cruise missiles on Saddam Hussein in the 1990s.

MCEVERS: Right. It would be in the news for a bit, and then everyone would sort of move on.

FORD: Right. And Saddam Hussein never changed. Things just went on as they were.

MCEVERS: Right. And on Syria, too, I mean, these sort of punitive targeted strikes against Syria are not new. We know Israel regularly targets Syrian military posts. I guess my question is, is this the language that Bashar al-Assad, Syria's president, understands?

FORD: This is entirely the language that Assad understands. And I think the strikes could be useful if they were severe enough that he suffers some real military pain and is therefore deterred from using chemical weapons again. This is an effort to re-establish deterrence, and I applaud it for that.

MCEVERS: Right. It sends that message - you can't do that. But is it really much of a setback for him militarily?

FORD: This isn't a big blow for Assad and his forces. He is still little by little advancing in the Syrian civil war. He is still little by little winning.

MCEVERS: You're very familiar with the Syrian opposition. And they seem to be pretty happy about this strike. I mean, six years of waiting for someone to punish Bashar al-Assad for the atrocities against the Syrian people. And they say it's finally happening. Do you think they're reading too much into this?

FORD: Yeah, I suspect they are. They have been waiting since 2011 for the American military to come in and rescue them from Bashar al-Assad's brutal regime. When I was in government, I used to tell them all the time that we're not coming. The Americans aren't going to do it, forget it. After Iraq, we're not going to do it. But it's very hard for them to give up that dream, especially because they don't have much chance of winning without that.

MCEVERS: How would you advise the Trump administration now on a Syria policy?

FORD: Well, two things. Number one, watch to see what Assad does in the coming days and weeks. My guess is he'll lay off the chemical weapons for a while, and then he'll start testing again. So it'll be really important that the Russians pass the message that there could be more strikes if they do test us. The second thing is that the Trump administration needs to start thinking about a broader political strategy in Iraq and in Syria.

Economic problems and economic hopelessness, a sense that governments are corrupt and oppressive feed into reasons why young people join extremist groups like al-Qaida and like the Islamic State. And an F-16 can't deal with corruption. And special operations forces can't really deal with economic hopelessness.

So when we deploy them, we also need to have a political strategy for how to address those underlying issues that foster recruitment. Otherwise, we kill extremists, they recruit more, we kill more, they recruit more. And I think the Trump administration needs to figure out how to break that cycle.

MCEVERS: Former U.S. ambassador to Syria and now senior fellow at the Middle East Institute, Robert Ford, who joined us by Skype. Thank you so much.

FORD: My pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.