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Has U.S. Policy Changed Regarding ISIS And Syria's Civil War?

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

As this week begins, we have a bipartisan view of the war in Syria. Many lawmakers in both parties praised President Trump for responding to the apparent use of chemical weapons. Trump, as you'll recall, ordered missile strikes on a Syrian airfield.

Yet, after the attack, Syria resumed use of the same airfield. And so lawmakers in both parties are leery of getting too much more involved in opposing Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. President Trump's national security adviser says much depends on Assad's patron, Russia. H.R. McMaster spoke on Fox News.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

H R MCMASTER: Russia could be part of the solution. Do they want it to be a relationship of competition and potential conflict? I don't see how that's in Russian interests. Or do they want it to be a relationship in which we can find areas of cooperation that are in our mutual interest?

INSKEEP: McMaster said the American strategy now is to simultaneously change the Assad regime, change the leadership in Syria and destroy ISIS, the Islamic State, which is operating out of Syria. NPR Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman begins our discussion. Hi, Tom.

TOM BOWMAN, BYLINE: Hey, Steve.

INSKEEP: OK. So days ago, the administration said ISIS was their priority. We're not going to sit around - sit there and try to get Assad out of power is the way that Nikki Haley, the U.N. ambassador, put it. And now they've said this. What's a way to think of the U.S. policy now?

BOWMAN: You know, the U.S. policy really hasn't changed that much. You know, the Tomahawk missile attack was going after Syrian aircraft that was using suspected nerve agents, right? And it wasn't going after the regime itself. That's the important thing to note.

INSKEEP: OK.

BOWMAN: And as you say, the next day, some of this aircraft - additional aircraft - Syrian and Russian - were mounting - going after targets again. They just weren't using nerve agents. They were using conventional weapons. And the bottom line is this strategy is the same as it's always been.

INSKEEP: Always been, meaning back to the Obama administration?

BOWMAN: Exactly. On the one hand, you're going after ISIS. The U.S. is moving forward with plans to take the de facto capital Raqqa and moving forward very quickly on that. And they also believe that the way ahead with Assad is a political solution, working with the Russians somehow.

INSKEEP: So the strategy is the same, even if the optics are very different because President Trump struck in response to chemical weapons, where President Obama didn't. But essentially, neither administration has figured out how to get rid of Assad. Is that it?

BOWMAN: They have not. But again, the way - if they're going to get rid of Assad, they have to work through the Russians, some sort of political settlement. Now, Assad could stay for a time. As John Kerry said, he doesn't have to go right away. Or you could have some sort of transitional government. But everyone says, including the Russians, the way ahead in Syria is going to be some sort of confederation.

You're going to have an Alawite section to the west, that's Assad's people. You're going to have a couple of Kurdish sections in the north. And the rest is going to be Sunni. Some sort of confederation, that is the way ahead. That's how this ends.

INSKEEP: Tom, having covered the U.S. military for years, you know that people in the military prefer to be given clear goals and objectives, something that they - a hill they can take and they'll go and they'll take it. Do the people in the military that you talk with feel that they have been given clear goals and objectives in Syria?

BOWMAN: Yes. The clear goal, again, is to go after ISIS and end that caliphate. And that is moving forward. What we're going to see in the coming weeks they're going to start giving more weapons to the Kurds and the Syrian Arabs to take Raqqa. You could also see more U.S. forces heading into Syria in the coming weeks as advisers and maybe Green Berets that would be closer to the frontlines with these local forces. That is the focus of the U.S. military.

INSKEEP: It's ISIS, not getting out Assad.

BOWMAN: Absolutely.

INSKEEP: Well, let's bring another voice into the conversation now. He's Texas Congressman Will Hurd, Republican of the Texas border region. He's also on the House Intelligence Committee and a veteran, if that's the right word, of the CIA. Congressman, welcome to the program.

WILL HURD: Thanks for having me on.

INSKEEP: Do you understand the strategy in Syria now?

HURD: Well, I think, as the previous commentator said, I don't think it's changed much other than the Trump administration has shown its willingness to strike based on the realities on the ground. I believe that Assad must go. You know, Assad is the reason that you have the refugee issue. Assad is the reason that you had a civil war which created a vacuum that allowed ISIS to grow.

I think in order to really bring ISIS down, you have to have political stability in Syria. And that's impossible to have with Bashar al-Assad. But I think President Trump has made it clear we will respond based on situations on the ground and that ISIS is the number one target.

INSKEEP: So what happened in recent days when Nikki Haley, the U.N. ambassador, said we're not going to sit there and try to get Assad out? Other statements were made by the administration. And then, of course, we had the chemical attack and the missile strike. Did the administration drift away from getting rid of Assad and then have a snap back to reality?

HURD: I don't think that's the way to look at it. I think the images that came out of Syria from the chemical attack and, you know defenseless, men, women and children being killed in such a horrible way had a profound impact on the commander in chief. And, you know, based on the realities and intelligence that's being collected on the ground and being shown to the president, he made a decision. And I think the airstrikes in Syria was a right move.

And I think in the coming days as we talk about what does Syria look like without Assad, I think engagement with the Russians is important. And we have to make the Russians come to realize that Assad is more of a problem for them than a partner. And this is going to be a critical move because if we start looking at trying to remove Assad from power, we're going to have to deal with the anti-aircraft battery of the Russians.

We're going to have to deal with a potential direct conflict with Russia. And if that happens, it is not going to be a easy road forward. And so that's why working with the Russians and making them hopefully realize that Syria and Assad is a shared security problem that's important.

INSKEEP: Has Russian given you - has Russia given you any confidence that they can be a reliable partner in Syria or anywhere else?

HURD: No. And that's where I think is a diplomatic solution here is incredibly tricky. When we look at, you know, using the levers of national power - it's diplomatic, intelligence, military and economic - and we need to improve the intelligence that is coming out of Syria on the plans and intentions of Assad in the relationship with Russia.

We also need to be thinking more about, you know, the rebels and who are the right folks that could potentially be involved in, you know, bringing some stability in a post-Assad world. And we have to be increasing our intelligence on, you know, where ISIS - how are they going to regroup with additional military incursion into Syria.

INSKEEP: Let me play a little bit more of the national security adviser, H.R. McMaster, on Fox News Sunday. Here, he's trying to say what the message is that's being sent by the strike last week against the Syrian airfield.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MCMASTER: What's significant about this strike is not that it was meant to take out the Syrian regime's capacity or ability to commit mass murder of its own people, but it was to be a very strong signal to Assad and his sponsors that the United States cannot stand idly by as he is murdering innocent civilians.

INSKEEP: Is that exactly correct, Congressman Hurd, the United States cannot stand idly by as he's murdering innocent civilians? Because it sounds from what we heard from our correspondent Tom Bowman that actually the policy is the United States can't stand idly by if he's murdering innocent civilians with chemical weapons. But if he's attacking his people in other ways, the United States actually will stand by for the moment.

HURD: Well, I think this shows a - this action last week - 49 missile strikes in - at the air base - is a sign that we are willing to do more in that kinetic activity is going to be - is on the table. And so this is - the ramifications of engaging in Syria are complex. And, you know, I don't think anybody is interested in seeing a direct hot war with the Russians. And depending on what the military objectives are, that could potentially result. I think what made this strike successful is that it was limited in scope. It had a clear objective, and that objective was achieved. And...

INSKEEP: One other thing on another subject to ask about. Forgive me, Congressman, I can't let you go without asking about this. You are on the House Intelligence Committee. There's been a tiny bit of news regarding the House Intelligence Committee in recent days in the investigation of Russian interference in the election. And your chairman, Devin Nunes, has now recused himself from that investigation. My question in a few seconds is, is your committee now in a position that it can in fact conduct a bipartisan investigation and get to the bottom of what really happened?

HURD: Well, I'd make a slight correction. The term recusal has very specific legal terms. This was...

INSKEEP: He's stepping away, let's just say that, yeah.

HURD: ...Devin stepping away temporarily. And, look. I think this - the committee has always been doing this in a bipartisan, thorough investigation. We've agreed on the folks that we're going to interview. We've agreed on a hearing schedule. And so this is an important issue.

INSKEEP: About 10 seconds.

HURD: And I have full faith in my colleague from Texas who's taking over temporary duties and that we continue this in a bipartisan, thorough manner.

INSKEEP: Congressman Will Hurd of South Texas. Thank you very much, sir, really appreciate it.

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