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What's At Stake In A Potential Syria Strike


It has now been five days since a rebel stronghold outside Damascus, Syria, was hit by a deadly suspected chemical weapons strike. President Trump has been promising a tough response to that attack. But unlike a year ago, when Trump ordered a Tomahawk missile strike just two days after another chemical bombardment in Syria, he has so far held off taking any action. This morning, the president did tweet that an attack on Syria could, quote, "be very soon or not soon at all." In the meantime, the town of Douma has now reportedly fallen to Syrian government forces. And let's bring in NPR national security correspondent David Welna.

Hi, David.

DAVID WELNA, BYLINE: Good morning, David.

GREENE: So the White House is saying all options still on the table, but is it still looking like the United States is going to carry out some kind of reprisal here?

WELNA: Well, you know, if we're to believe a tweet that Trump sent out yesterday, it certainly looks like a military strike's in store. In that tweet, after noting that Russia has vowed to shoot down any missiles fired at Syria, Trump wrote, get ready, Russia, because they will be coming, nice and new and smart. Now, that's coming from the same man who belittled President Obama five years ago, asking in a tweet, why do we keep broadcasting when we are going to attack Syria? And now we have Trump on the record saying the U.S. will be attacking with guided missiles, although White House spokesman Sarah Sanders said later that no final decisions have yet been made about a U.S. response. And Defense Secretary Jim Mattis has also been more circumspect. He told reporters yesterday that the U.S. is still assessing intelligence about the suspected chemical weapons attack.

GREENE: Well, is that the fact that they're still assessing intelligence, or could there be some other factor that would explain why this might be getting drawn out more?

WELNA: Well, you know, I think this time it's a bit more of a political quandary for Trump than it was last year. After all, it was only last week when he was saying that the time had come for the U.S. to pull out of Syria. And attacking another government in the Middle East is not quite what Trump promised his base when he campaigned on putting America first.

GREENE: Right.

WELNA: There's also the reality that last year's Tomahawk strike against the Syrian airfield failed to stop that country's regime from using chemical weapons. So if this isn't to be simply a repeat of last year, whatever is done this time will likely have to be more far-reaching, which takes more planning. And there's also an effort this time to get more countries to join the effort, such as France and the United Kingdom and Saudi Arabia, which is making things more complicated. And there are at least some U.S. officials with misgivings about carrying out reprisals for an attack that has yet to be investigated by outside experts. And all of this, of course, is giving Syria more time to move its military assets away from potential strike targets.

GREENE: Yeah, I can imagine. Are there legal questions here, as well? I mean, I feel like this basic, simple question comes up a lot of times at moments like this. Can the United States actually legally attack another country's military targets?

WELNA: Well, if you listen to experts in constitutional and international law, there is slim to none in terms of a legal basis for carrying out an attack. They say that it would be a clear violation of international law if there were an attack because international law requires that either there be consent from Syria for carrying out an attack, which there clearly isn't, or authorization by the United Nations Security Council, which is also lacking, or that the U.S. be acting in its own self-defense, which would not seem to be the case this time. There's also no clear authorization from Congress for Trump to order military strikes against the government of Syria. And while that did not stop him from carrying out last year's attack, there are members of Congress this time who are saying that constitutionally, he has to get permission from Congress to act.

GREENE: David, does this feel different than last year's attack that President Trump ordered? I mean, I don't know. It feels like the stakes are higher. There's more anticipation in the United States and globally.

WELNA: Well, yeah. And besides being a bigger attack this time, it's also likely that the U.S. is much more in peril of a direct military confrontation with Russia, which has both military equipment and troops bolstering the Syrian regime. Trump's tweet yesterday seemed to be responding to a warning last month from Valery Gerasimov, who's Russia's equivalent to the chairman of the Joint Chiefs. Gerasimov said that if there's any threat to the lives of Russians in Syria from the U.S. attack, there would be a Russian military response, not just to any rockets that are fired but also to the platforms that launch those rockets, including ships and airplanes.

GREENE: So the tensions with Russia and the United States potentially just one of the things we're following as we watch the president weigh his decisions here. That's NPR's David Welna. David, thanks a lot.

WELNA: You're welcome, David. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.