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The 'Red Line' On Syria


The Trump administration claimed a big victory in Syria this weekend. But the military strikes launched along with the U.K. and France were actually limited in scope. Missiles targeted suspected chemical weapons sites, including research, storage and military facilities and so far have avoided triggering a wider conflict. The attack was in response to last weekend's alleged chemical weapons use in Douma, a suburb outside of Damascus. One person who has been advocating for a strike is Jasmine El-Gamal. She was the Pentagon's Syria country director during the Obama administration, and she joins us now from Beirut. Welcome to the program.

JASMINE EL-GAMAL: Good morning, Lulu.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: You were supportive of the strike. Can you explain why?

EL-GAMAL: The reason that I think that it was important was because, for better or for worse, President Trump said that there was going to be a response, that President Assad was going to be held accountable for using chemical weapons. So I think it's important that when we say something, that we actually follow through.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Yeah. I think in a recent op-ed you wrote that any strikes should be expanded beyond chemical weapons-related sites. Why is that important in your view?

EL-GAMAL: It's important in my view because I've never quite understood - and even when I was in the Obama administration - why - we're drawing the line at the use of chemical weapons. I understand that the use of chemical weapons is prohibited internationally. But if we were really focused on easing, you know, mass suffering of Syrian civilians, or if we wanted to stop atrocities, it seemed kind of arbitrary to draw the line at the use of chemical weapons because if you look at the number of civilians that have been killed in Syria since the beginning of the war - over 500,000 people - only a fraction of them have been killed through chemical weapons use. And so why focus on that?

GARCIA-NAVARRO: And not the barrel bombs, and not the other sort of conventional weapons sites that have done so much damage.

EL-GAMAL: I mean, yes. Not just damage. I mean, they are war crimes. They're crimes against humanity. They've been classified as such, as I've laid out in my article. It seems to me quite ludicrous that we would be fine with that and then say, well, if you use chemical weapons, then that's not fine. The reason I'm so against it, Lulu, the reason that I'm so against drawing the line just at chemical weapons use is because we are actually telling Assad that it's OK to kill Syrians in any other way but through chemical weapons.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: By all accounts, Assad has practically won at this point. So will military action actually deter the Assad regime? What could that posture even achieve now?

EL-GAMAL: Probably a lot of your listeners will think that I'm advocating for, you know, conflict or ground operations or deeper U.S. involvement. And that's not the case. I want to make that clear. I never thought that we should get involved in another ground war in the Middle East by any means. But looking forward to the future and drawing on lessons learned from the past, when we were trying to push for a political solution that would result in Assad either eventually stepping down or stopping the murder of Syrian civilians, we never really had any leverage to bring to the negotiating table, right?

So when you do - when you enter into a negotiation, you have to let the other side know that there will be consequences if they don't participate in this political process. Otherwise, why would they? And so when I say that, you know, it was good for President Trump to follow through on his threat of using force, and when I say that we should be stricter when it comes to the war crimes and crimes against humanity, it's because I think that moving forward, we should be moving towards a political process to end the conflict, to allow Syrians to come back to their countries and to allow for the country to be rebuilt. The only way that Assad is going to participate in a political process in good faith is if he has a reason to.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Do you think the Trump administration has achieved that with this action? I mean, do you see them as having a coherent strategy in your view to bring Assad to the table?

EL-GAMAL: No, I don't, and that's the problem. So the strikes were successful in the sense that we follow through on our word. But what now? There doesn't seem to be an answer to some of these larger questions that we were just discussing. Like, where do we go from here? What is our end goal in Syria? What are we doing about the humanitarian situation? Are we going to accept more refugees, or are we going to try to allow people to go back into their homes? Are we going to push for another political - a round of political talks like the ones we had in Geneva or not? These are some of the big questions that I think the administration should be thinking about right now and should be planning for rather than focusing just on the use of chemical weapons and the immediate reaction to that.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Jasmine El-Gamal is a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council, and she joined us from Beirut. Thank you so very much.

EL-GAMAL: Thanks, Lulu. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.