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The U.S. Goals In Syria


As more details emerge today about the U.S.-led strikes on Syria overnight, U.S. officials are calling it a limited operation aimed just at setting back the country's chemical weapons programs and preventing Syria from using those chemical weapons again. We're going to step back now and try to look at how these strikes fit into the controversial U.S. policy over the seven years of the Syrian civil war, a war that has sent millions of refugees fleeing across the world and killed half a million people. It's a war that President Bashar al-Assad seems to be winning, despite the condemnation of his brutality. NPR's Deborah Amos has covered the war all along and joins us now.

Deborah, thanks for being with us.

DEBORAH AMOS, BYLINE: Good morning, Scott.

SIMON: The Pentagon says these strikes were not an attempt to change the course of the civil war. Is that consistent with U.S. policy we've seen over the years?

AMOS: It is indeed consistent, and you've seen it in two administrations. Assad will stay for now, and the other alternative is too chaotic, and that now has lasted for a while. Obama's strategy was to arm the rebels, not so they could win, but so they could pressure Assad to a negotiating table. That was almost impossible to calculate. President Trump has abandoned most of that support for the rebels, but the administration is still pushing for this negotiated settlement, and that is what Defense Secretary Mattis said in a congressional hearing just hours before the strike. He was very passionate about stopping the attacks on civilians. We have to get to a negotiations. It's hard, though, to see how this strike moves Assad to a negotiating table.

SIMON: U.S., France and Britain of course conducted those strikes, and they have been staunchly critical of Bashar al-Assad, calling him, in so many words - and occasionally, they even used this word - a monster or a beast. But are they still essentially reconciled to Assad staying in office?

AMOS: They say the same thing that the U.S. does, that they are waiting for a political transition through a peace process. So far, there has been no alternative to Assad. The Russians say they don't back him, but they have no alternative. The Iranians do, and it would be very difficult to convince them to abandon Assad at this point. So the best policy for everybody, although it seems unlikely, is to move towards a negotiated settlement.

SIMON: So if the U.S. sees a political transition and some kind of settlement as a long-term goal, what are they doing about the suffering that seems to be prolonged in this war, including the 5.4 million refugees who have fled Syria?

AMOS: This is a contradiction, certainly in the eyes of humanitarian workers. Under the Trump administration, it is nearly impossible for a Syrian to find refuge in this country. This year, 2018, the Trump administration has resettled 11 Syrian refugees in the United States and only 44 in this fiscal year. Now, in the last year of the Obama administration, we're talking upwards of 13,000 Syrians, so the door has been closed on Syrian refugees in this country. We also saw the same thing when the administration had to renew temporary protective status for Syrians. Those who came after 2016 didn't get it. So you have this odd contradiction where some Syrians, it was too dangerous for them to go home, and others, it was not.

SIMON: If U.S. policy is focused on prohibiting the use of chemical weapons, what does this strike accomplish? I mean, there was an agreement between Assad that the Russians would help bring about circumstances and he was going to destroy his stores of chemical weapons, and that certainly didn't seem to work.

AMOS: Nor did the strikes a year ago, although what happened is Assad quits for about six months. We didn't see any strikes. But it is part of their tactical array against the rebels, and it may be now that they don't need another strike. This one happened in Ghouta, and afterwards, the rebels agreed to leave. So it's possible that he doesn't need to use it.

SIMON: That's NPR's Deborah Amos, who has been covering the Syrian civil war assiduously for the past seven years. Deborah, thanks very much for being with us.

AMOS: Thank you, Scott. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Deborah Amos covers the Middle East for NPR News. Her reports can be heard on NPR's award-winning Morning Edition, All Things Considered, and Weekend Edition.
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