White House Clarifies Policy On Syria

Apr 16, 2018
Originally published on April 17, 2018 2:40 pm
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AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Over the weekend the U.S. led a series of strikes in Syria. It was a move that came days after Western powers accused the Syrian government of attacking a rebel holdout with chemical weapons. But it also came not long after President Trump expressed a desire to scale back involvement in the region. So what exactly is the administration's end goal in Syria?

For an answer to that we called Victoria Coates at the White House. She's a special assistant to President Trump.

VICTORIA COATES: Well, basically our end game is a Syria that does not threaten its neighbors. We have very close allies in the region and partner nations, and we very much do not want to see Syria become a hotbed of terrorism. Of course everyone would want to see an end to the Syrian civil war. We would like to see a diplomatic process implemented that would allow the people of Syria more of a voice in picking their government. But our very clear national security interest here is in containing violence and terrorism and not letting our assets in the region be threatened.

CHANG: What you've just articulated sounds like multiple goals. I mean, it's not just to deter further use of chemical weapons. You're talking about containing terrorism, containing ISIS and possibly even regime change.

COATES: No, I think very much we have our de-ISIS policy, which we - the president's been crystal clear on since he came into office, that the eradication of ISIS was a top national security goal for him. You asked about a broader Syria strategy. I think both the de-ISIS and the action in retaliation for the use of chemical weapons both fall under that category that when you have chemical weapons moving around a country, you risk having those weapons fall into bad actors' hands. Obviously when they're used with impunity, others are encouraged to get this kind of arsenal and use it. And that's something the president decided was intolerable to the national security interests of the United States.

CHANG: So is the indefinite plan to just keep striking whenever there's evidence of chemical weapons used by the Syrian regime?

COATES: That has not been our pattern over the last year. Our plan is to point out to Mr. Assad that this behavior is intolerable not only to the United States but to a number of other very powerful NATO allies, permanent members of the United Nations Security Council. And, I mean, our strategy is to make this behavior more costly than it's worth.

CHANG: On ISIS, if defeating ISIS or containing ISIS in Syria is a priority, doesn't removing 2,000 American troops undermine that goal? That's what the president announced that he wants to see happen.

COATES: Well, the president's enthusiasm level for an open-ended engagement in Syria I think is well understood by everyone. And I think he has made very clear, as he said in his remarks on Friday night to the nation, the future of the Middle East is in the hands of the people of the region.

CHANG: So President Trump says he'd like to see the 2,000 U.S. troops in Syria leave. But General Joe Votel, who commands the region, said that he would like to see some U.S. military presence remain in the region to help stabilize even if ISIS is contained. Let's take a listen to his comments.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

GEN JOE VOTEL: The hard part I think is in front of us. And that is stabilizing these areas, consolidating our gains, getting people back into their homes, addressing the long-term issues of reconstruction and other things that will have to be done. And this of course is - there is a military role in this.

CHANG: Does President Trump agree with that, that there is a stabilization role for the military?

COATES: Well, I have great respect for General Votel and all the great work that comes out of his command. What the president has made very, very clear is he understands the role of the military in defeating ISIS. And as that policy goal is realized, he wants regional partners and allies to do more. And...

CHANG: And what if they don't? What if we don't see regional partners fill the void?

COATES: I don't - I think we should at least make an effort at doing this before we pre-emptively declare failure. And this is what the administration will now pursue as a policy goal as directed by the president. And if for some unfortunate reason we fail, of course we will reassess.

CHANG: If the U.S. is not trying to change the balance of power on the ground in this civil war, is the U.S. sending a message that Assad should remain in power?

COATES: We - I mean, that is not our role in terms of either our de-ISIS campaign or our chemical weapons action. Obviously the president's been pretty clear on his opinion of Mr. Assad. You don't call somebody an animal if you are friendly toward them or think that they are in any way beneficial to their nation. But at the same time, as Prime Minister May said in her comments I believe on Saturday, this was not about regime change. That is not our mission here. And so this was about chemical weapons use.

CHANG: Victoria Coates is special assistant to President Trump and senior director for international negotiations for the National Security Council. Victoria Coates, thank you very much for joining us.

COATES: Ailsa, it's a pleasure. Thank you very much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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