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How The U.S. Is Prepared To Respond To Apparent Chemical Attack In Syria


So that's a brief timeline of how we got to this moment. Let's turn now to where we may go next. I'm joined here in the studio by NPR Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman. Hey, Tom.


KELLY: And from Beirut, NPR's Ruth Sherlock. Hey, Ruth.


KELLY: Tom, I'm going to let you begin. The president, as we just heard, is promising missiles. What can you tell us about where Pentagon plans stand?

BOWMAN: Well, I talked to a senior U.S. official today, and he said the president usually does what he says. So it appears there will be some type of military action. But at the Pentagon, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis had a little more circumspect. He talked about - listen, we don't know exactly what this chemical was. We're still assessing the intelligence. And he said the Pentagon stands ready to provide military options if they're appropriate as the president determined. Now, military options, we're hearing, will likely be missiles fired from Navy ships out in the Mediterranean.

KELLY: Ruth, what about what you're hearing? You're speaking to people in Syria. How are they preparing for this possibility of a military strike?

SHERLOCK: Well, from what we're hearing, the Syrian government is not standing idly by here. They're thought to be moving planes and weapons to more secure locations. They've apparently evacuated a lot of the main airports and military bases. Air defenses are on high alert. And for the civilian population, there's this kind of palpable sense of fear. People in the capital Damascus were saying that they have been up into the early hours of each night waiting for a possible attack. And one person said you can cut the tension with a knife here.

KELLY: Do we know, by the way, where President Assad is at the moment?

SHERLOCK: You know, there were some reports on Arabic media websites that he might have left the country even or at least moved out of the palace. There was really nothing to substantiate that. And at the moment, that's really just speculation. And there's nothing confirmed as to where he is at the moment.

KELLY: I mean, it sounds like both of you, as you speak to people, are hearing preparations. Both sides walking up to the brink here. Tom, how might this strike - if it happens - how might it compare with last year's strike when President Trump ordered tomahawk missiles to hit this airfield in Syria?

BOWMAN: Well, again, you'll see tomahawk missiles fired from the Mediterranean.


BOWMAN: That's pretty clear. But the question will be, what are the targets? Is there a single target, another airfield or will it be multiple targets - hitting maybe command and control centers, intelligence centers? Also, it looks like the French and the British will take part in these strikes. So will they fire missiles as well? Will there be aircraft involved here? And that's more difficult because of the Syrian air defenses, which are quite formidable.

KELLY: Because the planes themselves then become a target...

BOWMAN: Absolutely.

KELLY: ...For retaliation.

BOWMAN: You don't want to lose a pilot. So they may just go with missiles. But the number of targets, exactly what other countries take part - that's still an open question right now.

KELLY: Ruth, you weigh in on this question about the missile strikes last year and how that may inform what happens this year. The effects of the missile strikes last year - their effect - physical effect on the Syrian regime was fairly minimal, is that right? They were able to pave the airstrip right back over.

SHERLOCK: Well, that's right. However, monitors who watch this thing say there was a significant reduction in reports of chemical attacks in Syria. So I should - perhaps it's a good moment to remind people that, you know, chemical attacks, especially chlorine gas attacks, have been frequently reported in the Syrian war. And so people who watch this say, well, in the immediate aftermath in the several months after that strike, those reports dropped off. And then they started building again, and there's been more and more chlorine gas attacks reported against kind of opposition areas across the country.

Looking at the bigger picture here, though - in the past year, President Assad has managed to consolidate his control over a large part of the country. And so he's in a much stronger position now. It would take quite significant military action to shift the course of the Syrian war then.

KELLY: Tom, are we looking at potentially quite significant military action? I mean, what is the thinking that limited airstrikes this year would achieve a radically different outcome from the limited airstrikes we saw last year?

BOWMAN: Oh, there's no sense the Americans want to take out the Assad regime. All they are focused on right now is the defeat of ISIS. And the generals I talk with say, listen, we have no sense of an overall strategy for Syria.

KELLY: That's NPR Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman and NPR Beirut correspondent Ruth Sherlock. Thanks to you both.

SHERLOCK: Thank you very much.

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

Ruth Sherlock is an International Correspondent with National Public Radio. She's based in Beirut and reports on Syria and other countries around the Middle East. She was previously the United States Editor for the Daily Telegraph, covering the 2016 US election. Before moving to the US in the spring of 2015, she was the Telegraph's Middle East correspondent.
Tom Bowman is a NPR National Desk reporter covering the Pentagon.
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