A Roundtable On Trump, Syria And What Lies Ahead
LOURDES GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:
We begin this hour with a look at President Trump and Syria. On Thursday, the president ordered missile strikes on a Syrian air base. This was the first U.S. attack on the Assad regime under Trump. I'm joined now by three reporters who are going to help us look at what the attack means and what may happen going forward. Greg Jaffe of The Washington Post has covered the Pentagon. Sheera Frenkel of BuzzFeed covers cybersecurity but spent a long time in the Middle East. And Rana Foroohar is a columnist at the Financial Times. Welcome everybody.
RANA FOROOHAR: Thank you.
GREG JAFFE: Thanks.
SHEERA FRENKEL: Hi, thanks.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: So I'm going to start with you, Rana. We've seen new airstrikes already launched out of the air base, which the Trump administration hit. You know, looking ahead, do you think this resets U.S. policy on Syria, or is this more of the same?
FOROOHAR: I don't think that this strike locks the U.S. into any particular policy direction yet. I think that what happens in the next few weeks going forward is going to be very, very interesting. Is this president going to completely change the direction that he's sold the American public in terms of foreign policy? And if so, what is that going to mean for his entire agenda? I would say that if we see the U.S. getting really, really involved in Syria, that's going to put every single domestic agenda from infrastructure to tax reforms to health care on the backburner. And to me, that's very interesting because I think what this president needs in the next two years is growth at home, not conflict abroad.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: I suppose you could say that about any president, but I'm curious, Sheera, what you are hearing about reaction from the region to this Syria strike. How is this being received there?
FRENKEL: Yeah. I actually think this sends really dangerous expectations in the region. The Syrians that I spoke to all sort of, you know, cheered this and said, hurray, it's finally happened. The American president has intervened. And you heard them, you know, cheering Trump, calling him Abu Ivanka and all this.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Father of Ivanka, that means.
FRENKEL: Yes, yes. They think this is the beginning of a long campaign. The three Syrians I spoke to all said, you know, oh, are you hearing when the next strike is going to happen? And they think this is going to be a game changer. So on Saturday morning, when Syrians woke up to the news that another airstrike had been launched by the Syrian air force from that airfield, I think that there was a lot of concern about sort of what would happen next and whether there would be a prolonged campaign by the Americans to hit airfields or if this was just a one-off.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Greg, what's your feeling?
JAFFE: You know, it's interesting is the Trump folks came out in the day of the strike and in the following days, as they framed it - they framed it as not as a policy change. And they've talked about the strike in terms of defending national security interests. And in a weird way, Secretary Tillerson described it as sort of preventing terrorist strikes and against the U.S. You know, if this gas is there and it somehow falls into ISIS hands, that's a vulnerability for us back home, so almost trying to frame it within that America First rubric.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Do you think that there's a plan, though, Greg, by Secretary of Defense Mattis and National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster about how to move on Syria? Is there a wider either military or government policy on Syria?
JAFFE: I don't think so right now. I think they're in the process of figuring it out. And I think that there are camps. My gut is that Mattis and McMaster would both tend towards the broader camp, you know, in terms of a broader U.S. engagement. But I think there's a sort of a powerful America first wing within the White House that really feels like you can smash Raqqa and you can leave and that's going to get rid of your Islamic State problem, and I think that's wrong.
FOROOHAR: Wrong (laughter).
JAFFE: But they feel that pretty deeply.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Yeah, Rana, you say that's wrong. You agree.
FOROOHAR: Yeah, absolutely. If you think about - what are the motivations here for this president? It's a tale of two Trumps, right? I mean, that's what fascinates me about this. A kind interpretation is this is an evilution (ph), let's say, that's happened, you know, surprisingly in the last few weeks. I mean, clearly, you can justify going in and making a strike. But the more cynical interpretation - or realistic, depending on your opinion - is this is a different Russia story. This is what has now got everybody's attention away from all of the other bad stories about Donald Trump that we've all been following. So I wonder, what is the president thinking?
JAFFE: I was going to say, one thing I think this could do is it could open up some maneuver room for them to do a deal with Russia in Syria. You know, now that they've hit them, it looks less like he's sort of in Putin's pocket. Maybe it opens up maneuver room for that deal that they were hoping to get.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Sheera, do you think it raises his stature domestically and abroad, or do you think there are so many questions about his motivations?
FRENKEL: I have a lot of trouble with this view that Trump has become a humanitarian and the photographs of dying Syrian children was enough to move his heart to order the strike. There are easier ways and more straightforward ways to help Syrians. I mean, namely among them, I think that the experts involved in this would say, you know, lifting the ban on refugees from Syria, in fact taking an opposite approach and encouraging refugees from Syria to settle in the United States. So for those trying to paint this as the warm, fuzzy Trump, I just wonder, like, what about that?
FOROOHAR: I mean, you know, I'm sorry to interrupt, but just if we see a totally failed state and chaos in Syria, which is possible depending on Washington involvement, there's going to be a lot more migrants. What then?
GARCIA-NAVARRO: But, Greg, I'm going to point this to you. There has been wide consensus that President Obama's policy on Syria had failed, and there has been some appetite on both sides of the aisle for someone to do something. You know, Rana says this could be deflection over a difficult period that he's had, but isn't there a case to be made that this was the right thing to do?
JAFFE: Yeah. And I think there's also a case to be made, if President Obama were in the White House, I think he would have had no choice but to do something similar at this point. I mean, you have to remember that the Syrians, you know, were supposed to have gotten rid of this chemical weapons under the deal that they agreed to with the Obama administration. They didn't do it. They had agreed as part of the Chemical Weapons Convention not to use them again. They violated that. So there was really almost no choice here.
FOROOHAR: I totally agree with Greg that you can make a case for the reason that the U.S. did the strike on humanitarian grounds and, you know, backing rule of law internationally, absolutely. I just think that once you go there, it gets very, very complicated quickly.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: All right, Greg, I'm curious to know what your questions are going forward.
JAFFE: Yeah. I mean, I think my biggest immediate near-term question is what does Tillerson's upcoming visit to Moscow look like.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Secretary of state.
JAFFE: Yeah, the secretary of state. So he'll go there, and I think we'll get a real sign of how upset the Russians really are about this. I know for theater purposes they had to pretend like they're upset. But I think they're frustrated with Assad, too. They would like to get him to the negotiating table. They may be more frustrated with him than they are with us.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Do you think there's an opportunity for the Russians and the Americans to work together? Or do you think that the domestic problems that Trump has had with his questions about how closely he and his administration may have worked with the Russians makes that impossible?
JAFFE: You know, this strike might make it easier, though - right? - because it looks like this is the first time where he's kind of really broken with them. So maybe it gives him a little bit of maneuver room that he didn't have before to do something with them in Syria. I think it's possible, and I think the Russians are kind of looking for a way out, too.
FOROOHAR: It would be fascinating if this became a way out of the Syrian morass for the Russians and a way out of the bad news Russia story for Trump.
JAFFE: It feels like a slim chance to me, but it feels like there's a sliver of possibility there.
FOROOHAR: Yeah, yeah.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: That was Rana Foroohar, editor and columnist at the Financial Times, Greg Jaffe, a reporter with The Washington Post, and Sheera Frenkel, cybersecurity correspondent for BuzzFeed. Thank you guys so much for that.
FOROOHAR: Thank you.
JAFFE: Yeah, thanks.
FRENKEL: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.