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Did Trump's Comments On Syria Pullout Embolden Assad Regime?

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

When it comes to U.S. military power, President Trump has said time and again that he likes to keep people guessing.

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PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: Militarily, I don't like to say where I'm going and what I'm doing.

MARTIN: Last week, though, he was clear about his plans for Syria.

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TRUMP: I want to get out. I want to bring our troops back home. I want to start rebuilding our nation.

MARTIN: Then over the weekend, the Syrian government allegedly unleashed chemical weapons on its own citizens, killing dozens. Republican Senator John McCain suggested it happened because the president had, quote, "emboldened Bashar al-Assad by announcing the U.S. withdrawal." Robert Ford joins us now. He was the last U.S. ambassador to Syria, serving under President Barack Obama.

Thanks so much for being with us.

ROBERT FORD: It's my pleasure.

MARTIN: Let me ask you about that remark from Senator McCain. Do you think that the Assad regime could've carried out this attack because they believe the U.S. is going to get out of Syria?

FORD: No, absolutely not. The Assad government has been using chemical weapons repeatedly over the last six years of fighting in the civil war. This is just the latest instance.

MARTIN: Does that mean they do not care one way or the other what any U.S. president says?

FORD: They understand they can use chemical weapons without fear that the Americans will inflict sufficient damage on them to make the chemical weapons use not useful.

MARTIN: Let me ask you about that because President Trump has called out the Obama administration several times. He's done so in recent days. But the Obama administration is often criticized for establishing a so-called red line when it comes to Bashar al-Assad and his use of chemical weapons. And then when that red line was crossed, the U.S. did not do anything. Was that a mistake?

FORD: Oh, I think in retrospect, yes, it absolutely was a mistake. And it is not a secret that inside the Obama administration, there were some officials who were urging the president to enforce the red line and to establish deterrence against the use of chemical weapons in Syria. But the Obama administration tried a different route. They did not try to establish deterrence, and we are where we are.

MARTIN: So what do you suggest is the right strategy at this moment? With President Trump lambasting the Obama administration for not acting after a chemical weapons attack, do you think that is exactly what the Trump administration should do - strike back militarily?

FORD: I think it is impossible to deter Assad from using these weapons unless he pays a military price. And so the only way to establish deterrence is to make him suffer militarily. But I emphasize here that a one-time strike is not going to be enough because he will stop using chemical weapons for a week or two or a month or two, and then he goes back. He's always testing the edge of the envelope.

MARTIN: So...

FORD: And so I think the president has to be ready for a sustained campaign. And he has to explain that to the American public, and he has to explain it to our allies and other countries in the region over there.

MARTIN: Sustained campaign is code for war - maybe not a ground war in the way that we saw in Iraq and Afghanistan. But describe just what kind of U.S. commitment - troop commitment - you're talking about.

FORD: Oh, I don't think we would send in ground troops to establish deterrence against the use of chemical weapons. But I do think it would require regular use of airstrikes every time Assad uses chemical weapons. And I want to emphasize here, he uses them regularly. In order to establish deterrence, he has to pay a price for using them regularly.

MARTIN: We've been talking with Robert Ford. He was the last U.S. ambassador to Syria. We're talking this morning about the alleged chemical weapons attack in the town of Douma outside of the Syrian capital, Damascus. Ambassador, thank you so much for your time this morning. We really appreciate it.

FORD: My pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.