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Piece From 'The Atlantic' Tries To Explain Logic Of Assad's Brutality In Syria

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

All right. Let's turn to a question at the heart of this reported chemical weapons attack in Syria - why? Why would Bashar al-Assad use chemical weapons on his people? And why now? Thanassis Cambanis takes this on in The Atlantic in an essay headlined "The Logic Of Assad's Brutality." Cambanis is a senior fellow at the progressive think tank The Century Foundation, also a columnist at The Boston Globe. And he joins us now from Beirut. Welcome to the program.

THANASSIS CAMBANIS: Good to talk to you about these grisly events.

KELLY: Now, you write that while Assad may have - and I'm quoting - "great contempt for the sanctity of human life," you argue he is not reckless. He thinks his actions through strategically. So what is his strategy here?

CAMBANIS: Well, unfortunately, the use of chemical weapons has been a winning tactic for Bashar al-Assad to accomplish at least two major goals. One is terrorizing and terrifying the opposition into giving up even after holding out for years and years as they did last weekend in Eastern Ghouta. The second is tying up the international community in knots. He used chemical weapons quite effectively to paralyze the Obama administration's response to Syria. And it seems like now he's trying to do the same thing to Donald Trump.

KELLY: President Trump has responded in the past and specifically to Assad's use of chemical weapons just about exactly a year ago. When chemical weapons were used, President Trump ordered airstrikes, and missiles rained down on an airfield in Syria. You would argue that did not constitute a meaningful international response.

CAMBANIS: A year ago when Bashar al-Assad used sarin gas - a much more potent toxin than he apparently used last weekend when the attack was chlorine gas - the response was entirely symbolic. It showed the world that America was to be seen doing something. And at the same time, it did not exact any practical cost or any serious limitation in the Syrian regime's ability to mount airstrikes.

KELLY: You're arguing it was a show of force by the United States, but it did not actually cause deep pain to the Syrian regime.

CAMBANIS: Within days, the same airfield was operational, the same airfield from which the sarin gas had been launched, and attacks could be launched again. So the signal was clear, which was the U.S. did something and that something didn't in any way tie Bashar al-Assad's hands.

KELLY: I mean, if I hear you right, it sounds like you're arguing that whatever response the U.S. and U.S. allies decide to fashion this week, on a certain level Assad has already achieved a goal of tying the international community into knots and achieving a goal that he had set out for himself on the ground of regaining this particular area outside the capital.

CAMBANIS: Yes. And I would love to see the United States take a position of engaged resistance to this kind of criminal activity and use of chemical weapons. I'm not holding my breath for it. I don't think it's likely, but that would be the intelligent, strategic response. And it would be one that at least gives us the potential of reversing the decline of the international liberal order that Assad, Putin and Khomeini have successfully brought to pass with the prosecution of the war in Syria.

KELLY: If you're right, then that draws us to what, to me, was the most damning section of your essay in The Atlantic where you wrote that no matter what happens in the days to come, Assad has already succeeded in one way - unraveling the global taboo against chemical weapons.

CAMBANIS: It's a very sad time we've reached in the global order. There's a relativist disregard for the truth of things that happen, things like the murder of children, using nerve agents that the world agreed were such an atrocity after World War I that even the worst combatants would forswear their use. That is a dangerous and sad kind of world to live in where when these weapons are used against us, we're going to have a lot of trouble invoking moral outrage or international norms to criticize those who would deploy them.

KELLY: Author and journalist Thanassis Cambanis. His piece for The Atlantic magazine is "The Logic Of Assad's Brutality." Thanassis, thanks for talking with us.

CAMBANIS: Thanks for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.