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Syrian Civil War: Parsing Mixed Signals From Trump Administration


As we mentioned earlier, President Trump spent some time this morning tweeting about the situation in Syria. He suggested there would be a big price to pay for those responsible. We're joined now by NPR White House correspondent Tamara Keith. Tamara, thank you so much for joining us.

TAMARA KEITH, BYLINE: Glad to be with you.

MARTIN: Do we have any sense of what the president means when he warns of a big price?

KEITH: No, not really. But it is truly notable to see the president calling out not just Assad and his regime but also Russian President Vladimir Putin directly on Twitter. You know, President Trump has regularly said that he hopes to find a way to work with Putin on Syria. But typically, the Russian interests have not been aligned with U.S. interests because Russia is allied with Assad, and the U.S. has said Assad needs to go.

We know the president has been briefed on the attack. And we know that the State Department is using strong words, saying that Russia ultimately bears responsibility for these brutal attacks because of its support for the regime. Also, just announced, the U.S. ambassador to the U.N. says that there will be an emergency meeting of the U.N. Security Council tomorrow to consider next steps. So we could learn more from that.

MARTIN: But a question I asked the senator just a moment ago, the president talked as recently as last week about withdrawing U.S. forces from Syria. Do you have any sense of how those plans might change as a result of these attacks?

KEITH: That is another thing that's not really clear. But, you know, when the president was talking about that, he was very focused on ISIS and routing out ISIS and wasn't talking more broadly about the Assad regime or the ongoing civil war there. And so this is different. The president, in his tweets today, blaming President Obama for failing to oust Assad. That, you know, giving Assad a nickname on Twitter - animal Assad - Trump, in some way, appears to be acknowledging that the landscape is far more complicated than simply getting ISIS out of there.

Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John McCain put out a statement today, and it was pretty scathing. He said that by signaling that the U.S. might withdraw from Syria, that President Trump was, you know, emboldening Assad and Russia. And he said that he hopes that the president acts decisively as he did a year ago, he said, and, you know, possibly does airstrikes again.

MARTIN: We have about 30 seconds left, Tam. So just a final question to you. Tomorrow is national security adviser John Bolton's first official day on the job. He is well-known for his hawkish approach to foreign policy. Do you have any clues from his past statements about how he might advise the president?

KEITH: Well, he cheered on the president a year ago when President Trump called for those airstrikes in response to the alleged chemical weapons attack a year ago. You know, he certainly feels as though that is the right direction and has talked about it as recently as about a month ago. But he also says that the traditional role of the national security adviser is one he hopes to take, which is to present the president with a variety of perspectives.

MARTIN: That's NPR White House correspondent Tamara Keith. Thank you, Tam.

KEITH: You're welcome.

MARTIN: You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Tamara Keith has been a White House correspondent for NPR since 2014 and co-hosts the NPR Politics Podcast, the top political news podcast in America. Keith has chronicled the Trump administration from day one, putting this unorthodox presidency in context for NPR listeners, from early morning tweets to executive orders and investigations. She covered the final two years of the Obama presidency, and during the 2016 presidential campaign she was assigned to cover Hillary Clinton. In 2018, Keith was elected to serve on the board of the White House Correspondents' Association.
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