LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:
In Syria, there has been a suspected chemical weapons attack that has left many dead and wounded. Unconfirmed pictures show distressing images of civilians with foam around their mouths and blue lips, telltale signs of chemical weapons use. President Trump has tweeted his reaction, saying, quote, "President Putin, Russia and Iran are responsible for backing animal Assad - big price to pay," end quote. He's referring to those countries' support of Syria's president, Bashar al-Assad. Trump, though, also mentioned former President Barack Obama for not doing more to stop Assad when they used chemical weapons under his administration. We're joined now by Robert Malley, who was former senior adviser to President Obama for the Middle East and the Gulf region, and served on the National Security Council from 2014 to 2017. He's now president of the International Crisis Group.
Thank you so much for joining us.
ROBERT MALLEY: Thank you for having me.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: In 2012, President Obama said the use of chemical weapons by Assad would be a red line that would prompt an American military response. Then in 2013, the Syrian military used chemical weapons, killing nearly 1,500 civilians. Should Obama have intervened then? He didn't. Is President Trump right?
MALLEY: You know, there's a lot one could go back - I worked in the Obama administration - not at that time, but afterwards. And I think we all have a lot of accounting to do because we failed. I failed. I think there's no doubt about it. And we were unable to prevent it or to stop what President Assad did. You know, when President Obama made that decision in 2013, he made it in part because there was a deal that he had achieved with the Russians to remove, if not all, the vast majority of Assad's chemical arsenal. And that was deemed at the time by the Israelis, and others and many around the world as a real success to limit the harm that Assad can do.
Now, we know that he's continued to act since then. And so as I say, I think all of us have to look in the mirror and wonder what we could have done differently. I think one last point - you know, a year ago, President Trump did strike the Syrian regime after they used suspected - it was suspected of having used chemical weapons. That didn't deter him either. So again, I think there's a lot of questioning to go around.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: What needs to happen in Syria? If this attack is confirmed, should the U.S. intervene? Again, as you mentioned, President Trump launched missile strikes the last time there was a suspected chemical weapons attack, and we seem to have another one. What can be done?
MALLEY: Well, what can be done is, I mean, again, that's the question that U.S. and other policymakers have struggled with for years. I mean, the best way would obviously to, you know, see a different government in place in Syria. That seems a long way off. So are there ways to deter the regime? Are there ways to get Russia to be much more proactive in stopping the regime from doing what it's doing? I mean, that's - you know, it's hard for me to sit here and tell the Trump administration that I know what to do since we were unable to achieve it. But certainly, something needs to happen because if, as you say, these are still unconfirmed reports - there is every reason to question why Assad would do this and why he'd do it now. And yet there's every reason to believe that he did.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: We've seen President Trump change his opinions on what should be done in Syria. He seemed to suggest that perhaps the United States should not get further involved in Syria. And also, it seems at this point that President Assad is really winning this civil war.
MALLEY: Oh, there's no doubt that he is - he has - he's been succeeding. And, in fact, what we're seeing is that there may be three areas of the country where he still wants to exert his writ where - and he's focusing those efforts on those areas. So he has - I mean, I think for all intents and purposes, the notion that the international community is going to topple Assad or the Syrian people is going to topple Assad - that does seem to be a thing of the past. He has succeeded with the help of Russia, with the help of Iran, with the help of Hezbollah. And now I think the priority needs to be to end the suffering of the Syrian people and to stop, again, if what we believe and suspect has happened has happened, to make sure it doesn't happen again.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: And that needs to happen through - what? - negotiations?
MALLEY: We - you know, military intervention has a whole host of downsides. Doing nothing has a whole host of downsides, too. And so is there a way to get through diplomatic and other efforts with Russia and others to get the regime to change its behavior? There's every reason to doubt that. Again, we have five years of experience that shows that he is immune to that kind of pressure. I'm not sure that a U.S. strike, if it were to come - and I would be - not be surprised at all that if a U.S. strike - if a European strike were now to come. I'm not sure that would stop him from behaving the way he did.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Robert Malley served on Obama's National Security Council from 2014 to 2017. Thank you so much.
MALLEY: Thank you (unintelligible). Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.