NPR Story
4:06 pm
Tue August 27, 2013

Arab League Accuses Syria Of Chemical Attack, As U.S. Positions War Ships, Planes

Originally published on Tue August 27, 2013 3:02 pm

The Arab League has blamed the Syrian government for last week’s alleged chemical weapons attack near Damascus that killed hundreds, calling for the perpetrators to be brought to justice.

In an emergency meeting held Tuesday, the Arab League also called on members of the U.N. Security Council to overcome their differences and agree on “deterrent” measures against those who committed “this heinous crime.” The League said it will convene a meeting at the ministerial level next week to follow up on the situation in Syria.

The Syrian government has denied it was behind the attack.

U.S. forces are now ready to act on any order by President Barack Obama to strike Syria, U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said Tuesday.

The U.S. Navy has four destroyers in the eastern Mediterranean Sea positioned within range of targets inside Syria, as well as U.S. warplanes in the region, Hagel said in an interview with BBC television during his visit to the southeast Asian nation of Brunei.

Hagel also predicted that U.S. intelligence agencies would soon conclude that last week’s deadly attack on civilians in a Damascus suburb was a chemical attack by Bashar Assad’s government.

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Transcript

JEREMY HOBSON, HOST:

From NPR and WBUR Boston, I'm Jeremy Hobson.

ROBIN YOUNG, HOST:

I'm Robin Young. It's HERE AND NOW. Coming up, what emergency room doctors are learning from violent attacks on the home front in Aurora, in Boston.

HOBSON: But first to Syria. Washington is ramping up its rhetoric ahead of what seems to be an inevitable U.S. military response to the deadly chemical attack in Syria last week. On the BBC, Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel said it's becoming clearer and clearer the Syrian regime was responsible for the attack, and the U.S. is ready to response.

SECRETARY CHUCK HAGEL: Let's get the facts, let's get the intelligence, and then a decision will be made on whether action should be taken, if action should be taken, what action, or no action.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: But if the order comes, you're ready to go...

(SOUNDBITE OF FINGERS CLICKING)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: ...like that?

HAGEL: We are ready to go like that.

HOBSON: Meanwhile in an interview today on HERE AND NOW, Tennessee Senator Bob Corker, who is the ranking Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, had this to say about a potential U.S. strike on Syria.

SENATOR BOB CORKER: I do think it's imminent. I think it's going to be happening in a very short period of time.

HOBSON: Well, for more on this we're joined by Shadi Hamid of the Brookings Institution in Doha, Qatar. And Shadi, does it appear to you that a strike is imminent?

SHADI HAMID: I mean, all indications point to an imminent U.S. strike, as Senator Corker suggested. It's just a matter of how sustained the strikes are. Is there a broader strategy? And, you know, what are the goals here? What is the U.S. actually trying to accomplish. So I think those are the things to watch out for.

But I think the actual decision to go in, you know, has been made at this point.

HOBSON: Now the Syrian government is accusing the U.S. of jumping into action before the U.N. inspection teams on the ground have all their evidence about last week's attack. How would an attack by the U.S., a strike, be received in the region? How would the other countries react?

HAMID: Sure, well, Turkish and Gulf officials have been wanting the U.S. to get more involved for the last year and a half. They've actually been in some sense quite frustrated with the Obama administration for not taking a leadership role on this. So they're going to welcome this.

As for the broader Arab public, I think we have to be realistic here. Anything the U.S. does in the Middle East is going to be unpopular regardless of the intentions or the goal. That's how it's going to be perceived, at least at first. I think what people will be watching out for, though, is if it's a kind of, a kind of cynical strike just to kind of punish the Assad regime or is there actually an interest in helping the Syrian people gain their freedom and defeat the Assad regime.

So I think that's where the long-term goals become very important for deciphering why is the U.S. getting involved in the first place.

HOBSON: Well what about Lebanon, in particular? I saw in the Daily Star today, quotes a pro-Hezbollah sheik who says that the U.S. strikes could spark a war that would begin from Syria, but no one know where it could end. What's the risk there in neighboring Lebanon?

HAMID: Well, Lebanon has already been destabilized to some extent because of the fallout from Syria in terms of refugees, in terms of inflaming sectarian tension. There is a risk that it could be further inflamed. That will depend on how Hezbollah and Iran respond to any strike against the Syrian regime. So we'll have to wait and see on that front.

But, yes, certainly in countries that have a sectarian divide, you're going to see very impassioned responses to that, and that would include Lebanon and Iraq, as well.

HOBSON: Now Shadi Hamid, the Arab League is today blaming the Syrian government for the attack. Does that help to legitimize any U.S. action there if it happens?

HAMID: That definitely does help. But again, this is a - this would be a military strike that does have broad support, at least from Arab government. Even those who aren't fully onboard aren't vocally opposing it. So that's the governments. But again in a lot of these countries you have a gap between the government position and what ordinary Arabs think on a given issue.

But I don't think that U.S. policymakers should expect that they're going to get the Arab public onboard. We're talking about a time where anti-American sentiment is at an all-time high in many countries.

HOBSON: So you're saying even if perhaps the Turkish government is in favor of the U.S. getting involved that the Turkish people, for example, might not be.

HAMID: Yes, yes, and again, it just depends how - what the - how the intentions are perceived, how long it goes on for and whether people see it as a kind of response to chemical weapons use or something that is trying to support the Syrian people and help them against the Assad regime.

So I think it's going to be interesting to see how people, you know, perceive what the U.S. does here.

HOBSON: Shadi Hamid is with the Brookings Institution, and he joined us from Doha, Qatar. Shadi, thank you so much.

HAMID: Thanks for having. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.