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Does Syria's Alleged Use Of Chemical weapons 'Cross The Line?'


This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon. This week the calls for U.S. intervention in the Syrian civil war got a bit louder. U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel told reporters that U.S. intelligence sources now believe with, quote, varying degrees of confidence that the Assad regime has used chemical weapons in Syria.

Now last summer, President Obama said the use of such weapons would cross a red line for U. S. policy. The administration says it is still investigating evidence that the Syrian government used chemical weapons on civilians. Vali Nasr is dean of the School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University.

VALI NASR: I think there's sufficient body of evidence for us to conclude that chemical weapons have been used at some degree in Syria, and the question is now to understand who has used it, in what context have they been used, and what sort of chemical agents have been used.

SIMON: To be blunt about it, there's so many weapons that the Assad regime has and could use to crush a rebellion of its own citizens. Do you have any inkling as to why they may have resorted to chemical weapons now?

NASR: Potentially, the numbers and the size of territory and population support are all on the side of the opposition and chemical weapons could have a quality of leveling the playing field. But I also think that he's testing to see whether he can get away with using this and then be able to threaten even outsiders from intervening in Syria even further.

United States, Turkey, Europeans, whoever it is that wants to get involved in Syria better watch out because this is a regime that is prepared to use weapons of mass destruction against outsiders.

SIMON: What do you see as the two or three things that you believe an administration can and should do?

NASR: I think first of all we should get involved in, very assertively, in leading the international community to address the humanitarian crisis. This in and of itself is becoming a security issue. The economies of Jordan and Lebanon cannot support a million refugees each among them. And the international community's providing virtually no support. The U.S. can take a lead in that.

We should, at the highest level, engage the Russians and the Chinese and find a way to bring cease-fire to Syria. We should engage the Arab countries in a way to bring order to the opposition in a manner that the Arab countries have not been able to been able to produce. We should work towards a no-fly zone, largely because it's important to keep the refugees within their own country.

We should create a place where refugees who are running away from fighting could stay within Syria. And ultimately, we have to be arming the rebels. If we don't arm the rebels, Arab governments are going to arm the rebels in an ad hoc and chaotic manner and they're going to arm the wrong people. Or that al-Qaida is going to arm the rebellion in Syria. And if al-Qaida does it, it will also get more power and more influence among the fighters in Syria, and that's not what we want to see.

SIMON: It's hard not to note that Britain and France have been at least a couple of weeks or so in advance of the United States in identifying the use of chemical weapons, yet they don't seem to be eager to sign on to undertake a no-fly zone or any kind of emphatic action. What do you read into that?

NASR: Well, but they're not the superpowers. They're not the ones that have led the world in varieties of crises. It wasn't the Europeans who led on the Bosnia crisis in the Balkans. They didn't want to do anything about it. It was the United States who came in and said, this is dangerous to you, it's dangerous to NATO; we're going to take a lead and this is the reason why you should support us.

And therefore we might be in a similar kind of situation. It's up to us to articulate why what is happening in Syria is dangerous to the world and then articulate a path for bringing this conflict to an end and get the Europeans and others to support it. The issue of chemical weapons is a touchy issue because this is the red line the president drew.

And many people understood this red line to be a very high bar to prevent the United States from getting involved in the war. So we set the measure of our getting involved only if they use a weapon of mass destruction, meaning that short of that, we're willing to accept everything that happens in Syria.

And now, the Assad regime is even either reaching that high bar or has actually already breached it and still there is an open question as to whether we will enforce our red line. And that is no longer about Syria. That's really about the whole region. It's about North Korea, it's about every country that is looking at the credibility of our policies and may come to the conclusion that America's red lines mean nothing and therefore they have a wide berth in order to follow aggressive policies.

So we actually have set ourselves now up for failure if we don't act in Syria. So I think the Syria question's now come to a head; is now a global issue for us. It goes to our credibility as a global power.

SIMON: Vali Nasr, he has a new book out too. It's called "The Dispensable Nation: American Foreign Policy in Retreat." Thanks very much for being with us.

NASR: Good to be with you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.