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How The Syria Strikes Affect Relations With Russia


All morning, we've been following the aftermath of last night's missile strike by the U.S. in Syria. Two U.S. Navy destroyers in the eastern Mediterranean launched Tomahawk cruise missiles on a Syrian air base. President Trump said the strike was a response to the Syrian regime's use of chemical weapons earlier this week. The president said the use of those weapons is a threat to U.S. security. NPR's Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman is in the studio with us.

Hi, Tom.


MARTIN: What more can you tell us at this point about what happened in this strike?

BOWMAN: Well, what we're being told by the Pentagon is that 59 Tomahawk missiles were launched from two Navy ships in the eastern Mediterranean, striking an airfield - Syrian airfield. They took out Syrian jets, fuel depots, ammunition depots, hardened structures for the aircraft. Interestingly, Rachel, they - there was, they say, a nerve agent depot at this airfield. They decided not to strike that because they didn't want to have a plume of poisonous gas, you know, drift into a civilian area.

MARTIN: But the message was clear.

BOWMAN: Absolutely.

MARTIN: They wanted to retaliate for this particular strike.

BOWMAN: Absolutely, no question.

MARTIN: So what does this mean for U.S. relations with Russia because Russia has long been a supporter of Bashar al-Assad's regime? Russia is now calling this particular strike by the Americans illegal. And now Russia's announced these plans to strengthen Syria's air defenses. This makes things even more complicated on the ground, no?

BOWMAN: Well, I - you would think so. First of all, there are formidable air defenses there already. So adding to that, I'm not sure what it means. The U.S. wouldn't necessarily be flying planes into that area anyway. That's why they use Tomahawk missiles - so you don't lose a pilot.

And Russia and the U.S. still are looking for some sort of a political settlement here. That's not going to end, nor will the civil war end. Despite these attacks on the Syrian airfield, Assad and the Russians are going to forge ahead and try to end this civil war - try to kill all these insurgents, they say, coming forward.

And they're looking at a political situation that, frankly, is already - you've seen the framework of it. You're going to see a large Alawite area in the West. You're going to see two Kurdish areas, and the rest of the country is going to be Sunni. They're looking at some sort of federation in the future. That's all moving ahead, all of that.

MARTIN: So the diplomacy is still moving forward, a political solution, as you suggest. So was this strike just a one-off?

BOWMAN: It appears to be a one-off. They're saying they can link this airfield and the aircraft to that attack that killed around 80 people now. You know, what's interesting is there's no conclusive proof at this time that it was a nerve agent. They're still investigating that. International investigators are looking into it. The symptoms are consistent with a nerve agent, but they don't know for sure whether it was a nerve agent.

MARTIN: Do we have any sense of how this attack has been received by the Assad regime? What's the message coming out of Syria? I mean, what kind of impact did it really make on their fighting capability?

BOWMAN: Probably not that much of an impact. And again, Russia is helping them. They have been helping them. And you have the Iranian-backed Hezbollah group helping there as well. So again, that's going to continue. That's not going to change because of these strikes on this airfield.

MARTIN: NPR Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman helping us understand the U.S. strike on a Syrian airfield last night.

Thanks so much for your time this morning, Tom.

BOWMAN: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Tom Bowman is a NPR National Desk reporter covering the Pentagon.