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Trump's Options After Syria Airstrike

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

The U.S. missile strike in Syria last night targeted a government airfield. The action by the U.S. follows an apparent chemical weapons attack in Syria earlier this week that killed at least 80 people, including many children. Before that, the Trump administration had said it was going to focus on getting rid of ISIS in Syria. Now, with this strike, the focus appears to have shifted to the regime of Bashar al-Assad.

Joining us to discuss military options is retired Air Force Lieutenant General David Deptula. He ran the air campaigns in the first Iraq War and later in the U.S. war in Afghanistan. General, thanks for being with us.

DAVID DEPTULA: You bet, Rachel.

MARTIN: Do you think this strike is the opening salvo in an attempt to remove Bashar al-Assad, or is this just more about optics, sending a message of some sort?

DEPTULA: Well, I think it's yet to be determined where the administration is going to go in terms of removing Assad, but it was certainly much more than optics. The strategic context is such that, you know, the action that was taken in Syria was not just designed to have an impact on Assad but sets the tone for how the Trump administration is going to be perceived around the world. It is President Trump's means to reestablish the credibility of the United States as a leader on the world stage, a role that some would say was intentionally relinquished by the Obama administration.

MARTIN: So if we could just get onto the ground and talk about tactics a little bit, H.R. McMaster, president Trump's national security adviser, said there are more chemical agents at other locations outside of this particular airfield. In your opinion, would it be wise to go after those?

DEPTULA: Well, I think what the administration will be doing is waiting and seeing what the actions of Assad will be and certainly, if he does not stand down from the use of chemical weapons, that you'll see continued attacks. There's a variety of different military options that could be elected, one very similar to the one you saw last night but instead of just being targeted against a single airfield, a more significant application of force could be designed to ground the entire Syrian air force.

MARTIN: Well, that's something Senator John McCain in particular has talked a lot about as, in his opinion, the only way to decisively end this war. What would that look like, and how quickly could that be done?

DEPTULA: Well. The answer is it depends. I mean, it could be done very quickly. You probably need a little more than 24 hours, but I'm sure that there are a variety of options that are being assembled. But, you know, one can shut down the Syrian air force pretty quickly. They only have six operational airfields. And the attacks could be designed and executed in a fashion to paralyze the Syrians' ability to launch aircraft in, you know, a matter of a week or so.

MARTIN: The U.S. would need Russian support presumably to do that?

DEPTULA: No. They don't need Russian support. Regarding the Russians, they knew that Obama would not employ force. And they took advantage of that weakness to impose their strategic gains. That's not the case with Trump now. They were, to a degree, uncertain about what he would do but not anymore.

So I think if the Trump administration issues them a demarche that reads something like this - OK, we can do this with you or without you. What's it going to be? You can be with the international community against the perpetration of crimes against humanity or not. And then we tell the Russians to stay away from those potential areas that they might figure would be subject to attack. And they'll stay out of it.

MARTIN: Lastly, in the seconds that remain I want to switch gears a bit and ask about another complicated national security challenge - North Korea. Donald Trump recently told the Financial Times if China's not going to solve North Korea, we will. You've done a lot of thinking about this issue. Is it possible for the U.S. to carry out a successful strike there?

DEPTULA: Yeah, absolutely, the issue of a successful strike against North Korea, although it needs to be tied to specific strategic objectives and desired outcomes. Now, North Korea would be much, much more challenging and difficult than Syria because Seoul lies within the range of hundreds of thousands of North Korean artillery pieces. So it's a much, much more complex situation.

MARTIN: Retired Lieutenant General David Deptula. He's now dean of The Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies. He joined us this morning via Skype. General, thanks so much for your time.

DEPTULA: You bet, Rachel. Have a good day. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.