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Trump Administration Officials Say President Has Not Made A Decision On Syria

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

It's been nearly a week since the suspected chemical weapons attack in Douma, Syria. And it's been four days since President Trump said a decision would be made on a U.S. response within 24 to 48 hours. Administration officials say he has not yet made a decision. NPR White House correspondent Tamara Keith reports.

TAMARA KEITH, BYLINE: President Trump has repeatedly criticized his predecessor, President Obama, for setting a red line in Syria...

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BARACK OBAMA: A red line for us is we start seeing a whole bunch of chemical weapons moving around or being utilized.

KEITH: ...And then ultimately not responding with military force when that red line was crossed.

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OBAMA: I will seek authorization for the use of force from the American people's representatives in Congress.

KEITH: That congressional authorization never came. And ultimately Russia offered a diplomatic off-ramp to ensure that chemical weapons weren't used again in Syria. Last year, after the Assad regime did use chemical weapons again, Trump was asked about Obama's red line.

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PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: I think that set us back a long ways not only in Syria but in many other parts of the world because it was a blank threat.

KEITH: Trump said he felt a responsibility to act.

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TRUMP: It crossed a lot of lines for me - when you kill innocent children, innocent babies - babies - little babies.

KEITH: And he did respond. Just two days after the attack, the U.S. launched 59 Tomahawk missiles at an airbase in Syria. But almost exactly a year later, President Trump again found himself responding to an alleged Syrian chemical weapons attack.

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TRUMP: We'll be making that decision very quickly - probably by the end of today. But we cannot allow atrocities like that - cannot allow it.

KEITH: That was Monday. Wednesday morning, Trump tweeted that missiles would be coming - quote, "nice, new and smart." But at this point, there is still no decision on what action to take. Why was it so quick and easy for President Trump to make a decision a year ago and now not so much? Former U.S. ambassador to Syria Robert Ford says one reason is because last year's one-off, isolated strike only stopped Assad from using chemical weapons for a few months. This time around, it will likely require a more sustained response.

ROBERT FORD: A one-time strike won't be enough. They'll have to think about kind of a broader set of targets and maybe not just one day but maybe several days to drive the point home to Assad. And then if he tests us again in three or four months, again the Americans will have to respond.

KEITH: And Ford says such a response would take longer to put together.

FORD: They're doing a pretty careful assessment of targets. And the second thing they're doing is working diplomatically to extract maximum gain and minimize risk.

KEITH: More broadly, the situation is just more complicated a year on, says Richard Fontaine, president of the Center for a New American Security. U.S. allies including the U.K. and France want to be part of the response. Russia and Iran are even more involved in Syria than they were last year. And the Syrian civil war is a year further along, with Assad holding more territory. And Fontaine adds there is still no apparent U.S. strategy for dealing with Syria outside of a focus on knocking out ISIS.

RICHARD FONTAINE: How the United States envisions the future of Syria and what American interests are in that country and how we intend to pursue them still remain pretty unclear beyond the ISIS question.

KEITH: And those sorts of questions take a lot longer than 24 or 48 hours to answer. Tamara Keith, NPR News, the White House. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.