Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Pentagon Latest On Syria Airstrikes


Today, we're following a reaction to the airstrikes on Syria last night. We're going to go to a live briefing at the Pentagon which - I'm looking around now to see if it's started. It's about to start. We are joined by NPR's Scott Horsley, White House correspondent. Scott, thanks very much for being with us.

SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: Good to be with you, Scott.

SIMON: To point out the obvious, the President Trump who announced airstrikes last night is very different from the Donald Trump who ran for office, who said - who even taunted President Obama when he was contemplating some kind of military action in Syria and the president who said we're going to get our assets out of Syria as soon as possible. What changed his thinking?

HORSLEY: Yeah. Just 10 days ago, he was saying he wanted to bring the U.S. troops home. Obviously, what changed was this latest chemical weapons attack, presumably by Syria. Donald Trump has shown that for all of his isolationist tendencies and his America First policies, he is still someone who likes counterpunching and can be moved by grisly images on a TV screen.

SIMON: How important was it to the president and the administration and Defense Secretary Mattis that Britain and France be partners in the enterprise.

HORSLEY: It was certainly important to the secretary. And just this morning, the president is thanking France and the U.K. for joining in this effort. He's tweeting about the operation last night and calling it a perfectly executed strike and sending his thanks to France and the U.K. That's an important difference between the action last night and the similar but smaller action taken almost exactly a year ago under President Trump the first time he reacted to a chemical weapons strike in Syria.

SIMON: And can you tell from White House sources, Scott, is this what we might call a one-off? - because the president held open the possibility that there might be other strikes if the result wasn't achieved.

HORSLEY: Yeah. And it's an interesting sort of disconnect there between what the president said and the message we got from the Pentagon last night in their briefing - the Pentagon stressing that the operation was complete while the president said the U.S. is prepared to sustain this response militarily, economically and diplomatically if the attacks continue. I guess the wild card there is what Bashar al-Assad does and whether these attacks continue. This morning in his tweets - the president seems to be indicating more that this is a one-off if the chemical weapons halt now. He uses the phrase mission accomplished.

SIMON: Let's go to NPR's Ruth Sherlock who joins us from Beirut. Ruth, can you hear us?


SIMON: And let me ask you about something that I think we all might notice this morning. It was my understanding that Syrian state media and, for that matter, Russia had announced that almost all of the missiles had been successfully intercepted. And yet today, Syrian state TV is showing images of places that were bombed.

SHERLOCK: Certainly, last night, they did say some of the missiles had been intercepted. And then they claim that missiles in other parts of the country had been completely intercepted. The truth of that, you know, remains to be seen. It's clearly - it's clear that some of these missiles did strike their targets. And, you know, we spoke to one military analyst who's from a pro-opposition research center but still said, from what he sees, he believes about 60 percent of the targeted infrastructure has been destroyed.

SIMON: Now, you have spoken with people who were in the political opposition and active in the field opposition in Syria who think these airstrikes are not going far enough for their assistance.

SHERLOCK: That's absolutely right. You know, they - for about seven years, the Syrian opposition has been calling for foreign intervention against the regime of Bashar al-Assad. And in the early days of the war, there was a great kind of hope that the world would come running and would oust this regime, and then that didn't happen. And, of course - and slowly, they lost hope in that. And there's great bitterness. And they had almost given up. And, in fact, the Syrian opposition itself has been largely defeated in the wider civil war. But now, you're in a position - so now this was a sort of surprise, if you like, for a lot of people. But they are - you know, it's clear that for the moment this hasn't affected the facts on the ground for the civil war.

SIMON: Let's go back to our White House correspondent Scott Horsley. The president repeated in his remarks last night that this intervention - and I believe Prime Minister May said the same thing overnight - that the attacks were in no way meant to change the circumstances or - in the civil war that Bashar al-Assad seems to be on the verge of winning.

HORSLEY: That's right. Both the president and his military advisers have made it clear that - to the extent that the U.S. has an ongoing military mission in Syria, it is to mop up the remnants of ISIS. And the raids carried out last night were very specifically targeted at the Syrian regime's chemical weapons infrastructure. They are not an effort to tip the balance in Syria's civil war. And, in fact, the defense secretary in testimony on Capitol Hill this week was very cautious about not allowing U.S. forces to be somehow drawn inadvertently into that civil war. That was one of the big concerns here because of all the different players and the very complicated battlefield that exist in Syria, that in this strike on the chemical weapons facilities that the U.S. not somehow provoke a reaction by Russian allies of the regime or another one of the factions there and somehow get drawn into a conflict it wants no part of.

SIMON: We're going to go to a briefing at the Pentagon right now.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Any electronic devices - please turn them to mute. We have a website that we've got products uploaded to. If you have not received that, let me know. And we'll make sure you get it. But we did send that out to our media contact list. Are there any questions? OK. Well, we'll get started shortly. Yeah, I know, right? - a lot of (unintelligible) shortly.

SIMON: Well...


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: All right. We'll get started shortly.

SIMON: ...Briefing, of course, obviously, not under way. We are awaiting a live briefing from the Pentagon about U.S., British and French military action on targets last night in Syria. Of course, those strikes were launched in response to the suspected chemical attack. Last weekend, Defense Secretary Mattis calls last night's attacks precise and confined to chemical weapons-type targets. We have NPR's White House correspondent Scott Horsley with us and Ruth Sherlock in Beirut. Ruth, let me go back to you. The International Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons was going to begin to investigate the actual site in Douma, where chemical weapons attacks were - reportedly occurred. What's the status of that investigation? And do these strikes affect that mission?

SHERLOCK: Well, they issued a statement this morning saying that they were going to go ahead with the mission to find out exactly what happened with this chemical weapons attack - or reported chemical weapons attack. I should say that, for the moment, in terms of what's been independently confirmed, there's very, very little. There are still many questions around how many people even died in the attack and, you know, what chemical agent was used. Was it a nerve agent? Or was it chlorine, which has been weaponized frequently throughout the Syrian war but isn't - hasn't been banned because it's used in lots of kind of - for domestic uses as well. So they're going to be going into Douma to try to establish that.

It's a bit - much complicated by the fact that this area immediately after the chemical attack ultimately surrendered to the Syrian government. So Syrian rebels, their families, doctors from this area who'd been allegedly treating these - the victims of this attack got out of there. You know, they boarded buses, and they were taken to a rebel-held part of northern Syria. And so that area has changed hands. The Syrian government and Russia has gone in. They've already started - they've already claimed that there's been no findings of any kind of chemical weapons attack in that area. Of course, there's great political interests on both sides of this story. And the people that were reporting the chemical attacks to begin with had, you know, pro-opposition leanings. And now the people who control it are for the government.

SIMON: The Pentagon briefing has begun.


DANA WHITE: I want to start by making one point clear - the use of chemical weapons anywhere in the world is an inexcusable violation of international law. And the United States will not tolerate it. The Assad regime's attack...

SIMON: This is Pentagon spokesperson Dana White.


WHITE: ...Innocent Syrians in Douma, Syria, on April 7 is horrifying and tragic. And it demanded an immediate response. Yesterday, United States forces, at the direction of President Trump, launched precision strikes against Assad regime targets associated with the use of chemical weapons in Syria. We launched these strikes to cripple Syria's ability to use chemical weapons in the future. We were joined by the United Kingdom and France, who demonstrated solidarity in addressing these atrocities. Americans are united in condemning Syria's inexcusable use of chemical weapons, which no civilized nation would tolerate. We are encouraged by the support we received from the senators and congressmen on both sides of the aisle. We are also extremely proud of the United States servicemembers who carried out this operation last night. They demonstrated unwavering courage and commitment in their defense of the American people and the values and ideals our nation represents.

This operation was carefully orchestrated and methodically planned to minimize potential, collateral damage. I can assure you we took every measure and precaution to strike only what we targeted and what we success - and we successfully hit every target. This operation does not represent a change in U.S. policy nor an attempt to depose the Syrian regime. These strikes were a justified, legitimate and proportionate response to the Syrian regime's continued use of chemical weapons on its own people. We do not seek conflict in Syria, but we cannot allow such grievous violations of international law.

Our goal in Syria remains defeating ISIS by, with and through the 70-nation coalition. But we will not stand by passively while Assad, backed by Russia and Iran, ignores international law. The Assad regime's actions in April 2017 and again on April 7, 2018, show they have abandoned their commitments to the international community and resorted to illegal tactics against the innocent Syrian people. We call upon Russia to honor its commitment to ensure the Assad regime dismantles its chemical weapons program and never uses chemical weapons again. We support our diplomats who are working to set the conditions for the United Nations-backed Geneva process to succeed. And we look forward to working with United Nations' envoy to Syria, Staffan de Mistura. In an effort to maintain transparency, General McKenzie will now provide a detailed overview of the actual operations. General McKenzie.

KENNETH MCKENZIE: Thanks. Thanks, Dana. Ladies and gentlemen, good morning. I'm going to spend the first couple of minutes just talking about the military...

SIMON: This is Marine Lieutenant General Kenneth McKenzie.


MCKENZIE: ...Details of the strikes that we executed last night. And could I get the first graphic up, please? As you've heard from the president of the United States and directly in this room from Secretary Mattis and Chairman Dunford, the United States, the United Kingdom and France, three of the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council, conducted a proportional, precision, coordinated strike in response to the Syrian regime's continued use of chemical weapons. This combined military strike was directed against three distinct Syrian chemical weapons program targets. And I'm going to show them to you in turn on the monitor behind me. And I think you have access to that information also. The three facilities are - or more appropriately now were fundamental components of the regime's chemical weapons warfare infrastructure. Let's go to the first slide, please - the Barzah Research and Development Center - next slide - pardon me - Him Shinshar Chemical Weapons Storage Facility and last - and the next slide please - the Him Shinshar Chemical Weapons Bunker Facility, which is located about seven kilometers from the previous Him Shinshar site. This strike aimed to deliver a clear and ambiguous message to the Syrian regime that their use of chemical weapons against innocent civilians is inexcusable and to deter any future use of chemical weapons. We selected these targets carefully to minimize the risk to innocent civilians. We're still conducting a more detailed damage assessment, but initial indications are that we accomplished our military objectives without material interference from Syria. I'd use three words to describe this operation - precise, overwhelming and effective. Let's go back to the first Barzah slide, please. I guess the first target, the Barzah Research and Development Center, which is located in the greater Damascus area...

SIMON: The general is showing slides of the before and after of what he says are chemical weapons sites that were hit in last night's attacks.


MCKENZIE: ...We deployed 76 missiles. Fifty-seven of these were Tomahawk Land Attack Cruise Missiles and 19 were Joint Air-to-Surface Standoff Missiles, or JASSM's. As you can see for yourself from the graphics, initial assessments are that this target was destroyed. This is going to set the Syrian chemical weapons program back for years. And you also note that we've successfully destroyed three buildings in metropolitan Damascus, one of the most heavily defended airspace areas in the world. Next slide, please. Against the second target, the Him Shinshar Chemical Weapons Storage Facility, which is located in Syria just west of Homs, 22 weapons were employed - nine U.S. TLAM's, eight Storm Shadow Missiles, three naval cruise missiles and two scout land attack cruise missiles. So this target was attacked by all coalition forces.

Our Tomahawks, the British storm shadow and then the French missiles went against it as well. Against the third target in the next slide, the Him Shinshar Chemical Weapons Bunker Facility, we deployed seven scout missiles. Again, the initial assessment is that this bunker facility was successfully hit. Now, I'd just like to talk a bit about the specific platforms that were part of this strike. And let's go back to the first slide, please. The missiles that I've just described were delivered from British, French and U.S. air and naval platforms in the Red Sea, the Northern Arabian Gulf and the eastern Mediterranean. All weapons hit their targets at very close to the designated time on target of about 4 a.m. in Syria, which of course is 9 o'clock here on the East Coast.

I'm going to give you a little more details now about the platforms. First, in the Red Sea, the Ticonderoga class cruiser Monterey, fired 30 Tomahawk Land Attack Cruise Missiles and the Arleigh Burke-class destroyer Laboon fired seven Tomahawks. In the North Arabian Gulf, the Burke-class destroyer Higgins fired 23 Tomahawks. In the eastern Mediterranean, the French frigate Languedoc fired three missiles of their naval version of the SKAT (ph) missile. Also in the Mediterranean, the Virginia-class submarine John Warner fired six Tomahawk missiles. In the air, two B-1 Lancer bombers fired 19 Joint Air-to-Surface Standoff missiles. In addition, our British allies flew a combination of Tornados and Typhoons and launched eight Storm Shadow missiles. Our French allies flew a combination of Rafales and Mirages and launched nine Scout missiles.

Taken together, and as you can see from the graphic behind me, these attacks on multiple axes were able to overwhelm the Syrian air defense system. It's also important to note that we flew a variety of defensive counter air, tanker and electronic warfare aircraft in support of these operations. None of our aircraft or missiles involved in this operation were successfully engaged by Syrian air defenses. And we have no indication that Russian air defense systems were employed. We are confident that all of our missiles reached their targets.

At the end of the strike mission, all our aircraft safely returned to their bases. We assess that over 40 surface-to-air missiles were employed by the Syrian regime. Most of these launches occurred after the last impact of our strike was over. It is likely that the regime shot many of these missiles on a ballistic trajectory...

SIMON: You're listening to NPR's live coverage of the Pentagon briefing from Marine Lieutenant General Kenneth McKenzie.


MCKENZIE: ...Ineffective and clearly increased risk to their own people based on this indiscriminate response. When you shoot iron into the air with that guidance, it's going to come down somewhere. By contrast, the precise nature of our strike and the care which our allied team planned and executed significantly reduced the risk of collateral damage to civilians. In summary, in a powerful show of allied unity, we deployed 105 weapons against three targets that will significantly impact the Syrian regime's ability to develop, deploy and use chemical weapons in the future. It's been said before, but I want to emphasize again that by comparison, this strike was double the size of the last strike in April 2017. And I'd also emphasize that this strike was a multinational effort. The precision strike was executed with France and the U.K., demonstrating our unquestionable resolve. I'd like to close by noting that since the strike, we have not seen any military response from actors within Syria. And we remain postured to protect our forces and those of the coalition should anything occur. Dana, back to you.

WHITE: So with that, I'll take your questions. Bob.

BOB: Thank you. General McKenzie, you said that you assess initially that the attack cumulatively set back the Syrian chemical weapons program for years. Can you be - can you elaborate on that? Miss White said that...

SIMON: We've been listening to the live Pentagon briefing for a Marine - forgive me - from Marine Lieutenant General Kenneth McKenzie talking about last night's airstrikes by Britain, France and the United States against chemical weapons targets in Syria. NPR's White House correspondent Scott Horsley is with us. Scott, thanks very much for being with us.

HORSLEY: My pleasure, Scott.

SIMON: What did you notice in the briefing?

HORSLEY: Well, one of the questions we had after last night's briefing, a question that we couldn't really - the military couldn't really answer last night, was whether the Syrian defenses had been effective. And what we're hearing there from General McKenzie is that they were not very effective. They believe that all of the 105 missiles launched by the U.S. and its allies, the U.K. and France, hit their targets without, he said, material interference by the Syrian defenses. It sounds as if most of the Syrian defensive weapons were launched after the fact and didn't connect with any allied weapons. In fact, he said they probably posed more of a threat to the Syrian public because, in his colorful phrase, when you shoot iron into the air without guidance, it's going to come down somewhere. So that tells us something we didn't know from last night. Also significantly he said there was no indication that Russia employed any defenses of these targets.

SIMON: Yeah. At the same time, did General McKenzie sound as if there was going to be further military action? Or did he seem to believe that these raids had been so successful that wouldn't be necessary?

HORSLEY: He talked about, you know, these facilities being in the past tense and the degradation this has done to the Syrian regime's ability to wage chemical warfare in the future. But obviously, the White House has left open the possibility of further attacks if, in fact, the Assad regime tries using chemical weapons again. I'll just repeat what I said earlier, which is that in his tweet this morning, the president used the phrase, mission accomplished, which seems to suggest that, for now, at least, the U.S. feels its military strike has done what it wanted to do, and no further action's going to be necessary.

SIMON: In the tweet, I believe, he said the result couldn't have been better, right?

HORSLEY: That's right. And he thanked the U.K. and France for their cooperation in this effort. As General KcKenzie said, that was one of the differences between this attack and the one the U.S. carried out just about exactly a year ago on its own.

SIMON: NPR's White House correspondent Scott Horsley, thanks very much for being with us.

HORSLEY: You're welcome.

SIMON: When President Trump ordered the strikes on Syria last night, the decision came at a time of personal crisis, a special counsel investigation and a criminal investigation into his personal lawyer. These twin challenges have drawn comparisons to 1998 when President Clinton responded to al-Qaida attacks with an airstrike on Sudan on the same day Monica Lewinsky was to appear before a grand jury to give testimony about her affair with the president. William Cohen was secretary of defense at that time. He joins us from his home. Thanks very much for being with us.

WILLIAM COHEN: It's good to be with you. Thank you.

SIMON: Mr. Secretary, I want to note, as someone who was a reporter then, that there was a lot of skepticism about the timing of those attacks. They turned out to be justified. How do you feel about President Trump's decision last night?

COHEN: Well, I think it was justified. I did question both the means in which he communicated his intent and the message that went out to the Russians and the Syrians and the Iranians. Namely, it went out as a taunt. And I've tried to indicate some of my past appearances that, you know, the NFL banned taunting for a good reason. And I think at the presidential level, taunts are unwarranted because they can produce a backlash or reaction, which could be quite consequential to the United States.

So I don't like the method of announcing what we're going to do by tweet. And I think the attitude or the tone I should say with which it was delivered, I think, was not productive. Beyond that, I believe that it did warrant a component of a reaction to be a military component. But I had hoped it would go further, that we would also increase the sanctions against all three combined - the Iranians, the Syrians and the Russians - because I think they're complicit in this. It's not just the chemical weapons as horrific as they are. But they've been using barrel bombs on innocent civilians.

They have, in fact, militarized - weaponized, I should say - weaponized the refugees by driving millions up into European countries thereby destabilizing them. So this is a long war. And it's been fought unfairly to be sure by having Russians, Iranians and maybe even Lebanese join in the effort to defeat those who are trying to resist or rebel against Assad's regime. But nonetheless, I think the president was right to take action.

There's an expression in terms of, don't telegraph what you're going to do, and just do it. And I think in this particular case so, we should have been more careful in what we were going to say. The president made the statement and then had to walk it back because Secretary Mattis, I'm sure, gave him a very sober message in terms of number one, we need time to plan this - number two, we need allies. This is not a U.S. against Russia. Do not allow us to make a taunt against the Russians. We're coming - very smart, very fast. That could have complicated this mission a great deal - and say, let's make sure it's multilateral, multinational.

We're not going to the U.N. Security Council because the Russians will block it. But we are looking for a coalition of the willing here. And we've got to have our best allies who have joined in this. So it's not the U.S. against Russia. It is the civilized community against a country and leader who has used barbaric means of waging war.

SIMON: Mr. Cohen, I have to take another minute out of the time we have with our other correspondents to ask you one more question. You, earlier in your career, were on the House judiciary committee that voted to impeach President Richard Nixon over Watergate crimes.

COHEN: Right.

SIMON: See any parallel with current events?

COHEN: Well, at this moment, they're still gathering the evidence. We were very careful in trying to define what constituted an impeachable offense - a high crime and misdemeanor. We have yet to see that produced by Mr. Mueller. But I think it's critical that the investigation go on and not be interfered with.

SIMON: Thanks very much, former U.S. Secretary of Defense William Cohen. Thanks very much for being with us.

COHEN: Pleasure.

SIMON: Joined now by NPR's Ron Elving, Senior Editor and Correspondent. Ron, thank you very much for being with us today.

RON ELVING, BYLINE: Good to be with you, Scott.

SIMON: Don't these airstrikes in Syria contradict everything Donald Trump has said in the past, when he essentially taunted President Obama not to order strikes? And wasn't it arguably one of the reasons he won the Republican nomination, because he called the war in Iraq stupid and said the U.S. shouldn't get involved overseas?

ELVING: Right. America first, that was the mantra and the president has indeed been attacked on just those grounds this morning by a number of bloggers and talk show hosts on the right. They were calling him Donald Bush and asking if Hillary Clinton had secretly taken over. And it doesn't help that the president himself this morning used the phrase, mission accomplished, a phrase made famous for its premature use by George W. Bush in the Iraq war. But Scott, let's not forget that there are also a lot of people this morning who are not happy because the president did not consult Congress on this mission and others who are asking whether these very limited strikes really accomplished anything of great value.

SIMON: Some lawmakers were apparently briefed by the administration, others weren't. Any idea who merited getting contacted?

ELVING: There is a designated group of leaders in both parties, in both chambers, who are to be notified and to be consulted in the sense of telling them that this is happening. But that's not the same thing as asking Congress for its approval, they do sometimes widen that group to include the chairs of some of the most relevant committees. But here again, the wider the group gets - the theoretically, the more criticism you might get. But it's already too late once the mission is already launched.

SIMON: Ron, you were one of the lucky few to get an early copy of James Comey book, which is coming out next week. Give us a snapshot please.

ELVING: James Comey, the former FBI director, says the president is unethical and untethered from truth, calls him a forest fire, says he's destroying much of what is great about the nation. He also compares him to the mafia dons that Comey had prosecuted earlier in his career. Suffice to say, we have never seen a president taken down to this degree by anyone who has held such high positions as Comey has held in multiple administrations in both parties. It's a scathing book.

SIMON: And all of that is fascinating and the vignettes that we have - I think a lot of us have heard about at this point are fascinating and fair game for a memoir. But does James Comey describe any actual criminal conduct by President Trump?

ELVING: He does address that question, so let me put this in his own words, he said, quoting Comey's book here, "I have one perspective on the behavior I saw, which while disturbing and violating basic norms of ethical leadership, may fall short of being illegal." So in other words, he is not actually attributing a specific crime that he saw or had evidence of to the president, but at the same time, he's not letting that change his tone of moral judgment about the president. And we should say that the president responded in a tweet Friday morning saying Comey was untruthful, calling him a slime ball and a proven liar and leaker and a terrible leader at the FBI, and saying virtually everyone in Washington had wanted him fired before the president actually fired him.

SIMON: Ron, what about reports overnight that there are people in the White House, perhaps even including the president, who now consider the investigation that's been going on in the southern district of New York to be perhaps more potentially hazardous for the president than even the Mueller investigation?

ELVING: Because that information is coming from the White House itself, I think we have to take it with something of a grain of salt that it may be intended, perhaps, to cast a certain amount of shadow on the Mueller investigation and the Russia connections. It's also possible, of course, that we do not know yet exactly what Michael Cohen's office may contain in terms of records, in terms of recordings, in terms of e-mails. And there may be things that no one has thought of yet or glimpsed or dreamt of that might have been involved in what prompted that extraordinary search warrant that got the FBI into Michael Cohen's office this last week.

SIMON: Ron Elving, NPR Senior Washington correspondent, thanks so much for being with us.

ELVING: Thank you, Scott.

SIMON: We're going to turn now to David Miliband who's president of the International Rescue Committee and, of course, former foreign secretary of the United Kingdom. He joins us from New York. Mr. Miliband, thanks so much for being with us.

DAVID MILIBAND: Good morning, Scott.

SIMON: You have not - ever seem to have any doubts that Bashar al-Assad has attacked his own citizens with chemical weapons and have been outspoken against its government and its foreign backers, to use your phrase. But are you concerned about some of the humanitarian consequences of expanded military action against the regime?

MILIBAND: Of course is the answer to that. The International Rescue Committee has a thousand staff inside Syria. We are concerned about them and for the many hundreds of thousands of Syrians who we serve. And really, there are two questions, I think, that arise from the limited strikes last night. One is whether they will deter further chemical weapons use. And if I heard the Pentagon briefing rightly, they talked about sarin and the R&D facilities. What's not clear is whether or not the use of chlorine, which has been reported as being used last weekend, is going to be deterred. Chlorine, obviously, is widely available. The second question is whether there is a broader game plan on the part of the coalition that struck last night - to use political, diplomatic, economic means to stop the slaughter of Syrian civilians that has cost 500,000 lives and driven five million refugees out of the country.

SIMON: How would you like to see the West aid Syria?

MILIBAND: I think that the diplomatic offensive that I'm talking about has a number of elements. First, start with the straightforward things. The neighboring states, like Jordan, which is the second closest ally of the U.S. in the Middle East - it's harboring 650,000 refugees - states like that need help. Secondly, more Syrians were killed in the chemical weapons attack last weekend than have been admitted to the U.S. as refugees in this fiscal year - since October the 1. The U.S. has a long, proud tradition of refugee resettlement which is being abandoned by the current administration, and that seems, to me, to be a severe setback. But obviously, the toughest questions are inside Syria. And my perspective about the drive for a political settlement is that the power that was deployed last night needs to be allied with real pain to those who are supporting the Assad regime to drive them to the negotiating table. And that pain can take economic and political form. I'm leading a humanitarian organization, so I'm not in a position to advocate or comment on particular military options. But it seems to me it's the lack of a political strategy that has bedeviled the West over the last seven years of the Syria conflict.

SIMON: You mean Russia and Iran to be blunt about it, don't you?

MILIBAND: Absolutely. The Russian and Iranian support for the Assad regime has been absolutely critical. And I do want to point out to your listeners that although the fight in eastern Ghouta seems to have been concluded, in northwest Syria - in Idlib province, there are about 2.6, 2.7 million people there now. They're awaiting their fate. In the southwest of the country, where the IRC supports medical aid to about 360,000 civilians around Daraa - which is obviously where the civilian - where the civil war started seven years ago - there's also opposition control, including some ISIS pockets. And so I fear very much that your opening question to me, which is whether or not the fate of Syrian civilians is now safer, is very much up in the air because both the Assad regime and its backers still believe they have work to do. And Syrian civilians are going to be on the receiving end of that.

SIMON: In the half a minute we have left, I've been struck by something you once wrote about Syria. You said history teaches that when there is a vacuum in international affairs, it's filled by malign actors. Is that's what's happened here?

MILIBAND: Yes. I think that what's happened is that in the first three years of the conflict, the fear of getting embroiled in a civil war led to the complete neglect of the rights of Syrian civilians. They were subjugated to appalling attack from their own government. And that is a vacuum that hasn't just been filled by the Assad regime and Russia. It's obviously been filled by ISIS and Daesh. And the breaching of the norms - in respect to human rights - over the last seven years have plumbed depths into the international system. And it's very hard to unplumb (ph) them. That's the job of diplomacy that, I think, is now imperative.

SIMON: David Miliband, president of the International Rescue Committee, thanks so much for being with us.

MILIBAND: Thank you so much.

(SOUNDBITE OF HEERNT'S "LOCKED IN A BASEMENT") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Tom Bowman is a NPR National Desk reporter covering the Pentagon.
Scott Horsley is NPR's Chief Economics Correspondent. He reports on ups and downs in the national economy as well as fault lines between booming and busting communities.
Ron Elving is Senior Editor and Correspondent on the Washington Desk for NPR News, where he is frequently heard as a news analyst and writes regularly for
Ruth Sherlock is an International Correspondent with National Public Radio. She's based in Beirut and reports on Syria and other countries around the Middle East. She was previously the United States Editor for the Daily Telegraph, covering the 2016 US election. Before moving to the US in the spring of 2015, she was the Telegraph's Middle East correspondent.