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After Missile Strikes, Many Wonder: What Is The U.S. Policy On Syria?

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Syria is believed to have first used chemical weapons against its own people in its civil war when Barack Obama was in the White House. Obama would not order an attack on the regime without the support of the U.S. Congress. He didn't get it, and there was no U.S. military response, which is why he ended up not acting after drawing that now infamous red line.

President Trump didn't ask for congressional approval. The reaction in Congress to that has been mixed. To talk about that, we're joined by Senator Cory Gardner. He's a Republican of Colorado and a member of the foreign relations committee. Senator, welcome back to the program.

CORY GARDNER: Good morning. Thanks for having me.

MARTIN: Did President Trump have legal authority to do this on his own?

GARDNER: I believe he did have legal authority to do it on his own, and a couple of things have happened. Obviously, we have the 2001 AUMF, Authorization for the Use of Military Force...

MARTIN: Which is just about al-Qaida, though, and tentatively about ISIS.

GARDNER: ...That talks about terrorism. And it talks about the importance of stopping terrorism. And of course, we had men and women in Syria on the ground, in terms of uniformed military officials - personnel, excuse me. And then, of course, we had the issue of international humanitarian law to address after chemical weapons attack - several of them - leading up to the response.

MARTIN: There is a call from many on Capitol Hill, Democrats and Republicans, for the president to explain what his rationale was - what was the justification? - how it fits into his larger Syria strategy. Do you think the president needs to do that?

GARDNER: Well, I think that's a very important question. I think that's something that we all agree on - people who supported or opposed the strike - is to make sure that a well-thought-out plan is presented by the president to Congress and that Congress have the consultation and, if necessary, approval of that plan. It's very important the United States does not proceed unilaterally. I think what you heard from - at least what we heard from General Dunford when he spoke behind the classified - in a classified briefing to...

MARTIN: Chairman of the Joint Chiefs...

GARDNER: Yeah, chairman of the Joint Chiefs - when he spoke to members of the Senate and House after the strike was that this was a one-time strike intended to deter the regime from the use of chemical weapons. But going forward, we need that well-thought-out plan supported by the international community that will lead to a solution in Syria.

MARTIN: You criticized President Obama in 2015 for not having a clear Syria strategy. Let's listen to a clip from Fox News.

(SOUNDBITE OF FOX NEWS BROADCAST)

GARDNER: We have to have a clear direction from this administration about what exactly the role we're playing in Syria is truly to be and how we are going to carry forward now that Russia is involved propping up the Assad regime.

MARTIN: Is the present situation any different?

GARDNER: Well, I think we now have four years of Russia propping up the regime. And the actions of the Assad regime are very much in their hands, including the Iranian involvement in Syria. And so what I said then, I think, about - necessary to see a plan, a well-thought-out plan, is just as important today as it was then.

And that's why I hope in the coming days we will see that emerge not only from the Trump administration, not just a one-sided plan, but something our coalition of nations can support that ultimately leads to peace in Syria, protects the Syrian people through safe zones and the no-fly zones that could be put in place but also make sure that we have a transition out and an end to the Assad regime.

MARTIN: Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is going to Moscow this week. What do you think he needs to do? What conversations does he need to have with officials there in order to leverage Russian help in ending the civil war in Syria?

GARDNER: Well, in many ways, this conversation is going to be much different than it could have been 30 days ago because you had a Russian regime that was looking at the United States leadership - eight years of United States leadership that was based on leading from behind. What we saw in Syria, of course, was a difference in U.S. policy, a quick response to a chemical weapon attack. And as a result, I think the Russians are going to have to have a different analysis when they meet with Secretary Tillerson.

Tillerson needs to be firm in his resolve against Russia's actions in Crimea, firm against their involvement to prop up the Syrian regime, their continued perpetration of cyberattacks around the globe, particularly out of the U.S. elections - and, of course, their involvement the U.S. elections - and of course what they're doing in Eastern Europe and the European theater right now when it relates to cyber. So this will be a tough conversation, and it needs to be very resolute.

MARTIN: Lastly, Secretary of State Tillerson was in Italy today. And he said the following. The U.S. will stand up against anyone who commits crimes against humanity.

That's a far more interventionist position than we've heard from President Trump. Are you clear on how the president intends to use American power?

GARDNER: Well, I think that, again, is something the president has even said that I'm going to keep the enemies of the United States guessing as to what we are going to do. That Syria strike showed that he was going to act with determination. But I think it's important that they have that conversation with the United States Congress, letting us know exactly how they are going to move forward and what type of humanitarian crimes they're talking about. Are we talking about political prisoners in North Korea or are we talking about chemical attacks in Syria?

MARTIN: You want more clarity.

GARDNER: Yeah.

MARTIN: We'll have to leave it there, Senator. Senator Cory Gardner, we'll have you back, Republican of Colorado. Thanks so much.

GARDNER: Great. Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.