NOEL KING, HOST:
This morning, President Trump is threatening retaliation against Syria for an alleged chemical attack last weekend. He's tweeted that Syria and its ally Russia should get ready for U.S. missiles because, quote, "they will be coming nice, new and smart." Russia has already responded with a foreign ministry spokeswoman saying smart missiles should fly toward terrorists, not legal government. Ryan Crocker is with us now. He's a veteran Middle East expert and ambassador. He served in Syria from 1998 to 2001, when Bashar al-Assad took power after his father's death. Good morning, Ambassador.
RYAN CROCKER: Good morning, Noel.
KING: Ambassador, do you think the U.S. should strike Syria in reaction to this reported chemical gas attack in Douma over the weekend?
CROCKER: I think we have to respond militarily. To have done so in the earlier incident and not to do so now would be a very wrong signal to send. But we have to figure out what we're going to do, who we're going to do it with and how it makes a difference. And I don't see answers to any of those right yet.
KING: Give us a sense of how it worked the last time.
CROCKER: Well, the administration made it clear it was a one-off, that they were sending a signal. They weren't trying to do long-term damage - because, frankly, in a strike like that, you can't do long-term damage. So this time around, I do think it has to be different. I would hope that it's true that the administration is in contact with the French and other allies so it becomes not just a U.S. strike but a coalition strike, if you will. And then we've got to think about, what's the next step? Are we going to develop a strategy in Syria? Because we don't have one now. How are we going to work with the Turks, with the Kurds, with other allied groups up in the north? We need to work those things through before we talk about withdrawing our troops.
KING: Well, you mentioned there are a lot of players involved here. And I wonder, if you pull back and look at this from 3,000 feet, how dangerous a moment is this for the region and also for the U.S. and its allies?
CROCKER: That's a great question. It is dangerous. You may remember some weeks ago, the Iranians sent an unarmed drone over Israel kind of to see what would happen. The Israelis shot it down, then conducted airstrikes on ground facilities in Syria, lost a plane. Had they lost the pilots, too, we might be in a regional war. So right now, the level of complexity is immense. Iran, Israel, the United States, Turkey, Russia - external players. Internal - Hezbollah, Islamic State, al-Qaida, Free Syrian Army, Syrian Democratic Forces. It reminds me uncomfortably of how the stage was set in August 1914.
KING: Oh, dear.
CROCKER: Nobody wanted a war then. The tangle of alliances created a war. You see that same tangle of alliances with powers large and small all over the landscape. Again, had those Israeli pilots been killed, that might have lit the fuse. And again, nobody wants a big war here. Nobody wanted a big war a hundred years ago. We got one. I hope we avoid it this time.
KING: Well, look, hindsight is 20/20, as the saying goes. But I wonder, do you think there is anything that the U.S. could've done to this point differently in Syria that would have prevented any of this?
CROCKER: I think if you go all the way back to the beginning in 2011, had the U.S. in the early going contacted the Russians - and this would've been under, of course, the Obama administration - to say look, you got to stop this; you got to stop it right now; get a hold of your guy, block further violence, and then let's see what we can figure out politically - well, that moment has long receded from us.
KING: 2011 - are you talking about the Arab Spring? What would the U.S. - what could the U.S. have done differently?
CROCKER: Well, I was referring, indeed, to the violence in March 2011 that was - that set in motion, effectively, this awful cycle of violence. Had we engaged with the Russians with real determination then, we might have been able to stop this before it reached a point of no return. We're long past that, unfortunately. And we have to also remember, we're not the dominant power by any means inside Syria. So when we talk about keeping our forces there - well, OK, but to what end? When we talk about bringing the French in, what does that mean? Because I was in Beirut - October 1983 - when the French barracks and the U.S. Marine barracks were blown up with an immense cost of life for both France and the U.S.
KING: Former Ambassador Ryan Crocker. Thank you so much, Mr. Ambassador.
CROCKER: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.