ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
Tennessee Republican Senator Bob Corker is the ranking minority member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and joins us now. Welcome to the program, Senator.
SENATOR BOB CORKER: Glad to be with you.
SIEGEL: You said in light of what the White House said today, we should step up our efforts. What does that mean, we should step up our efforts in Syria?
CORKER: Well, obviously, if we find, in fact, that these samples have come from a place that we know then means the Syrian regime has used chemical weapons, we have to step up our ability to respond. We've got six teams with our allies that have been training in Jordan, specifically around the issue of chemical warfare, but I also think it means that our activities in general with the opposition, which I've been saying for about week now, needs to step up.
And what I mean by that is this. We have a second war that's taking place right now in Syria. It began as a war by opposition groups to try to take down Assad, but now something that is even of greater national interest to us is taking place, and that is a battle within the opposition itself. The large bulk of the opposition is made up of moderate, secular Sunnis who want to see their country in a pluralistic fashion after Assad.
But there's also an extremist element that many Americans know about, a link to al-Qaida, the Nusra group and others that are actually better fighters.
SIEGEL: Well, Senator, in that case, if the interest of the U.S., as you see it, is not just to try to gain control of chemical weapon stores to make sure they aren't used and not just to hasten the downfall of Assad but to hasten the success of the non-extremist elements, what do you do? Does that mean speeding the arming of certain groups as opposed to others, using air power? What's your limit here?
CORKER: Yeah, it does.
SIEGEL: Using air power, for example.
CORKER: No, using arms and I think that's where we begin. We step up our civilian support. One of the things the extremists have been able to do on the ground and gain popularity is to deal with the needs of people on the ground. Believe it or not, these extreme groups are very good at delivering that. Our groups are not. They're unorganized. They're not good at taking care of civilian needs on the ground.
They do need arms and we need to vet those people. But this doesn't need to be just about the actual battle on the ground. It needs to be also about ensuring that as they move ahead, they are reaching out to the Alawite population.
SIEGEL: That's the minority that the Assad family comes from.
CORKER: That's the minority that supports Assad, that's exactly right. Because otherwise, once Assad goes, there is extreme concerns by the Alawites that they're going to be exterminated by the other opposition groups and that's what's causing them, right now, to cling to Assad.
SIEGEL: For the past year, Turkey, Qatar, Jordan, countries in the vicinity have been deeply involved in helping the forces against the Assad regime. The U.S. has had people training, Special Forces, to deal with chemical weapons and it has not decisively turned the battle against Assad. Let me ask you about military options. Identifying the unit that used the chemical weapons and staging air strikes against it, is that on the table for you?
CORKER: Well, it depends. It's possible. I mean, I do want to know a little bit more. I think all of us do. But that's a possibility. It certainly is a possibility. And I hope the president will lay out what he'd like to see happen, consult, obviously, with Congress before anything happens...
SIEGEL: Would you approve of inserting U.S. troops into Syria?
CORKER: I would not do that. No, I do not want to see U.S. troops on the ground.
SIEGEL: How much of your concern is what this might mean for the outcome in Syria and how much is that a red line was stated and that U.S. credibility is tested when we say there's a red line if we don't do something after that?
CORKER: You know, it's interesting. This is a red line, no doubt. I think, though, even without what's happening or what potentially has happened with chemicals, I think that we're already moving there anyway. I think there's a new sort of an awakening, if you will, within the administration and State Department and others that what I just laid out a minute ago has got to happen, meaning that we have to change the calculus with the opposition groups regardless of what's happened here.
Obviously, there will be tactical issues that come up that are immediate. If chemical warfare is being used, and we think it's going to be used additionally, that will mean something very quickly need to occur. But overall, strategically, I think regardless of whether this red line has been crossed or not, we're moving into the place where we know we have to change the calculus with these moderate opposition groups. That has to occur.
Without that, this could go on for years. So...
SIEGEL: Senator Corker, just to be clear, though, based on what you've heard from the White House so far, do you think the evidence is sufficient, that all this must be done, that the red line has been crossed or is there still need for further analysis in your opinion?
CORKER: I think there is. I think all would agree that there is need for a little bit more additional analysis. But again, our reaction should not be a hair-on-fire reaction. Our reaction should be one that drives us towards a strategy I just laid out. And that is, again, reinforcing these groups, moving towards accommodating the Alawites, moving towards understanding what Russia's interests in the region are, and causing Assad to move aside.
So there may be emergency measures that need to happen. But we should not upset that overall strategy that I just laid out, which is one that, to me, leads us to a place that creates most stability in the region.
SIEGEL: Senator Corker, thank you very much for talking with us.
CORKER: Thank you, sir.
SIEGEL: That's Senator Bob Corker, Republican of Tennessee. He's the senior Republican member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.