RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Let's get right down to it. After a two-week focus on tariffs, the White House is going to turn its attention back to school safety this week.
NOEL KING, HOST:
That's right. Last night, senior White House officials laid out some proposals, and they announced a new federal commission that will study school violence. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos will chair the commission. Here she is talking on a conference call with reporters.
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BETSY DEVOS: We've had to talk about this topic way too much over the years, and there's been a lot of talk in the past but very little action.
MARTIN: All right. So what kind of action is the White House promising here? We're going to get the details from NPR White House correspondent Scott Horsley. Good morning, Scott.
SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: Good morning, Rachel.
MARTIN: What do we know about the administration's plans?
HORSLEY: There's not a lot of action really. The agenda was rolled out quietly in that conference call last evening. We don't expect a speech or other public event from the president. And he's leaving most of the heavy lifting to the states. Now, Trump is endorsing two pieces of federal legislation. One would improve background checks but not make them universal. The other is designed to help schools spot and intervene with young people early on who might turn violent.
Neither of those bills is controversial. The background check measure already had 62 co-sponsors in the Senate, so Trump's not exactly going out on a limb here. Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer dismissed this as baby steps. And then there's the commission. Now, ironically, on Saturday night, the president himself had mocked presidential commissions as a tool for politicians who want to avoid action.
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PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: We can't just keep setting up blue-ribbon committees with your wife and your wife and your husband, and they meet, and they have a meal, and they talk, talk, talk, talk.
MARTIN: But - so he's done this before, though, right? There have been commissions on opioids, on voter fraud, a whole range of issues. Nothing really changed, and now he's got another one about school violence. So any reason to believe that this one is going to be any different?
HORSLEY: Not necessarily. The commission does not have any sort of timetable to produce a report, although chairwoman Betsy DeVos says she expects to act with impatience because she says there's no time to waste. Most of what the president's doing here is focused on the states. He has renewed his controversial call to arm teachers and other school staffers as volunteer marshals. He's also endorsing a so-called risk protection orders, which authorize law enforcement to take guns away temporarily from people who are judged through some sort of judicial process to be a danger to themselves. Only a handful of states have a mechanism like that now, and Florida just joined their ranks last week.
MARTIN: So right after the Parkland shooting, there was all this discussion about raising the federal age limit to buy a gun. And that's something that the president said that he was into. He thought that that might be a good thing to do in this moment. Is he still talking about that?
HORSLEY: This is one initiative where the president seemed to be willing to break with the National Rifle Association. But in the end, he backed down. The gun lobby opposes a higher age limit. The NRA sued immediately last week after Florida lawmakers decided to do that. Trump did seem sympathetic to the idea, but it was left out of his agenda when it was introduced to reporters last night. White House officials do say that the idea could be considered by this new presidential commission.
MARTIN: All right. NPR's Scott Horsley for us this morning. Thanks so much, Scott.
HORSLEY: You're welcome.
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MARTIN: We're going to go now to Syria where government tanks have advanced into the rebel-held town of eastern Ghouta.
KING: That area has been pounded by airstrikes in recent weeks. It's thought that more than a thousand civilians have been killed. So the question now is have those attacks changed the complexion of the war?
MARTIN: Let's ask NPR's Ruth Sherlock. She's following this story from Beirut. Hey, Ruth.
RUTH SHERLOCK, BYLINE: Hey, good morning.
MARTIN: You've been in touch with folks in eastern Ghouta for weeks now. What are you hearing at this point?
SHERLOCK: Well, this ground offensive has taken massive amounts of territory. They have rushed across kind of agricultural land and have now managed to split this massive enclave, the sprawling suburbs of eastern Ghouta, into three separate ever-shrinking enclaves. And, you know, this has been a thorn in the side of the regime, this area, for a long time. And although a U.N. cease-fire was called asking them to stop this and allow civilians to flee, the offensive is continuing.
MARTIN: So what does that mean for people who are still just living there just trying to survive? I mean, are they?
SHERLOCK: Yeah. Well, I mean, it's been a terrible situation for a long, long time, and now, it's kind of hard to believe but it's even worse. So they say that more than a thousand people have been killed since the offensive three weeks ago. And I spoke to several people there. And one man told me, you know, we can't even get out of the house to bury the dead. It's too dangerous to go outside. And I reached Deana Lynn, who grew up in Michigan, but she lives there with her husband and eight children. The line's pretty interrupted, but she's telling me that the bombardment is constant, and she says a few moments ago, a bomb landed and her family was hiding in the basement with many other families as they do these days. And they all grabbed towels to put them over their mouths because they feared that this was also a chlorine gas attack, a chemical attack.
DEANA LYNN: They've made the people fear that they're going to hit us with chemical weapons because they always talk about...
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LYNN: ...About chemical weapons.
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LYNN: I don't know if you can hear the sounds.
SHERLOCK: Those interruptions are bombings, and that's not an exception. That happened all throughout our conversation.
MARTIN: Wow. So what now? I mean, what does happen? I mean, the government is making this move. Is there any hope for some kind of solution to the problem?
SHERLOCK: Yeah. That's the real question. You know, there's - in the past, these - there's been these sort of ends to these sieges where the government has basically said, OK, you can get out, and it sent rebel fighters' families and supporters up to other opposition-held parts of the country. But there are fewer and fewer of those as the government takes territory back. And in fact, Idlib in the north is already swollen with refugees. And I've just spoken to people there. You know, people I spoke to in Ghouta say we don't want to leave our homes. But there are some background negotiations going on. But in the meantime, civilians are kind of trapped in this area.
And there's ugliness on this war on both sides. A source told me that one of the rebel groups, Jaysh al-Islam, that's controlling Douma, one of the bigger towns in the area, has also prevented civilians from leaving from this humanitarian corridor that was set up for them to leave. And of course, the bombing is too intense that they can't leave anyway, so they're just sitting there and waiting for the moment to see what happens next.
MARTIN: All right. NPR's Ruth Sherlock following this from Beirut. Ruth, thanks.
SHERLOCK: Thank you.
MARTIN: All right. We're going to stay in the region because the U.S. secretary of defense, James Mattis, traveled to the Persian Gulf to the country of Oman over the weekend to shore up U.S. alliances there.
KING: Yeah. Mattis is meeting today with Oman's leader, Sultan Qaboos bin Said. The two men are expected to talk about the civil war in Oman's neighbor, Yemen. The question is what are U.S. interests there and what message is Mattis bringing?
MARTIN: NPR's David Welna is traveling with Secretary Mattis. He joins us now. Hey, David.
DAVID WELNA, BYLINE: Hi, Rachel.
MARTIN: All right. Before we get to Oman, remind us what the U.S. position is when it comes to the war in Yemen.
WELNA: Well, you know, there's been a civil war raging in Yemen for three years now, and it's really become kind of a proxy war between Saudi Arabia, which is trying to restore Yemen's overthrown Sunni leader, and Iran, which is backing the Shiite Houthi rebels who occupy much of the country. And the U.S. also has a role there. It's providing logistical and intelligence support to Saudi Arabia's rather dismal but extremely violent battle there. And what Secretary Mattis calls a small number of U.S. Special Forces are in Yemen's eastern region battling ISIS and al-Qaida militants.
MARTIN: All right. So this is complicated. So Mattis is now in Oman. What does Oman have to do with the war?
WELNA: Well, you know, Oman really is almost the only place in the Arabian Peninsula that's not in some kind of upheaval. A couple of factors might help explain that. One is that this is a Muslim state, but it's neither Sunni nor Shiite. Most of Omanis are Ibadi Muslims, another school of Islam. So they have relations with both Saudi Arabia, which is the dominant Sunni state here, and its archrival Shiite Iran. Omanis like to say they're friends of everyone and enemies of no one. And Oman is also the only member of the Gulf Cooperation Council that's refused to join the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen. And then there's Sultan Qaboos who's been in power here nearly half a century. Mattis on the flight over had only praise for him. He clearly wants the sultan's help blocking extremist groups in eastern Yemen and - because members of those groups could spill over the border into Oman.
MARTIN: And Iran, as you mentioned, has a stake in this. And there are reports that it is in a way fueling the conflict - I mean, very directly fueling the conflict. What do we know about Iran's influence in this moment?
WELNA: Well, there have been reports that Iran has been smuggling weapons into Yemen and, in fact, smuggling them through Oman, which Oman denies. Secretary Mattis has not publicly accused Oman of anything. The U.S. wants to, I think, keep on very good terms with Oman because it's such a great back channel for the U.S. because it deals with both Iran and Saudi Arabia. But I think that there probably are going to be things said in private here. And I think Secretary Mattis is just reluctant to point a finger at Sultan Qaboos about this.
MARTIN: But we don't know what happens behind closed doors. All right. NPR's David Welna traveling with the U.S. secretary of defense. Hey, David, thanks.
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