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Syrian Defense Minister Killed In Suicide Attack

Aired July 18, 2012 - 08:00:00   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.


KRISTIE LU STOUT, HOST: I'm Kristie Lu Stout in Hong Kong. Welcome to News Stream. And we are focusing on breaking news out of Syria. State TV says a suicide blast that killed the defense minister as well as the deputy defense minister who is the brother-in-law of President Bashar al- Assad. It comes as the fight inside Damascus is intensifying. And we'll look at that, plus the diplomatic bout to resolve the situation. All that in the hour ahead.

Now a major suicide bombing has hit a national security building in the Syrian capital killing the highest ranking member of the regime yet according to state media, which reports that this man Doaud Rajha, Syria's defense minister, died in the bombing. Now we are also learning that Bashar al-Assad's brother-in-law, the deputy defense minister, was also killed in the attacks, that's also according to state media.

Now the bombing comes amid growing violence in the capital Damascus. And it means that the unrest is now just a stone's throw away from the heart of Bashar al-Assad's regime, the presidential palace.

Let's get the very latest now from CNN's Ivan Watson. He's been watching events from Istanbul in Turkey. He joins us now live. And Ivan, we have the suicide bombing targeting high ranking Syrian officials. I mean, this is a powerful blow.

IVAN WATSON, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Twin blows, I might argue. You've had days of battles in the streets of Damascus between rebel fighters and government security forces. And now this crippling explosion that Syrian state TV describes as a suicide bombing hitting the national security headquarters and killing not only the defense minister, Doaud Rajha, but also the deputy defense minister Assef Shawkat, who also happens to be the president Bashar al-Assad's brother-in-law. And other senior officials in the security apparatus. And without question a member of the inner circle of the Syrian president himself.

This will be certainly a dark day for the Syrian regime, not only in official circles, but also within the Assad family itself. And a sign that it has been facing an increasingly tenacious and dangerous insurgency even though it tried to destroy what started out as a peaceful protest movement calling for reform and democracy 16 months ago which has now morphed into a deadly armed movement that is attacking quite literally within the halls of power itself within the Syrian capital -- Kristie.

LU STOUT: And Ivan, all along we've been reporting that the rebels in Syria are outnumbered, they're out equipped. So how were they able to achieve this powerful twin blow in the heart of power in Damascus?

WATSON: Well, there's clearly been some kind of intelligence failure on the part of the Syrian government, but I think it also says something about how tenacious the opposition movement has been. Despite the deaths of more than 15,000 people over the last 16 months, despite the fact that the government started out with an unquestionable monopoly in the use of force with not only an extensive secret police network, but also a willingness to use artillery and helicopters and tanks against the Syrian population centers, that this opposition movement has grown and spread across the country.

Now the Syrian government has consistently argued that this is the work of al Qaeda jihadists, that this is part of a foreign conspiracy to destabilize the Syrian government. But the fact is that we have not seen substantial support coming from western governments to the opposition. What in fact we've seen is a real grass roots movement that has been desperate for support, that has been so desperate for outside assistance and has not gotten it that it's basically turned its back on western governments who had professed to support it. And it's made do with its own meager resources.

And what you've seen is the armed opposition, what was a civilian peaceful opposition movement morph into an armed opposition movement improvised on its own, had to find its own way of fighting regime that has been willing to destroy entire neighborhoods to try to crush it. It's been an existential defense movement. And I've met with some of these rebels. They can be gym teachers, university students, carpenters, peasants. And to a large degree defector soldiers in the country army, defector officers who have formed their own battalions and carried out operations that have grown increasingly sophisticated over the course of this protracted struggle.

The Syrian government has not been able to crush it. There are signs that there is more support coming, perhaps financial support, perhaps some arms support, coming to the opposition from outside, but for the most part this is a homegrown movement that refuses to be crushed and that is now challenging the Syrian regime on the doorsteps of Syrian government offices in the capital itself.

I would be very worried on a day like today if I was the Syrian president Bashar al-Assad and I had just seen my defense minister and my brother-in-law killed in one fell swoop -- Kristie.

LU STOUT: This grass roots defense movement as you call it, they've been able to achieve this amazing coup in the heart of Damascus, this suicide blast. They've also been able to fight out in the heart of the capital, these clashes underway, now going into its fourth day. Let's talk about the situation in Damascus. I mean, just how much control does Bashar al-Assad have on the city itself?

WATSON: Well, the government still has tanks, it still has helicopters that eyewitnesses say have been used against neighborhoods in Damascus over the past two days against a suspected rebel targets. But these are neighborhoods. This is the capital itself. And the clashes are driving residents to flee some of these neighborhoods.

This is a city that's already full of displaced Syrians who have already fled other cities and towns and villages around the country that have been caught up in the fighting over the course of the past year and four months that have been forced to move to some of the few places left spared the conflict. That we're hearing from eyewitnesses on the ground, eyewitnesses, residents telling us that the streets are for the most part empty right now and people are understandably too scared to go out into the streets.

We've heard reports of armored vehicles being mobilized around the city. And we've heard reports from Israel itself of the Israeli military reporting to parliament members in recent days that they've seen Syrian security forces moved from the Golan area to the Syrian capital in recent days clearly to reinforce the Syrian security presence there, taking very seriously the rebel insurgent movement into the city and taking that very seriously.

This has been an incremental increase of activity on the part of the Syrian rebels, Kristie. They have been very active in the suburbs or Damascus in recent months. Our own reporters, reporters like Arwa Damon on the ground when she's visited Damascus had seen neighborhoods where the Syrian rebels have set up checkpoints in the outskirts of Damascus in the surburbs themselves, but now they've shown the confidence and the ability to move into the capital's neighborhoods themselves to challenge the Syrian security forces. And we've seen remarkable images in the last 48 hours of rebels battling it out against Syrian tanks in the labyrinthine neighborhoods of this ancient, ancient Middle Eastern city, challenging again the Syrian security forces.

The Syrian information minister has been on state television in the wake of the reported deaths of the defense minister and the deputy defense minister, once again claiming that this is part of a foreign conspiracy, accusing any western government or Arab government that has sent a single bullet into Syria, accusing them of being responsible for any drop of blood shed on Syrian soil.

I would argue based on the incredible amount of eyewitness testimony we've seen over the 16 -- past 16 months that the Syrian government started this unprecedented bloodshed in Syria that has claimed the lives of more than 15,000 people over the course of the last 16 months. That has lead to the United Nations high commissioner for human rights to repeatedly accuse the Assad regime of committing crimes against humanity.

And now with this bombing that has killed the defense minister and the deputy defense minister, the chickens have quite literally come home to roost. We're already getting reports of celebration from the Syrian opposition from defector army colonels and officers themselves, one that I spoke with, have said he's thrilled with the news that the defense minister has now been killed saying he knew this defense minister personally. He was a rude officer, a professional military officer, but one who did not listen to any advice from his subordinates.

It's also important to note that the defense minister Daoud Rajha, that he was a Christian in the highest ranks of the Syrian security apparatus, that may send fear throughout the Christian minority in Syria that has been very much on the fence, very much worried about their country being torn apart by this insurgency and by the Syrian regime's heavy-handed tactics -- Kristie.

LU STOUT: Vivid reporting from our Ivan Watson. Ivan will be checking in with you a little bit later. Thank you so much.

You're watching News Stream. And we'll be back right after the break with more of the suicide blasts in Damascus as resulted in the death of the defense minister.

You're watching CNN.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

LU STOUT: Welcome back.

An update on what is happening in Syria. We just got a report from Reuters that five explosions have been heard in Damascus close to a military base lead by President al-Assad's brother.

And of course the big news this hour, state run TV reporting that the country's defense minister has been killed in a suicide blast. It says that the blast struck a national security building in the heart of the capital Damascus.

Now Syrian state TV also says that Presidnet Bashar al-Assad's brother-in-law, the deputy defense minister, died in the same attack.

Now violence has been flaring across the city. And opposition activists say that there have been multiple explosions and heavy gunfire in recent days. All this as UN security council could vote as early as today on the fate of the UN observer mission in Syria which is due to expire on Friday.

Let's get more now on the significance of the deaths of Syria's top defense officials. Richard Greene joins us now from London. And Richard, tell us more especially about the Syrian defense minister killed in the blast. Just who is general Daoud Rajha?

RICHARD GREENE, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: General Daoud Rajha, Kristie, was the chief of staff of the army in Syria until last year, which means he was the country's top ranked military officer. Now since the uprising began 16 months ago he was promoted to defense minister. So he has been in -- had in position I should say for just over a year.

This is a man the international community was watching, both the United States and the European Union had put sanctions on him. They accuse him of using the military to repress peaceful protests. So he was subject to financial sanctions. This was a man who was very much considered to be at the heart of the Syrian regime. And a blow against him directly, as Ivan Watson was saying earlier, is really, you know, hitting very, very close to President Bashar al-Assad right at the heart of his inner circle - - Kristie.

LU STOUT: OK. So he was in Bashar al-Assad's inner circle.

We also know that the slain Syrian defense minister was Christian. So in a point raised just moments ago by Ivan Watson, will Syria's Christian minority be on alert as a result of his death?

GREENE: Well, it's important to remember, Kristie, Syria is governed by a very, very small religious minority. Assad's father was president before him. They are members of a very small minority sect called the Alawites, which is a smaller group even within the Shia group, which is already a minority. So there's a minority within a minority governing Syria.

There is a Sunni majority. And the Christians traditionally have felt, you know, sort of like they want things to remain as stable as possible. We've seen other countries in the region like Iraq, which was governed by a minority before it. When there was a revolution and the overthrow of Saddam Hussein after the invasion there, there was a change of power not just you know as you would find in other countries from one government to another, but actually from one entire section of society to another.

The Christian minority has fared reasonably well in Syria under the stability that was provided by the Assad regime as you can see by the fact that the defense minister, one of the top officials in the country was himself a Christian. So what the Christian community has wanted so far is stability.

I think it's quite clear as we've been seeing, now that the battle has reached Damascus itself. We've had four days of fighting in and around the capital, it's impossible for anyone to say that there's any kind of stability. So I think everyone in Syria, certainly the Christians, the Alawites will need to consider very carefully which side they're going to be on as this battle enters, you know, what could very possibly be the last days of the regime.

LU STOUT: And do you think that there is any sectarian dimension to the death of Syria's defense minister?

GREENE: Well, to be fair we don't yet know ever who is responsible for this. We assume that it is the rebels who have been fighting for the past year-and-a-half to topple the Assad regime. There has been one claim of responsibility online, it's from a group that we have not heard of before, claiming that they were responsible for the bombing, but we're not sure. And so we don't want to read too much into that.

The suicide bombings are certainly a remarkable tactic if it is what the rebels are now doing as they try to hit the regime. And given the military imbalance -- you know, it is still the regime that has, as Ivan Watson was pointing out, the regime has the tanks, they have the helicopters. And so while there are army defectors, and while the rebels do have military weaponry, it's nothing like what the regime still has at this point, something you know which is called asymmetrical warfare, hitting in a way -- whatever way possible -- against a vastly superior enemy may be what the uprising is now relying on -- Kristie.

LU STOUT: All right. Richard Greene, live from CNN London, thank you very much indeed for your analysis.

And as the violence intensifies in Damascus, diplomatic discussions are going on all around the world.

Now the United Nations has this week to decide on what to do about its 300 observers in Syria, the mission is due to on Friday. And the security council could vote on a new resolution as early as today.

And the west wants Moscow to take a tougher stance on Damascus. Russian President Vladimir Putin is hosting Turkish prime minister Recip Tayyip Erdogan today. And that is after Mr. Putin met UN Arab League envoy Kofi Annan on Tuesday. Now Russia and the west have long been at odds over pushing for political transition in Damascus.

Meanwhile, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon is in Beijing where he met with China's president Hu Jintao and urged the security council to unite and take action on the situation in Syria.

Now Stan Grant is in Beijing with more.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

STAN GRANT, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Ban Ki-moon faces a difficult task in trying to turn China around on this issue. Eight times in the past, China has used its veto at the UN security council, and twice that has involved Syria.

Now China's bottom line here is that they want diplomacy to continue. They're not averse to that, but they're worried about the consequences of any foreign intervention in Syria. And for that, they point to other examples. They say look at Iraq. There was foreign intervention there and the violence continues. They don't believe that any outside influence will bring an end to the violence inside of Syria. It must be a diplomatic solution and according to the wishes of the Syrian people.

There are other factors as well to consider. China has a close economic relationship with Syria. It is Syria's third biggest importer. But beyond that, China's traditional diplomatic stance is one of non- involvement. It says we won't get involved in your issues, don't get involved in ours.

There's also the question of human rights. Would China look to support the top ring of an autocratic regime when that could bring about greater scrutiny of China's often questionable human rights record. So China, of course, not wanting to invite that sort of scrutiny right now.

China has also been reluctant to get on board with what it sees as western dominated organizations like the United Nations, not looking to rubber stamp the further spread of western influence throughout the world, hence China's support here with Russia in blocking any further moves against Syria.

And set against the backdrop of all of that, is the political change here in China. Leadership change at the top. China doesn't want to do anything that rocks the boat ahead of that.

Stan Grant, CNN, Beijing.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

LU STOUT: You're watching News Stream. Dramatic developments today in Damascus with the deaths of the defense minister and deputy defense minister of Syria. We'll be back with more after the break.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

LU STOUT: I'm Kristie Lu Stout in Hong Kong. You're watching News Stream. And we're following breaking news out of Syria. The defense minister has been killed in a suicide bombing in the capital Damascus, that is according to state media. Daoud Rajha, he is reportedly the highest ranking official to have died in the country's conflict. Now his deputy, who is also Bashar al-Assad's brother-in-law is also said to have been killed.

Get the latest now from CNN's Ivan Watson, he has been watching events from Istanbul and Turkey. He joins us now once again. And Ivan, tell us more about the fallout from today's suicide blast. Could this be the beginning of the end for Bashar al-Assad?

WATSON: Well, according to one opposition fighter that we talked to by phone from the suburb of Douma, the suburb of Damascus, he's claiming that a large number of rebel battalions and brigades have coordinated in what he says is an assault to try to bring the battle directly to the doorstep of the Presidential Palace itself. And he rattled off a list of different battalions and brigades, not only from inside Damascus, but also including, he claimed, fighters that had come as far away as Idlib and Homs as well as what he claimed was a coordinated attack.

Now this is a rebel who is talking about the fighting that we've seen on the ground over the course of the past three to four days, which has resulted in the Syrian government using even helicopter gunships against suspected rebel targets in neighborhoods of Damascus itself, an unprecedented moveover the course of these 16 months uprising.

In addition to that, a critical blow to the security apparatus of the Syrian government, a bombing that hit the national security headquarters in Damascus and killed not only the defense minister Daoud Rajha, but also killed Assef Shawkat who was deputy defense minister, but perhaps more importantly the brother-in-law of Syrian president Bashar al-Assad himself, a blow that will not only shake the government and the regime, but the man at the top of the Pyramid, perhaps one of his closest confidence in this system, both of these men killed and we believe there are other casualties as well in this massive explosion. One eyewitness is telling us that the streets of Damascus are completely deserted right now. It's as if there's a curfew in place right now in the aftermath of this blow.

State TV reporting that a replacement for the slain defense minister has already been announced, a man by the name of General Fahad Jassim. It's fair to also say that these two officials who have been reported killed by state TV, Kristie, the defense minister and the deputy defense minister, were also on lists facing sanctions from the European Union for their alleged role in atrocities against the civilian population in Syria - - Kristie.

LU STOUT: Ivan, earlier we talked about the battle for control of the city of Damascus, but how much control does Bashar al-Assad have on his own government and his own military with reports of mounting defections?

WATSON: Well, the military has been melting from within for more than a year now. We've been talking to defectors. I meet them quite literally on the streets of Istanbul day after day here. This is a massive conscript army. And it's very clear that many Syrians do not want to have a part in the violence there, either for ideological reasons or just purely for personal safety reasons. There are growing numbers of officers who are quitting the regime and quitting the military.

I talk to career officers again and again and again who are walking away. The Turkish government claiming two more brigadier generals crossed the border from Syria to Turkey within the last couple of days adding to already more than a dozen brigadier generals and including a major general, or at least one, who have fled the armed forces as well. And that's got to be a serious problem for the Syrian government, which has fielded its own army for more than a year in an effort to quell an unprecedented uprising, challenging more than 40 years of rule by the Assad family -- Kristie.

LU STOUT: And Ivan, as the defections mount, is the insurgency acting more boldly? And is that what resulted in what we saw today, the suicide blast attacking the security apparatus of Syria?

WATSON: We're getting some conflicting claims -- not conflicting, but we're getting some claims of responsibility for the attack that we're just trying to nail down 100 percent before we go to air with it.

What we are hearing from the armed opposition, from a fighter we just talked to, is that the fighting we've seen in the past three to four days in Damascus and an unprecedented challenge to the authority of the Syrian security forces in the capital itself, that's a very symbolic move, this fighter claiming that this is part of a concerted effort by a number of different rebel brigades both in Damascus and also from other cities like Homs and Idlib. And that they're trying to take this fight to the steps of the presidential palace itself. Whether or not that's just bluster or boasting or whether or not they have the capability to do that is not clear.

What we've seen is that it has forced the Syrian army to deploy armored personnel carriers, armored vehicles in the streets of the capital itself over the past few days. It's even used helicopter gunships, according to eyewitness accounts, firing into Damascus civilian neighborhoods against suspected rebel targets.

It's important to add further Damascus has been a safe haven, if you can put it that way, over the course of the uprising. Residents of other cities and towns that have been devastated by the fighting, that have been reduced to rubble, have been fleeing to Damascus over the course of the past year-and-a-half, fleeing there because there has been less overt fighting. That has come to an end over the course of the past few days. And we're even getting reports from eyewitnesses, Kristie, that residents are now fleeing from one battle stricken neighborhood to another in an attempt to escape the fighting.

You can only imagine what that's doing to a population already traumatized by unprecedented levels of violence that have been seen in a country that had long been seen prior to this uprising as a bedrock of stability in the Middle East -- Kristie.

LU STOUT: That's right. The humanitarian problem -- the terror of all this. Ivan Watson reporting. Thank you.

You're watching News Stream. Dramatic developments in Syria this day with the death of the country's defense minister and deputy defense minister, brother-in-law of Bashar al-Assad. We'll be back right after the break.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

LU STOUT: All right. Let's get you updated on the turmoil unfolding in Syria. Syrian state TV is reporting that Syrian President Bashar al- Assad has appointed a new defense minister following a suicide bombing in Damascus. Now the blast killed Syrian defense minister Daoud Rajha, also killed President al-Assad's brother-in-law, the deputy defense minister. There are reports of multiple explosions and gunfire in Damascus neighborhoods. And just a short time ago the Syrian regime blamed Arab and western governments for the unrest.

Now we want to bring in Jamal Khaddam. He's the son of the former vice president of Syria Abu Halim Khaddam (ph). He joins us live from Paris.

I'm just curious, how are you watching these events unfolding in Damascus? What's your reaction?

JAMAL KHADDAM, SON OF FORMER SYRIAN VICE PRESIDENT: The reaction -- actually the people now a little bit worried about the regime, what he's doing, how he's going to react. But on the same time, there are full of hope and happiness that the end is beginning -- the end is beginning and the son will rise again in Syria.

LU STOUT: Do you believe that we are seeing, right now, the fall of Damascus in the same way we were witnessing the fall of Tripoli in Libya last year?

KHADDAM: I have not been seeing this all of my country since now seven years. And I think now I hope mid of summer I'm going to go back to Damascus.

LU STOUT: Through your contacts and connection, who is responsible for today's suicide blast that targeted the security apparatus that resulted in the deaths of a Syrian defense minister and deputy defense minister?

KHADDAM: Actually in a situation like this, that -- a big like this, I mean -- and very organized like this, it's (inaudible) the revolution people actually down there who is fighting on the street in Syria in each city and in each road, they prepare beautiful thing. And I think this is a gift of Ramadan to all the Arab people from east to west I think, because when we finalize this regime, actually, everybody will feel happy in everywhere from India to Morocco.

LU STOUT: You're calling this a gift, but the fierce fighting is still underway in Damascus. The uprising is still not over. Just then we were listening to our correspondent Ivan Watson reporting on humanitarian concerns, people fleeing from neighborhood to neighborhood. Sorry, I'm not judging your statement just then. You're welcome to your opinion. But are you talking to any friends and family inside Damascus? And what are they telling you about the situation there?

KHADDAM: The situation is actually now very difficult. I mean, you cannot go from one street to other street or from -- you cannot pass meters without asking to you about your passport or what you are doing here and the reason that you are coming here. So the situation now is very difficult, because the matter now is the matter of Damascus.

Everybody knows that this is -- this is the goal battle for the revolution, you know. And we are not going to lose actually.

LU STOUT: Jamal Khaddam, son of former Syrian vice president joining us live on the line from Paris. Thank you for sharing your thoughts with us.

KHADDAM: Thank you very much.

LU STOUT: Now we are joined -- thank you.

We're joined now by Dan Plesch in London. Now he is the director for the Center for International Studies and Diplomacy. He joins us now.

How are you watching the events unfolding today? Do you think this is a turning point in the 16 month uprising in Syria?

DAN PLESCH, DIR, CTR FOR INTERNATIONAL STUDIES AND DIPLOMACY: I think we shouldn't exaggerate it. Clearly it's very serious for the regime and all the international attention that comes from this what in any other environment one would call a terrorist action against the Syrian defense minister and defense ministry. I think it's too early to talk about the imminent fall of the regime because the army as a whole still seems to be a coherent and large and very heavily armed force.

That being said, this is already an international regime that Gulf Arab states, Turkey, are actively involved with the uprising against the Syrian regime. It's a misnomer I think to talk about this as a civil war.

LU STOUT: And are you surprised, though, by the strength of the insurgency that resulted in today's suicide blast?

PLESCH: Not really. I mean, clearly there is a huge opposition in the country. The Kurds in the northwest are already with their brethren across the border in Syria breaking away. The key issue I think is the western tribes towards Iraq, whether they no bloc defect to the opposition. And of course the horrendous actions by the Syrian army against numerous urban and rural areas in the country can only be forcing that issue.

But they are also being, I think, quite well armed and probably trained by external clandestine forces from the Gulf and probably from Turkey and indeed some European/North American involvement I think should be asked about, frankly.

LU STOUT: Now we have a UN security council vote to take place just a few hours from now. Do you think this event in Damascus will somehow accelerate the push for tougher sanctions on Syria? What will be the reaction?

PLESCH: Well it will. That may have been part of the motivation of the timing. But one has to remember I think that for large parts of the world the 800 pound gorilla in the room is the widely perceived illegal invasion of Iraq. And in the aftermath of that, many countries agree with the Russians and the Chinese that the U.S. and its allies shouldn't be given a free run. And they also I think aware that in the geopolitical stakes, neutralizing Syria, an adversary of Israel and ally of Iran, that is an important piece to take off the chessboard if that's what turns out to happen.

So while I have no case to argue for the Russians or the Chinese, one has to understand that giving carte blanche Kosovo style, Libyan style to the U.S. and NATO to carry out military action is something that many states and peoples in the world are very reluctant to see, particularly after Iraq.

LU STOUT: All right. Dan Plesch at CSIS, thank you so much for joining us and giving us the additional context, telling us that you don't believe that today's events in Damascus is in fact a turning point in the uprising in Syria and also giving us your thoughts on likely UN security council reactions. Thank you.

And in fact in regards to UN security council, we'll be taking you to the UN next for more on these dramatic developments out of Syria, the death of the country's defense minister and deputy defense minister. Stay with us.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

LU STOUT: All right. Let's return now to our main story today on News Stream: Syria's defense minister has been killed in a suicide bombing in the capital Damascus, that's accord to state media.

Now Daoud Rajha is reportedly the highest ranking official to have died in the country's conflict. It happened in a suicide bombing at a national security building. Rajha's deputy who was also Bashar al-Assad's brother-in-law is also said to have died. Syria's information minister has said that the political and moral responsibility for the blast lies with the west and with Arab governments. State media says that a new defense minister has now been appointed.

And halfway around the world, the crisis in Syria is taking center stage before the UN security council. And diplomats are wrangling over competing draft resolutions and the fate of the UN observer mission in Syria. Now senior UN correspondent Richard Roth joins us now live from New York. And Richard, how will events today in Damascus affect the UN security council vote that will take place a few hours from now?

RICHARD ROTH, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, it's not for sure that this vote will happen today. And it could happen, though, by Friday, that's the deadline when the UN unarmed observer mission is supposed to be renewed by, or else it will either be withdrawn, be pulled, or downsized. Interesting timing, though, with this -- these bombings, because perhaps, we don't know, the plotters as the Syrians have alleged in their interview in Damascus say that it was really done to influence the security council.

Sergey Lavrov, Russian foreign minister, I believe quoted in saying there's a major battle going on in Damascus and if there is a revolution going on there, the UN could do nothing.

The Russians have been blocking any further significant action against the Syrian regime of President Assad. They don't think the UN should be getting involved in a situation where Russia says there's too many unknown actors on the ground. They, Russia, never likes the idea of the UN getting involved anyway when a member state seems to be imploding.

The west has a resolution which threatens economic sanctions on Syria. But now will the UN members say this is not the time to be acting with more significant action? Sometimes this happens, Kristie, where events on the ground tend to overrun the diplomatic action in New York.

LU STOUT: Now Richard, the generals killed today in Damascus, the defense minister and the deputy defense minister who is a relative of Bashar al-Assad, were they named on a list for potential targeted sanctions on Syria? Were they factored in?

ROTH: I don't -- can't say for sure, because sanction really have not been voted on yet. And then they usually form a committee to come up with a special sanctions list naming individuals. No doubt should this escalate in the sanctions arena, names and those close to the president, well that will come up.

But Russia has a veto. China will go along pretty much on whatever Russia will do providing cover for Beijing. So Russia is certainly going to block a resolution today if it came up for a vote that would threaten in 10 days sanctions on the Syrian regime if it fails to cooperate.

But U.S. ambassador Susan Rice the other day said why are we keeping these UN observers there, they're just left hanging? She noted the increase in violence in Damascus. Certainly now getting closer to the president's inner circle, having 300 UN people there it does remind one of other previous crises such as the Balkans, Bosnia, where UN people were stuck in the middle with a divided UN mandate.

LU STOUT: Now let's talk more about Russia. I understand that Russia has submitted its own enhanced draft resolution. Can you tell us more about what it says and if it's effective?

ROTH: Well, the wording was changed yesterday after President Putin talked with UN Arab League envoy Kofi Annan. Russian President Putin saying we want to give Mr. Annan and his plan all the help it requires. However, that's not enough for Mr. Annan. He has been appealing for security council messages of consequences to the Syrian regime, otherwise UN officials have said there's no teeth, nothing is going to change on the ground.

The Russian resolution does not mentions sanctions, and it will never really do that. And I don't think the violence is going to be enough to significantly change the diplomatic wrangling. It may delay any type of vote today. They won't have to vote, really, if the mission in Damascus is not renewed, it would just close up shop, because of a lack of a formal vote.

The Russian draft usually gets pushed aside. The west has been listening, but there's frustration and that's why there could be some bluffing going on. Will there be a vote today. It was tentatively scheduled in principal for this afternoon in New York. I'm not so sure that would happen today.

LU STOUT: All right. Richard Roth joining us live from New York. Thank you very much indeed for that.

Now the Syrian regime is blaming Arab and western governments for the turmoil unfolding in the country. Syrian state TV reports a suicide bombing killed a Syrian defense minister in Damascus. Now he would be the highest ranking official to be killed in the 16 month conflict. Also killed today his deputy and President Bashar al-Assad's brother-in-law.

Now Syria's president has named a new defense minister, but that is doing very little to just quiet the unrest in Damascus going into its fourth day of clashes there. Opposition activists are reporting running street battles and explosions and gunfire in the Syrian capital.

And that is News Stream, but the news continues at CNN. World Business Today is next.

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