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Replay of Tony Blair Interview; Syrian Suicide Bombing

Aired July 20, 2012 - 15:00:00   ET


CHRISTIANE AMANPOUR, CNN HOST: Good evening, everyone, I'm Christiane Amanpour. Welcome to our special weekend edition of the program, where we bring you two of the big stories that we covered this week. And we've been reporting this week from Jerusalem, watching events unfold fast and furious everywhere from Iran to Syria.

In a moment, I'll have a wide-ranging conversation with the former British prime minister, Tony Blair. And few others are better poised to weigh in on these issues that are facing this region at this time.

And first we go in-depth on the mounting Syrian uprising. For the first time since it began, top members of President Bashar al-Assad's inner circle, his senior defense and intelligence officials were killed. State television has called it a suicide bombing, but the rebels claim they detonated a bomb by remote control in a well planned inside job.

Akil Hashem is a former Syrian general with an insider's knowledge. He served 27 years in the country's military and he knew several of those advisers who were assassinated in Damascus. I talked with him shortly after it happened.


AMANPOUR: Thank you for being with us --


AMANPOUR: -- Mr. Hashem. Is there any doubt in your mind that this event happened and how do you think it happened with no sort of evidence?

HASHEM: The most confirmed theory about that, it was a guy from the inner circle, a bodyguard from the inner circle of the regime, managed to plant a device, some explosion (sic) inside the room under the table, where this committee -- they called it the crisis committee -- head by Hassan Turkmani, who was killed in that incident.

And when the explosion happened, they were killed and there are so many others get injured severely. We don't know if they're going be killed or not. Now the only strange thing that these four names, who had been cleared by the Syrian officials, has been dead.

These, the same four people whom the opposition, a month ago or maybe a little bit more, declared, announced that they were killed in the same meeting but by poisoning. So I don't know. I don't know for sure.

I don't agree 100 percent that the regime managed to hide the deaths of these four people a couple of months until he -- and take this thing. I rely more on the theory that it was an explosion. Now --

AMANPOUR: Mr. Hashem, let me ask you, let me ask you a question first. You've explained what you think your theory is; and certainly, rebels have claimed that. What does it mean that these four people seem to have been killed? What does it mean for Bashar al-Assad?

HASHEM: It means a lot, physically and mentally. First of all, it is a big blow to the regime. These four people are very, very important. Of course, they are not decision-makers. You know, in Syria and this dictatorship regime for years and years, the decision lays in the hands of one person, who is the dictator, not more than that.

But they are leading all the operation inside Syria, especially the very close relative, the brother-in-law, Assef Shawqat, who is -- who oversees all the intelligence agency in Syria -- and you know in Syria there is 17 different kind of security and intelligence agency.

AMANPOUR: Can Bashar al-Assad survive this? I know you said these people are the enforcers. They're not the decision-makers. But they were his top, probably most trusted lieutenants. How does he survive this? Who does he trust anymore?

HASHEM: He cannot trust anybody and he is in a very bad shape. His morale is in -- goes down the drain. He cannot do anything. He is hiding somewhere -- I don't know where. And he is so frightened and panicked of what's going on. Now as I said, if you shared this incident with the fight in Damascus, means this is the beginning of the end of this regime.

I cannot anticipate what's going to happen in the future, in the very near future, but I will wait like couple days until to see the consequences of this incident, and I can anticipate. But all possibilities are on the table, all possibilities. This guy might flee the country in this evening. This guy might be assassinated.

This guy might be subject to military coup or maybe his brother will take power off him. Everything is possible because the regime is collapsing. And this is what we anticipate.

On the other side, these freedom fighters, who were little in number and in equipment, seven months ago, now they are very well organized, very well commanded, very well armed, not, of course, as the regime, but they are still now fighting in the streets of Damascus. The strategy of the freedom fighters has been changed recently from a defensive strategy to offensive strategy.

At the beginning, their own job was to defend the civilians, the peaceful civilians, unarmed civilians from the attacks of the regime. But now they are going out to hunt the regime in every way they can, in every possible way they can do.

AMANPOUR: Last question, very briefly, Mr. Hashem, you say they're organized now. Of course, the world has always said that they're disorganized. But do you think that this was a rebel infiltration? Or was it a disaffected bodyguard who had nothing to do with the rebellion yet?

HASHEM: Let me tell you one thing for sure, and I can, you know, I can confirm that from hundreds of my reliable sources. There are so many people inside the regime, who are working with the revolution and they still pretend that they are part of the regime.

And this guy was one of them. There are so many high rank officers in the military, in the intelligence services, everywhere.

They support the revolution with information about the movement of the military forces, about everything they can, and there are so many people are sleeping agents inside the regime, ready to do anything required to get rid of this regime and take Syria to a democratic liberated country in the future, in the near future, Insha'Allah. You know what Insha'Allah means?

AMANPOUR: I certainly do.

And today has been a turning point, Akil Hashem. Thank you very much indeed for joining me.


AMANPOUR: And Israel, where I am right, is one country that's, of course, keeping a close eye on what's developing in neighboring Syria. And when we come back, Israel's challenge relationship with yet another of its neighbors. We'll talk Syria, Iran and the dangers of the Cold War between Israelis and Palestinians with former British prime minister, Tony Blair. That's after a break.


AMANPOUR: Welcome back to the program from Jerusalem. And Israel, of course, sits at the center of the world's most volatile region. It's surrounded by instability and change, whether it's the rise of the new Islamist government next door in Egypt, the bloody uprising against Bashar al-Assad in neighboring Syria, the mounting tensions with Iran or the conflict with the Palestinians.

Former British prime minister Tony Blair is the rare statesman with both an inside and an outside view of all these vital issues. He's visited this region more than 80 times since he was prime minister. I caught up with him while he was visiting Jerusalem again, swimming against the current tide, trying to jumpstart the dead peace process.


AMANPOUR: Tony Blair, thank you for being here in our Jerusalem studio.

BLAIR: My pleasure.

AMANPOUR: You're here to try and do everything you can to get this peace process jumpstarted.

I was interviewing the Palestinian prime minister, who I know you do a lot of work with on this issue, and he really was talking about a lot of frustration and worrying that, since this is going nowhere, it could lead to an explosion on the streets again. He was very worried. How worried are you?

BLAIR: I'm worried and frustrated, too. You know, I think we've managed to keep this whole process from collapsing, but that's not the same thing as getting it moving.

Now, if it does collapse, by the way, the consequences are really serious. You -- it's not just a question of sort of disorder and instability -- and though that's always a risk -- it's also that people end up losing hope in the concept of two states.

And you know, this is a -- one of the things that's most frustrating about this process is that, in some conflicts, there's no real agreement as to the eventual outcome. So if you take the Irish conflict, even, even though we got a peace process, the United Kingdom or United Ireland, there's not a position of the international community. The two sides still disagree. But they've found a way of living together.

Here you've got a stated agreement, a secure Israel, a viable state of Palestine, comprising the West Bank and Gaza, and issues, of course, about Jerusalem still to be decided. But there is a basic agreement as to the conceptual framework.

By the way, I'm still hopeful that, at some point over these coming months, we'll succeed. And the fact that it hasn't collapsed when, frankly, after the breakdown last September everyone thought it would is -- gives us some cause for hope.

AMANPOUR: We're sitting here in Israel, and all around there is instability and change. Let's look at one of the worst things that's happening, and that's Syria. Everybody seems to be wringing their hands, certainly in the international community.

What do you think should be the next moves by the international community in Syria? More than just calling out the Assad regime and saying, well, Russia has to get on board. What tangible steps can be taken to encourage defections, to try to organize the opposition?

BLAIR: The main thing that has to happen -- and you know, I think we're quite close to this happening, by the way -- is that the regime knows that its days are numbered, that it -- there is a way out of this, which is by an agreement.

But there isn't a way of staying in power with a small minority running the country. And, you know, obviously the Americans are doing what they can to persuade the Russians, the Chinese to come to a consensual position on this.

But the only thing that is going to work now is the sense that there is going to be a new dispensation, that the country will be governed differently and then, frankly, we're going to have to work very hard, because the rancor and bitterness that will be is very, very deep now.

AMANPOUR: You say the regime's days are numbered. But clearly Assad doesn't think that or is not acting in that way, and we've been saying this, actually, for the last several months. And he's still in power.



BLAIR: Yes, absolutely.

AMANPOUR: Lay out for me how you and President Clinton dealt with something very similar in Kosovo, and you actually didn't end-run around the Russians and you got a coalition of the willing, and you achieved a change in Kosovo. How does that happen, and why do people feel paralyzed today?

BLAIR: Well, I don't think they're paralyzed, but they're worried about the consequences of acting in a way that precipitates something worse.

AMANPOUR: But even the Israelis say it would be worse if Assad stays in power. This is worse, what's happening now.

BLAIR: Yes. And so I think you've got to do a combination of things. I think you've obviously got to carry on trying to get Security Council consensus, but I think you've got also to be taking the moves, and as I say, creating sort of secure areas is one option, where, as it were, the regime knows that, in the end, we're not giving up and going away. So it's going to happen. The only question is how it happens.

And I think we're quite close, actually, to the regime understanding this. And we just need to keep ramping up the pressure all the time. But the way -- you know, Kosovo obviously somewhat different situation, but in the end what was clear was that the way the persecution of the people was happening was unacceptable. And we were going to make sure it was not accepted.

AMANPOUR: So for somebody who took that decision, how much persecution of the Syrian people can the British government take, the American government take, the French government take?

BLAIR: Well, I think that patience ran out a long time ago. The question is now what are the practical steps that you take?

AMANPOUR: So what would be --


BLAIR: -- (inaudible) --

AMANPOUR: -- you talked about safe areas. Some of the defectors say we need those safe areas --

BLAIR: (Inaudible) --

AMANPOUR: -- to the north, to the south. (Inaudible) so we can defect safely --


AMANPOUR: -- so that we can get organized.

BLAIR: Well, I think this is -- this is one of the things that's got to be on the table and I think the reason why that is important is that it gives the opposition some sense that that support is there for them. But it also gives the regime a clear sense that their days are numbered.

Now, look, by the way, the aftermath is going to be very tough and, you know, as I know, having gone through Iraq and Afghanistan and so on, when you lift the lid off these very repressive regimes, out comes religious, tribal, ethnic influences that are very difficult and require enormous amount of management.

But I think the sooner this happens now, the better, because as each day passes and more people die -- and, after all, you know, now the figure's around in the 17,000-18,000 people. That's a lot of people and that's a lot of families who are bereaved and a lot of bitterness and hatred.

AMANPOUR: You talk about the post-conflict situation. Again, here we are in Israel; next door is Egypt. You've got Mohammed Morsi, formerly of the Muslim Brotherhood, who's now president. How do you think that is being seen here, when you talk to the Israeli prime minister and officials here, do they see a potential friend in Egypt? Or are they concerned?

BLAIR: I think the truth is they don't know. And, by the way, that's probably the same for all of us. Now I think what's important in Egypt is that we engage with the new president and the government there, especially on the economy.

The thing that worries me most about Egypt is how do they get their economy moving? How do they get young people with jobs, with some prospects, some opportunity, you know, how do they revive their tourism industry? How do they get some strength back into the private sector? These are big questions. And if we can help on those questions, I think we should.

AMANPOUR: How can you help?

BLAIR: Well, I think -- I mean, first of all, there's very direct aid that's going to go in from the outside world to Egypt. But I also think we can help with expertise and with, also, you know, there's got to be a sense of engagement and a sense -- and challenge is maybe the wrong word, but this won't happen unless correct decisions are taken on the economy --


AMANPOUR: By them?

BLAIR: Yes, by them. I think for the politics, we've just got to remember there are, you know, as the election showed in Egypt, OK, the Muslim Brotherhood won, but you know, for the former prime minister of President Mubarak, to come back close, is also an indication there's a (inaudible) constituency out there.

And I think one of the issues is going to be how do the more secular- minded people in this region start to organize themselves and start to get their politics in shape so that they can have a decent platform and program? And then you end up with what is -- you know, I keep saying this to people in the region: democracy is not just a way of voting, it's a way of thinking.

And the way of thinking is essentially open-minded and pluralistic. So one of the things we've got to encourage as well is a sense that this -- the person who wins the election doesn't sort of win the country, you know. You've then got to have a lively textier (ph) democratic debate about policy, about direction and so on.

AMANPOUR: By the same token, what does America, Britain, other Western democratic countries -- what is their responsibility, because clearly people are nervous about an Islamic so-called takeover. It is a democratically elected government.

How does the U.S., Britain, who've always worked with your autocratic leaders there, partly because it was stability, do they think -- do they see new friends in these new democratically elected leaders, or potential enemies?

BLAIR: Well, I think we come to it with an open mind. But that's why I think that we've got to engage. But we should do so, remaining true to our principles. And so the important thing is to have an engagement that is a genuine conversation about direction. And these countries will be different as well.

I mean, the Libyan election is interesting. It gives us some hope, I think, what's happening in Tunisia. You know, I've met some of the people there and I think that they're genuinely going to try and do the right thing.

And I'm sure, you know, there are people in Egypt. You know, the Muslim Brotherhood's not some totally hegemonic organization as well. So I think, one, we have to stay engaged, that this matters fundamentally. And, two, we have to engage on the basis of being frank and open about what we think and what democracy really is about.

AMANPOUR: And Mohammed Morsi told me before he was elected that, if he was elected, he would most definitely stand by the letter of the Camp David Accords and that the peace deal with Israel, but has said also it does demand that Israel do its part of the bargain as well. I think there will be a lot more of the street in foreign policy in those countries.

BLAIR: Yes, and that's why it's very important for Israel to seize every opportunity to advance the peace process and, you know, you are in a new situation today, for sure.

And that's one of the reasons why, you know, some people say with all the uncertainty in the region, you know, how can this peace process really move, and my argument is with all this uncertainty in the region, this is the time to move it.

AMANPOUR: And Iran, clearly there's some -- the prime minister's played (ph) here. Do you think a military intervention in Iran is likely, an Israeli strike? Do you think diplomacy still has a way to go?

BLAIR: Well, I think it's diplomacy we should try. I think the sanctions are obviously biting. I think the new sanctions, the Americans (inaudible) renouncing (ph) will have a real impact on the Iranian economy. But, you know, part of the trouble with politics today, I mean, you can see this about the euro in Europe. You see, you come to a big choice and either way is ugly.

And the thought of a military intervention in Iran is, you know, very problematic, very unpredictable. Heaven knows what consequences flow from that. But, personally, I think Iran with a nuclear bomb is not something we should contemplate. So this is really tough.

AMANPOUR: What sense do you get from talking to officials here?

BLAIR: It's lots of conversations that you have in this -- not a lot of point in discussing it very openly, but I think everyone here recognizes what a profound decision it is, that the consequences are difficult either way.

But you know, you're Israel. You're sitting here. You've got a country that wants to acquire a nuclear bomb and says that you basically shouldn't exist as a state. I mean, it's -- you know, if you were an Israeli, you'd be worried.

AMANPOUR: Is there more public office in view for Tony Blair? Everybody's talking about how you're positioning yourself to make a comeback.

BLAIR: I'm not really. It's just that people ask you the question in a way that says, you know, rule it out, and I kind of think, well, why should I? But that's not the same as planning to do it. You know what I mean?

So I -- it's -- I'm a public service person. I would have liked staying as prime minister. I would have taken the European job that had been offered me. So that's my preference. But I'm also enjoying the life I've got and doing lots of things and, you know, I kind of let the future take care of itself.

AMANPOUR: You didn't want to step down?

BLAIR: I mean, it was -- you know, became very difficult for me to stay, other than there was a lot of damage dealt my party, but also possibly to the country. So I decided to go. And I've done it. And 10 years is a long time.

AMANPOUR: Sounds like you're keeping the door open, though.

BLAIR: No, it's just -- it's --


BLAIR: -- it's literally -- I mean, maybe I should just shut it, but I kind of think, "Why?" I mean, you know, the -- so, look, I've still got plenty of ideas and energy. But I can't see anything happening on the horizon. I'm not planning or plotting or scheming.

AMANPOUR: All right. Tony Blair, thank you very much indeed.

BLAIR: Thank you. Thank you.


AMANPOUR: And whatever Tony Blair's future political prospects may or may not be, while he's working to bring the Israelis and Palestinians to the table again, relations between Israel and Iran, as he explained, have grown ever more tense.

After a bus explosion in Bulgaria injured and killed several Israeli tourists this week, Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu called it a terror attack and immediately blamed Iran. But there was a time when Iran and Israel were not enemies at all. We'll take a look back in history after a break.


AMANPOUR: And a final thought as we wrap up this week from Jerusalem: Israel and Iran on the brink with tensions mounting over the Bulgaria bus bombing and the U.S. scrambling to try to avoid an Israeli strike on Iran's nuclear facilities, you might think the two nations have always been mortal enemies.

But imagine a world where Iran helped save the Jewish people. Of course, in those days, Iran was known as Persia. In 960 B.C., King Solomon built the first temple Jerusalem and for the next four centuries, it was the spiritual heart of the Jewish faith.

But in 586 B.C., Babylonians destroyed the temple and drove the Jews into exile. But nearly half a century later, Cyrus the Great, king of Persia, conquered the Babylonians and paved the way for the Jews to return to Jerusalem, promising to rebuild their temple.

And his successor, King Darius, was also tolerant of other faiths, and he kept that promise. For five centuries, Jerusalem stood as the promise of two Persian kings. And despite being the most contested piece of land today, this city of Jerusalem remains the heart and soul of Jewish, Christian and Muslim faith.

And that's it for the weekend edition of our program. Meantime, our inbox is always open, Thank you for watching and goodbye from Jerusalem.