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Syria: Mission Impossible

Aired August 2, 2012 - 15:00:00   ET


CHRISTIANE AMANPOUR, CNN HOST: Good evening, everyone, I'm Christiane Amanpour. And welcome to the program. My brief tonight, mission impossible in Syria. The U.N. special envoy who also represented the Arab League, Kofi Annan, made that grim assessment today and then he quit his job.

Annan said that the Security Council is paralyzed by, quote, "finger pointing and name calling," and of course we've seen that mostly happen between the United States and Russia over how to engineer a political transition that also removes Bashar al-Assad from power.

U.N. monitors have remained mostly on the sidelines, unable to intervene in an increasingly fierce civil war. And Annan has felt the heat from all sides. Some called him Assad's shield, while others said the so- called Annan political plan was nothing more than a fig leaf that provided diplomatic cover for inaction by the United States and its allies.

But now we're seeing small signals of a shift in American policy towards Syria. This week, the Treasury Department authorized an organization known as the Syrian Support Group to give direct financial assistance to the Free Syrian Army. And President Barack Obama reportedly signed a secret order some time ago authorizing the CIA to help the rebel fighters, though not with weapons.

Meanwhile, intense fighting continues in Aleppo, where troops are converging for what looks like an all-out assault. And so how will stepped up U.S. aid affect the war now? I'll ask Brian Sayers of the Syrian Support Group, and retired Syrian General Akil Hashem, who long ago left the Assad regime and now works to support the rebels.

But first, here's what's happening later in the program.



AMANPOUR (voice-over): As the United States inches closer to Syria's rebels, the State Department counterterrorism chief is warning them not to let Al Qaeda into their ranks.

Then imagine a world where Europe's last dictator is under a sneak invasion from the sky, an unbearable attack of democracy.


AMANPOUR: We'll get to that in a bit. But first, a closer look at the Syrian Support Group, which has been given the green light by the United States Treasury Department to offer financial support to the Free Syrian Army.


AMANPOUR: Brian Sayers is the group's director of government relations, and we welcome him from Washington.

Mr. Sayers, thank you for being with me. You know a lot from your previous roles in NATO and elsewhere about these kinds of movements. What precisely has the U.S. authorized you to do?

BRIAN SAYERS, DIRECTOR OF GOVERNMENT RELATIONS, SSG: Well, basically, we have authorization to provide financing, logistics, communications and services to the Free Syrian Army.

AMANPOUR: And that means before this authorization, what were you doing?

SAYERS: Before this authorization, we were primarily playing an advocacy role, an activist role here in Washington, trying to educate and teach people about what the Free Syrian Army is, because there are so many questions.

AMANPOUR: Indeed, and we'll get to that in a second. But is that enough? If that's what you were hoping for, do you want -- do you need more?

SAYERS: Oh, absolutely. We will always advocate for more. This is a good start, that's for sure. But we definitely need some further support from the international community in particular.

AMANPOUR: Further support in terms of what? You want eventual authorization somehow to be able to provide military support?

SAYERS: Well, I mean, it would be good if the military councils of the Free Syrian Army had the right type of weapons to take out the tanks and planes of the Assad regime. And because they want to carve out centers of peace, as you know, safe zone, those areas are going to have to be defended. And it's going to be very challenge for them to do that without some type of air support or no-fly zone.

AMANPOUR: So from your experience, how does this new authority to at least provide financial and other such nonlethal support, how will that affect, do you think, if at all right now, the balance of the fighting on the ground?

SAYERS: Well, first of all, it's going to send a strong signal to the FSA and to the military councils that, quite frankly, they may not say that the United States is behind them, but they're going to say that there's an entity that's behind and an entity that supports them, whether that's for salaries or for to buy gas masks or to buy the right kind of equipment and weapons that they need.

And that's a very -- that's a fundamental shift, because as you know, there are funds coming in from outside the country. And those funds go to other extreme groups, perhaps jihadist groups, but they also have a lot of conditions attached.

AMANPOUR: Well, actually, I was going to ask you about that. You said, you know, there's so many questions about who the FSA is and what's actually going on.

So number one, who is the FSA? Do you know?

SAYERS: Right. Well, we primarily work with the nine military councils and they are fairly well structured. They have good command and control. They have a number of branches underneath that operate -- that include operations, treasury, even communications. They are fairly well structured. They communicate with each other.

Of course, they're lacking a head at the top, and that's a bit problematic. They -- hopefully they'll come to a resolution and achieve that. But that's primarily who we work with.

AMANPOUR: So you --

SAYERS: Clearly there --

AMANPOUR: Yes, go ahead.

SAYERS: Well, there are FSA that are outside the military council. You know, a family may open their home up to be a center for refuge, and then call themselves the FSA. A family or a man who used to maybe own a shop may pick up the one weapon in his house and then call himself the FSA.


SAYERS: So that gets a little bit murky.



SAYERS: (Inaudible) -- yes.

AMANPOUR: -- even murkier is what's going on with jihadis and others, Al Qaeda and Al Qaeda options coming in. And the really very troubling development that we've seen over the last few days, particularly in Aleppo, where you had admitted execution by so-called rebels, people who are not the Syrian Army forces, killing people, lining them up and shooting them at point-blank range.

How do you square your ability now to fund people who you admit you don't know who they are with those kinds of irregularities?

SAYERS: Well, I'll be clear. We are going to be funding the military councils and the commanders of those councils. And they have all signed a proclamation of principles. And that's committing them to standing up for a multi-ethnic society, for a democracy in the future, to come under a democratic government, for rule of law, to uphold the Geneva Conventions.

I mean, it's a very profound act. And they are getting their soldiers to subscribe to this. On that event, which you describe, this was very unfortunate. And I'm not ruling out that things will not go wrong, of course we know even in our own conflicts of the United States that we have soldiers that commit atrocities and war crimes. And we have to do things about that. We have to prosecute --


AMANPOUR: But, of course, the United States has a unified command and control since the reports.

I hear what you're saying, that you need to hold those people accountable, and you need to know where this money is going to and how it's going to be used.

I just want to change -- turn now for a moment to Akil Hashem, a former Syrian -- a former Syrian colonel. You were in the -- brigadier general, there you go, sorry.

What do you think about these atrocities? How do you hold people accountable and does it concern you?

AKIL HASHEM, FORMER SYRIAN BRIGADIER GENERAL: It concerns me a lot. I can't understand. You know, after a year and a half of these unbelievable criminal act committing in Syria, I can't understand why these things happening. But I disagree completely with that.

AMANPOUR: In other words, you disapprove?

HASHEM: Yes, I disapprove that.

AMANPOUR: You just heard Mr. Sayers saying that, you know, they have taken an oath now, members of the FSA, to have democracy, to have proper human rights values and to hold people accountable. How do you make sure that happens in what looks to be a little bit like a free-for-all?

HASHEM: I cannot be sure of anything of Syria. The Syrian situation went out of hand, OK? And this is all because of the delay of the international intervention in Syria. This is something very important, nobody understand it till now.

And the intervention happened like 6-7 months ago. Nothing will happen like that. Nothing ever will happen like that. The more we delay this intervention, the more we will be subject to so many consequences and wrongdoing things. But I believe -- I disagree with Mr. Bryan, when he said jihadi group or Al Qaeda -- there is no Al Qaeda in Syria.


HASHEM: Nobody can tell the truth about that better than me. There is no Al Qaeda in Syria as an organization. There is some individuals who manage to enter Syria. There is some Syrian people who believe in the Al Qaeda ideology. But that doesn't (inaudible) make it that an organize -- added to was like in Iraq after the invasion.

So there is no such thing like that at all.

AMANPOUR: So how do you allay the very real fears of people who are now saying, well, look, you know, what about the minorities in Syria? What about the Alawites? What about the Christians? Will there be a mass bloodletting in the event of a resolution of this or in the event of President Assad falling?

HASHEM: That's why I'm saying this is an international issue. It is not local, not even regional. So there must be some very, very important measures to maintain this thing and to prevent anything like that of happen.

And one of these measures that Syria needs, a deployment of a big, big amount of divisions and troops from Arabic countries after the fall of the regime or if they get to a deal to make a transitional -- some transitional resolution. So to maintain the security and the stability in Syria after that, otherwise it is open to every possibility.

AMANPOUR: Kofi Annan, who had a plan for a political transition, has resigned effective at the end of August. Do you think that will affect the situation on the ground? But more importantly, do you think there is still time for a political transition that includes members of the Alawite sect, which is the minority that backs President Assad?

HASHEM: First of all, to begin with, the Annan mission was from the beginning a failed mission, because it is -- undermined the national economy of a large amount of international monitors to go there like by thousands, accompanied by troops to guard them.

And this is nothing from that happened. So this is completely a failed mission from the very beginning. So when he resigned, that didn't make any difference --


AMANPOUR: Do you think there's still time for a political solution?

HASHEM: No. I don't think so at all, because this is not just about Bashar al-Assad and his family and his surrounding trusty people. No, this is a huge establishment of commanders of the army, of the commander of the intelligence, of shabiha, of --

AMANPOUR: Those are the (inaudible) --

HASHEM: -- yes, everybody. This is a big establishment. So there is now way for negotiation to take place (inaudible).

AMANPOUR: What about the battle of Aleppo? Does the future of this conflict depend on that? And what will it look like?

HASHEM: No. First of all, they (inaudible), very, very important as (inaudible). First ,is the second largest city in Syria. And the economic capital of Syria. And it is close to the border of Turkey, the wide open borders, like 900 kilometers. So this is very important.

Plus there is very important thing, the structure of the population of Aleppo contains so many minorities, big Christian community, big Armenian (ph) community, so many villages and towns, Kurdish towns in the area like Arabeen (ph) and other.

So this is very important. It's not unlike Idlib or Hama or Dara'a or the resort where the (inaudible) was like 95 percent Sunni. Here are -- there is a diversity of people and they all now participating in this battle.

So this is very important. But this is not conventional warfare. This is a guerilla warfare. Means that the -- if the regime manage to deploy so many troops and I have very confirmed information about so many deployment convoys of tanks and artillery and (inaudible) going towards Idlib, because the regime, you know, think it is the mother of the battles.

This is an expression he borrowed from Saddam Hussein, as you know. So if the heat is over or they will feel the heat, they will withdraw from the area --

AMANPOUR: Do you mean the rebels? To fight another day?

HASHEM: The freedom fighters, they will -- it happened before in Damascus and everywhere. They will fight again and again. The strategy not to hold areas, not to liberate area right now. In the future, it will be. The strategy is to consume the regime as much as possible casualties.


Brigadier General, thank you for joining me.

And one last word to Brian Sayers, do you believe there's time for a political solution?

SAYERS: No, I think that that's -- it's been finished. We've tried that. And now I think this is a signal that right now the solution is for the FSA to try to restore peace and be the impetus for democracy in the country. That's what they want to do.

AMANPOUR: All right. Brian Sayers, General Akim, thank you very much indeed.

And when we come back, the U.S. has been monitoring the influx of foreign fighters into Syria. I will ask the State Department's counterterrorism chief are these new recruits trying to bring down Assad or raise the flag of Al Qaeda?

But first, take a look at this picture. That is the ancient citadel of Aleppo, the Syrian city where government and rebel forces are poised for a fight to the death. It may look like mere ruins, but it is the oldest castle in the world, dating back to the 3rd millennium B.C., like the city it guards, it has survived the Hittites, the Romans and the Ottomans. But will it survive Syria's civil war? We'll be right back.



AMANPOUR: Welcome back to the program. As we examine where Syria's civil war is headed, I often think about what former U.S. President Bill Clinton said just a few months ago, that the longer this war festers, the greater the danger of bad actors stepping in.

And now the Obama administration is concerned with growing reports of Al Qaeda, its offshoots and other jihadis flooding into Syria.

So joining me now from the State Department is Daniel Benjamin, the U.S. ambassador at large for counterterrorism, and also coauthor of "The Next Attack: The Failure of the War on Terror and a Strategy for Getting It Right."

Welcome, Mr. Benjamin.


AMANPOUR: You, too. Let me ask you on this day where we've got Kofi Annan, who was meant to be trying to engineer a political solution. We've got him resigning and pretty much you heard our other guests saying no chance of a political solution.

How worried are you that that leaves the door further and further open to what I just described, the bad actors, Al Qaeda, its offshoots, jihadis?

BENJAMIN: Christiane, whenever you have a case of civil strife and instability as you have in Syria, it makes it extremely attractive to extremists who want to use this opportunity to sow more chaos and advance their cause and they'll undoubtedly see this as a place where they can make advances.

Right now in Syria, there are such individuals. We've seen plenty of news reporting on it. There is -- there are some Al Qaeda related fighters. The number is relatively small now, but obviously it's a matter of concern and we don't want Syria to remain an area where extremists can come in and increase the violence.

AMANPOUR: Mr. Benjamin, you say we've seen media reports; that's indeed true. Our colleagues have been out there gathering this information. But from your point of view, from the counterterrorism point of view, you said not large numbers.

How strong do you think Al Qaeda is there? Who are they? And what are they planning?

BENJAMIN: Well, I would put the numbers in the dozens to 100-plus. You know, we don't have that much granularity that we can say with any certainty exactly how many are there. They come from a variety of different countries. The easiest way to get in, of course, is through the border with Iraq, which is quite porous.

And their goal, really, is to inflame the situation in Iraq as much as they can, to stoke the fighting and use that as an opportunity to sort of infiltrate themselves into the action and become bigger and bigger players.

AMANPOUR: Well, you said inflame the situation in Iraq. I know you meant in Syria.

BENJAMIN: I'm sorry.


BENJAMIN: You're right.

AMANPOUR: How likely do you think that they will infiltrate the rebellion? Or will they stay separate?

And does it matter?

BENJAMIN: Well, it does matter, given their numbers. I think their hope is more to infiltrate than to become an independent force. I think it's unlikely that they would become a very formidable independent force and, in fact, the Free Syrian Army and other opposition groups would probably target them and do their best to get them out of the country as fast as possible.

Those opposition groups have said on many occasions that they oppose having these foreigners in their ranks, and they've told them to leave the country.

AMANPOUR: So given the fact that the United States by all accounts is not yet in the business of entering any military support or giving any military support to the rebels, what -- I mean, how do you stop Al Qaeda and the jihadis doing what they're doing there?

BENJAMIN: Well, again, the main -- the main focus has been to keep the Syrian opposition groups up to speed and inform them of this threat, tell them to be vigilant, tell them to watch out for who's joining their ranks. And then more broadly to work with partners around the world to hinder terrorist travel so that anyone who's headed towards that region will find it harder and harder to get there.

And with any luck, we can make it impossible for many of them to get there. Again, in a situation like Syria, we don't have an enormous number of tools for countering them right now, except ensuring that they are really seen as a foreign hostile force in Syria that really the Syrian people do not need.

AMANPOUR: And how long do you assess -- how do you assess the chances of the end of the Assad regime through military means?

BENJAMIN: Well, that's really a question for the military analysts, and I don't pretend to be one. The Assad regime is very dug in, obviously. We all expected things to move fairly quickly after the bombing that took out several of his chief aides. But this is, you know, a regime that seems to determined to brutalize its own people and not to move on with the transition.

And anyone who cares about stability in this part of the world, keeping the terrorists out, keeping Syria, you know, an integrated, whole, intact country, has to be very concerned about this and has to see that the departure of the Assad regime is everyone's best hope for stability and peace in the region.

AMANPOUR: Do you believe there's any chance of a negotiated, a political solution? You heard our other two guests say no.

BENJAMIN: Well, again, you know, the diplomats in the U.N. and elsewhere will have a better take on that. The Annan framework, although Kofi Annan is departing, the framework remains. There will be further chances for it.

It doesn't look good at the moment, but perhaps Russia, perhaps China will come around, will see the sense in a U.N. Security Council resolution that authorizes Chapter 7 activities and that that will put more pressure on Assad and he will see the writing on the wall. But there's no future for him in Syria.

AMANPOUR: Well, then, let me ask you about writing on the wall, because people are concerned that even if Assad goes, if there's no political resolution that it could explode the conflict and have ramifications around the region.

We've seen -- let me take you further afield in Africa, Mali, where they're saying that what happened in Libya has had a direct effect. Give me your assessment of how strong Al Qaeda is in Mali and what the U.S. can do about it.

BENJAMIN: Well, it is the case that the Libyan revolution had some unintended consequences in terms of the return of lots of fighters and sort of a wave of weaponry entering Mali. That aided in a sense the Tuareg rebellion in the north, the army collapsed.

And as a result, we have a really unwanted situation in northern Mali, where a combination of Tuareg forces and a small but potent cadre of Al Qaeda is there as well. We believe that this is a neighborhood in which all the neighboring countries have a great deal of political will to deal with this threat in their midst.

They're all acutely aware of the danger that Al Qaeda and the Islamic Maghreb plays and -- or opposes. And we think that they're going to work together quite effectively --

AMANPOUR: So are you concerned that since you -- you know, you've denied them a country and a haven in Afghanistan that they may find that very haven in Mali?

BENJAMIN: I don't think over the long term they will. I think that these countries have dealt with AQIM for a number of years, and they're determined to put it back in the box. But the instability in Mali itself, of course, is not something we want.

And that's why it's so important to get the government in Bamako, the capital of Mali, standing up again so that it can deploy its military and so that the partners can work together and eliminate this safe haven. There's no question that's an imperative, but it won't happen overnight.

AMANPOUR: Daniel Benjamin, thank you so much for joining me from the State Department.

BENJAMIN: My pleasure.

AMANPOUR: And we'll be right back after a break.


AMANPOUR: And a final thought tonight -- imagine a world where a dictator is threatened by teddy bears. That's right, toys. A public scandal over a security crisis has erupted now because a month ago in Belarus three activists from Sweden took off in a little plane and crossed into that country's airspace to promote democracy in a place that's called the last dictatorship in Europe.

Instead of dropping leaflets, they parachuted 800 teddy bears, bearing slogans that read, "We support the Belarus struggle for free speech," and "Belarus Freedom."

President Lukashenka was not amused, and he sacked his two top air force generals. And that must be the first time in history that an air force was defeated by stuffed animals. Imagine that. And that's it for tonight's program. Thank you for watching and goodbye from New York.