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Conflict in Syria

Aired August 27, 2012 - 15:00:00   ET


NINA DOS SANTOS, CNN HOST: That's a recap of the main stories that we're watching for you here on CNN. "AMANPOUR" is next.


ALI VELSHI, CNN HOST: Good evening and welcome to the program. I'm Ali Velshi, sitting in for Christiane Amanpour.

Tonight we focus on what may be the most awful aspect of the bloody conflict in Syria, the massacre. Mass killings, many of civilians and even children.

Now we've seen them several times this year, but the latest massacre appears to be on a whole new scale. It's the Damascus suburb of Daraya. It's a mostly poor area, largely Sunni, with a population of about 150,000. You see it there just south of Damascus.

Opposition activists say government forces murdered at least 320 people, many of them shot execution-style, in the head. Now while most of the victims appear to be men, women and children were also targeted. Now the pictures we've gotten in are horrifying, so we'll use them sparingly. But it is important to understand the kind of war this has become and the toll that it's taking.

The United Nations has reported that children in particular are targets in Syria, and once again, we've seen evidence of that in this massacre. We have one photo that's especially difficult to look at.


VELSHI (voice-over): These children are reportedly being buried -- readied for burial. One child has a pacifier resting on his chest. They were two of several dozen children killed in Daraya.

Another video shows the scale of the reported killing, and it is equally disturbing. These victims were found near a local mosque.


VELSHI: The suburb of Daraya was thought to be targeted because it had been a rebel stronghold up until this weekend. CNN has obtained an extraordinary account of life in Daraya over the last two weeks.

A journalist -- we are not naming her for her own safety -- was there in the days leading up to the massacre. Some of the images we are about to show you are graphic and are not appropriate for all viewers.



UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE (voice-over): Downtown Daraya, here every night during Ramadan the townspeople came together after nightly prayers in celebration.


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE (from captions): Victory!

UNIDENTIFIED MALE (from captions): Outpourings of happiness. By the grace of God, this will continue so we can prove to the world our revolution continues.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE (voice-over): I traveled to Daraya on the outskirts of Damascus because I'd heard that nearly two months after forcing out Syrian authorities, the town was declaring itself free Syria. For the safety of those who helped me get into Syria, I've promised not to reveal my identity.

After forcing out Syrian government forces nearly two months ago, anti-regime activists had been spending their days rebuilding the town. It was a sight I'd never seen before in Syria. The activists eagerly told me that they were in the next stage of their revolution.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE (from captions): Daraya is liberated. The revolution has won. We wanted to return normal life to Daraya and rebuild what the regime destroyed.

Ready? Ready?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE (voice-over): And for the first time, the Free Syrian Army based out in the gardens and fields on the outskirts of town, even agreed to allow us to film them carrying out exercises in broad daylight.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE (from captions): Every day we carry out training exercises. We train and train so that when the Syrian army comes, we are ready. As a force and for the battle to come. As far as the security situation in the Damascus suburbs goes, the Free Syrian Army is in complete control of the whole of the suburbs.

The Syrian security and armed forces are concentrated in Damascus proper. That's where they are trying to focus. With the grace of God, we are close to the end of our journey to take the capital.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE (voice-over): But Syrian government forces were on the move.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE (from captions): The planes are shelling.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE (voice-over): And after breaking the fast on the last day of Ramadan, we began to hear more (inaudible).

UNIDENTIFIED MALE (from captions): They're shelling us in Daraya.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE (voice-over): It was relentless.

The activists told us we had to leave Daraya or risk being trapped.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE (from captions): Come on! Come on!

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE (voice-over): After our departure, they continued to send us these pictures of the onslaught.


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE (voice-over): Even as the hospital became overrun with casualties, the Syrian government switched off electricity and running water. I listened to the clips they sent us as they narrated the unfolding massacre --

UNIDENTIFIED MALE (from captions): A martyr of Daraya.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE (voice-over): -- struggling to keep their voices steady --

UNIDENTIFIED MALE (from captions): May God grant him paradise.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE (voice-over): -- leaving the few doctors that remained to stumble in the dark.

In 72 hours, activists said 100 men, women and children were killed and more than 300 wounded, and that toll continues to rise. At first, we were told, they tried to bury their dead, but even funeral processions weren't safe from the shelling, and the bodies had to be abandoned.

After five days of bombardment, the town was eventually overrun by Syrian government forces. I lost touch with the activists trapped inside. One of the last messages they did manage to send read simply, "Daraya is now cursed."



VELSHI: And that death toll has risen. Opposition activists now saying over 300 people were murdered.

Let's go to NPR foreign correspondent Deb Amos on the Syria-Turkey border. She has reported extensively from Syria. She bore witness to a Syrian massacre in June.

Deb, thanks for being with us. These massacres, do you think they're a tactic that they are designed to scare everyone else, to scare villages and towns and suburbs that have been supporting the free Syrians and the rebels not to do so?

DEB AMOS, NPR FOREIGN CORRESPONDENT: That is certainly what the activists say, that this was a collective punishment, if you will. This town was a free Syrian town. I myself spoke to activists a month ago from Daraya.

And they were so proud of themselves. There was no regime presence in Daraya back then, and they had made political committees, cleanup committees, coordination with the rebels in their town. And they really felt that they were in a second stage of the revolution.

I spoke to them again by satellite phone on Saturday night, and they were stunned and shocked by what had happened to their town. The death count is extraordinary. You are right. I was at a massacre site in Syria. Then we had U.N. monitors that could actually investigate these situations. Now we do not.

And so we have videos from the activists. Of course, the regime has a very different account of what happened. They say that it was cleansed of terrorists. And so we will have to depend on the activists' account of what happened in that town.

VELSHI: Deb, you were -- you were in Qubeir in June, 78 people were killed there. Let's talk about what the activists -- I know you've talked to activists who were here in Daraya. They say that the Syrian army closed in on the town, cut off communication, cut off the Internet, cut off supplies but wouldn't let people out.

AMOS: That is a pattern when a town is under assault. That is not a surprise. And almost everybody in Syria knows when it is their turn, that the electricity goes and so does the Internet. This was a particularly long offensive and if you think about this town, that had so defied the regime, that had freed itself from the Assad regime, the punishment was likely to be severe.

There are reports that this was a town that also had food supplies and ammunition supplies in a warehouse in town. If we knew this, if journalists knew this, talking to activists, then the regime knew it as well.

Now there has been another event today that is connected to the massacres in Daraya, and that is reports of a helicopter shot down over Damascus. And there the rebels say that this was in retaliation for what happened in Daraya. Now the regime, the Syrian regime says -- acknowledges that a helicopter was shot down. The rebels say that they were the ones who did the shooting.

VELSHI: Deb, in other massacres, there has been an element of ethnic cleansing or sectarian targeting. Do we have any sense of the targeting here in Daraya? Was it simply because they were supporters of the rebel army? Or do you think there was any ethnic cleansing involved here as well?

AMOS: This is a Sunni Muslim town. You know, there is a sectarian element in almost everything now that happens. But I also can make the argument that this is really about people who are for the regime and support the regime and those who don't. This was a majority Sunni town, somewhere between 150,000 and 200,000 Sunnis live there.

The civilian militia, known as the shabiha that are -- were reported to have participated in this massacre, are Alawites, the same sect of President Bashar al-Assad, the elite of the army and the elite of the country. So in that way there's a sectarian element. But it is as political as it is sectarian.

VELSHI: So on one hand, the political part is the punishment for supporting the Free Syrian Army and the warning, perhaps, to other towns not to do the same. But on the other hand, pro-Assad Syrian TV had a very different account of what went down in Daraya.

AMOS: They did. And we all watched it. It was on Al Dounia and what we saw in that broadcast was a young woman walking through the empty streets of Daraya, and the camera lingered on dead bodies, people with shots to the head, a young girl, a woman at a gravesite.

And her account was these were terrorists who shot these people. Now what's interesting about the Al Dounia account is eventually it made it to the Web and translated into English.

There was a part of that broadcast, where the reporter interviewed two traumatized children, who were there, next to their dead mothers. It was an incredibly insensitive moment. And that part has been excised from the version that is now on the Web.

VELSHI: And our viewers have been watching this as you were talking about it.

OK, so we know Daraya was, as you say, a free Syrian city. It -- there was no government presence there. It was a rebel stronghold, apparently many of the rebels had left before the intensity of this attack began.

What is the effect on the -- on the rebels as a result of this massacre? What is the strategic effect and what is the psychological effect?

AMOS: You know, what we've seen as a pattern again and again in these cities under attack, it is the civilians that take the brunt of these punishments. I have seen some figures that say that even in the airstrikes, 90 percent of the victims are civilians.

Only 8 percent are the rebels. They know what to do when these attacks come. They pulled out of Daraya because they simply cannot stand up to that kind of force. This is a guerilla movement. It is not an equal force. So they have left the town.

Not it seems unlikely that the people of Daraya will take heed of the message that the regime gave them. I -- my guess will be, as we've seen again and again in these towns, it will harden their resolve. (Inaudible).

VELSHI: All right. Deb Amos there for us on the Syrian-Turkish border.

Deb Amos, thanks very much.

When we come back, we'll look toward the United States, where Republicans have dodged a storm and gathered for their convention. But first, take a look at this picture.

It if were a painting, you'd be calling it "Still Life in Syria." That is a member of the Free Syrian Army barefooted, reading the Koran with his rifle on his lap and in the background the body of a civilian, killed in the clash between rebels and regime forces in the city of Aleppo.

We'll be right back.


VELSHI: Welcome back to the program. I'm Ali Velshi, sitting in for Christiane Amanpour.

The Republican National Convention was slated to kick into gear today in Tampa, Florida, but major business was postponed for a day over concerns about Tropical Storm Isaac. Even so, Mitt Romney's coronation as Republican candidate will go ahead as planned with a nationally televised acceptance speech on Thursday night.

Observers outside the United States have fundamental questions about the Republican candidate, questions best summed up by the cover of this week's "Economist" magazine. It says, "So, Mitt, what do you really believe?" As Washington bureau chief for the "Financial Times," Ed Luce has been wrestling with that question for his readers around the world.

Ed is the author of "Time to Start Thinking: America in the Age of Descent." He joins us now from the convention site in Tampa.

Ed, given what you've written about Mitt Romney, I'm surprised you found a safe place to sit there. You have criticized not just his campaign style but the fact that he's really been hard to pin down. For a guy who's been running for president for a very long time, a lot of people just don't know what is at the core of Mitt Romney.

ED LUCE, AUTHOR AND JOURNALIST: I think -- and I think that's fair enough. He's held every position under the sun on abortion, on gun control, on immigration, on fiscal policy.

But if you actually look at his record, not just in politics as governor of Massachusetts, but also in the private sector as the founder of Bain Capital, as the guy who turned around the Salt Lake Winter Olympics in 2002, I think you see a more traditional Republican, traditional conservative, a pragmatist essentially.

But of course, pro-family, strong defense, low taxes, et cetera. But not the kind of ideologue that you see now increasingly dominating the Republican Party through the Tea Party and other outlets (ph).


VELSHI: Ed, is that a good thing or a bad thing?

LUCE: He's probably more of a pragmatist.

VELSHI: But is that a good thing or a bad thing?

LUCE: Well, I think it's -- I think it's probably for most of the rest of the world a good thing to have a pragmatic rather than an ideological Republican.

But of course, it has necessitated this consistent serial flip- flopping on the part of Mitt Romney in order to get (inaudible) the nominee, albeit increasingly ideological party. So if you like, he's a pragmatic conservative leading an ideologically conservative party.

VELSHI: How do you square the criticism of Romney having changed positions on things like abortion, on things like taxes, on things like a health care system, a universal health care system, with the idea that maybe that's good for American politics? Maybe not having ideologues is fantastic. It is hurting him as a flipflopper, as opposed to recommending him as a negotiator, a compromiser.

LUCE: Yes, I think the reputation as a flipflopper is -- he's never going to escape it. He's -- most politicians have to pander to their bases in order to become nominees. He does it with particular lack of skill. He's not a very good liar. He's not a very good actor. And I think the effort that flipflopper is something he's never going to escape. I think that's true.

On the other hand, you know, I think people do understand that if he's going to become the Republican nominee, you've got to take all sorts of theological positions nowadays that say George Bush Sr. simply wasn't required to do.

VELSHI: Right.

LUCE: When he's -- when he got the nomination in 1988. The party has moved a lot more to the right in the last half-generation or so. And Romney's positions and flip-flopping are simply a reflection of that.

VELSHI: All right. So four years ago, we were not yet in the throes of the recession. We were technically in a recession, but we hadn't seen the worst of it, which came in September and October. And back then, we thought it was really terrible. But in fact, things got worse.

For most Americans, things, as you have written, are not better than they were four years ago. And that's an American mantra. Are you better off than you were four years ago? If you're not, vote for the new guy. Why is Romney not able to capitalize on that?

LUCE: I think that's a very good question. Part of the answer is that America is more polarized than it used to be. There are fewer swing voters. There are fewer persuadable people out there with their vote up for grabs. So it's a 50-50 nation.

Partly it's because I think Romney just isn't that good a candidate. He's not very good at politics and President Obama really is the best of his generation. And so I think that's a factor, too.

And I think partly there is a recognition amongst a lot of Americans that even though they are, in the aggregate, worse off today than they were four years ago, that this is a different kind of recession to your normal kind of recession, that this was a balance sheet, financial (inaudible) that was worldwide, and that it is a little bit harder and it takes a little bit longer -- well, quite a lot longer -- to dig yourself out of this than it does in a normal (inaudible).


VELSHI: That's interesting that you say that, because that's a struggle we have in the United States with the idea that this campaign is about why didn't Obama get us out of that? You would think that Mitt Romney, who has had business successes and has picked a running mate who understands budgeting and deficits, would be able to get the upper hand.

It's unclear between now and the election whether things will strengthen or worsen economically in the United States. But you feel that even if they worsen, and that plays into Mitt Romney's hands, he will not be able to capitalize on it.

LUCE: I just don't think he's a good enough politician and I don't think his party has a high enough enthusiasm rating as a party, for this to be at best anything other than a close election for Mitt Romney. President Obama is a highly, highly skilled and brilliant campaigner.

VELSHI: So you talk about enthusiasm. Let's talk about favorability ratings for these two candidates, for Mitt Romney and for Barack Obama.

A recent poll by USA Today shows that Obama's likability is at -- this is a Gallup USA Today poll -- Obama's at 54 percent favorability, likeability; Romney's at 31 percent. I would assume that if you're more likeable, even if you don't come across that great a campaigner, you might get some of those swing votes because people like you.

They may not know what you stand for, but they kind of get you. He's not able to capitalize on this likeability thing. Why? Nobody says he's a bad guy.

LUCE: Well, of course, that is part of the point of this week at the conversation behind me, to introduce Mitt Romney the person. Personally, the biography of Mitt Romney to the American people with the hope that they will like him a little bit more or dislike him a little bit less by the end of the week.

But I think if you look at other comparisons between the president and the Republican nominee, such as trustworthy on the economy, then it doesn't look nearly so good for President Obama. He's clearly much more likeable.

It's hard to imagine however well all the choreography and the theater goes this week, that that gap between him and Romney on personal likeability is going to change very radically. The important one, I think, is trustworthiness on who can better restore economic growth. And there, Romney has a lead --


LUCE: -- over the president.

So the president has his own gap to eliminate.

VELSHI: Tell me this, Ed. If the world could vote for the President of the United States, the rest of the world, which way do you think they would lean?

LUCE: If the whole of the world could vote, well, Europe it would be an overwhelming majority for Obama. I think globally it would be a majority for Obama.

I think you'd be surprised in countries like India and China, which do traditionally prefer Republican administrations to Democratic administrations, because they find them less preachy. They find them easier to do straight talking business with than they do Democratic administrations.

So I think you find it more evenly balanced between Obama and Romney in India and even in China, in spite of Romney's targeting of China, in spite of the fact Romney's promised to (inaudible) the currency manipulator. I think you'd find it more evenly balanced there. But in Europe, it would be a landslide for Obama, still.

VELSHI: So you make a good point. The next three days are going to be very, very important for Republicans. They've actually got to show something. They've got to introduce a man who's been running for a very long time to the world.

Ed, good to see you. We'll talk to you again.

Ed Luce, joining us from Tampa, Florida.

LUCE: (Inaudible).

VELSHI: Well, America's political parties aren't the only ones gathering to pick their leaders.

In China, the politburo is planning a party congress this fall. But thanks to a tabloid murder trial, China's new leaders will face increased skepticism and distrust. The two faces of Chinese justice, when we come back.

And going back to Syria for a moment, at, you can see a report on how Syrian artists are fighting al-Assad with satire. We'll be right back.



VELSHI: Final thought tonight, imagine a world where justice isn't blind, it's seeing double.

You may have heard of Gu Kailai. She is the former party insider charged with the murder of a British businessman in China's version of a lurid tabloid headline, reportedly admitting that she got him drunk and poisoned him with cyanide. But when she appeared at her trial last week, people did a double take. Take a look at this.


VELSHI (voice-over): On the left is the woman in the courtroom. On the right is Gu Kailai as she appeared a few years ago. Are they the same woman? Gu's family said there was no stand-in, but the fact that it's even open to question speaks to the rampant distrust of the Chinese government.

In fact, China's version of Twitter, Weibo, raised so many conspiracy theories that the phrase "body double" was blocked. The trial lasted all of seven hours, and she was convicted. But Gu's death sentence was suspended and she could be free in nine years.


VELSHI: No wonder the Chinese are seeing two faces of a justice system with one set of rules for common folk and another for the rich and powerful.

That's it for tonight's program. Meantime, the Amanpour inbox is always open, Thank you for watching and goodbye from New York.