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Syria's Weapons Worry The World; Asylum Options For Syria's President; Cairo Resembles a War Zone; Civil War Takes Toll on Aleppo

Aired December 6, 2012 - 12:00   ET


SUZANNE MALVEAUX, CNN ANCHOR: Welcome to NEWSROOM INTERNATIONAL. I'm Suzanne Malveaux. We're taking you around the world in 60 minutes.

Today in Cairo, the loudest, most violent street fighting since the election of Egypt's President Mohamed Morsi. When the fighting got close to the presidential palace, the army called in the tanks. The soldiers in armored vehicles shut down demonstrations by both supporters and opponents of the president. They left behind piles of rubble, burning cars and no sense of stability as a major nationwide vote gets one day closer. President Morsi said a few hours ago he's going to address the Egyptian people. He has not yet, but when that happens, of course, we're going to bring that to you live.

Nerve agents locked and loaded ready to be used against a Syrian people. Now, that scenario now a reality. That is according to NBC News. Now it says that Syria's military has loaded the component chemicals for the deadly nerve gas sarin into aerial bombs that could be dropped from their fighter jets. I want to bring in Hala Gorani of CNN International to talk a little bit about this because you've got a different take on this. I know there's a lot of breathless reporting on the possibility of this.


MALVEAUX: But you believe that this is not necessarily on that path.

GORANI: Well, what I believe is that there's analysis that is very credible that the Assad regime is not getting ready to use chemical weapons in Syria. And here's why. Because the question we're asking is how real is the threat? Not just for Syrians, but for the region. Because once you start using chemical weapons, loaded in warheads, you're looking at death tolls in the thousands, possibly in the tens of thousands, also threatening neighboring countries. Syria is geographically very central in the region.

Now, here are some of the reasons why Syria and the Assad regime might not be considering the use of chemical weapons. First, the two masters of the Assad regime. Iran and Russia are against it. The regime of Bashar al Assad, right now, would be taking huge strategic risks if it started threatening the Syrian population and surrounding countries with these types of weapons.

Also, there's a military reason why it would not necessarily make sense for Bashar al Assad to use chemical weapons. And I'm going to quote Juan Cole of the University of Michigan, a Middle East expert. And this, by the way, is the kind of analysis I've seen as well in other publications.


GORANI: "Chemical weapons would be difficult to deploy against a guerrilla force. Why? Because guerrillas fade away when confronted." Of course you have Syria's mixed population as well. When you aim a warhead loaded with chemical weapons at a population, who are you really targeting? It could kill even your own supporters. So you have these two main reasons.

MALVEAUX: So why do you suppose we've got other countries -- we've got Germany that actually says it's going to send in soldiers to Turkey, neighboring Turkey.


MALVEAUX: Why do you suppose there is such anxiety and such fear around that country if the possibility that that could happen?

GORANI: Well, within the context of what Turkey asked NATO for, the Patriot Missile Defense System, you have NATO member countries who are now essentially saying through their parliaments, yes, we are going to help you militarily defend yourself.

The big question, however, is, are other countries bringing up the possible threat of chemical weapons coming from Syria as a way of laying the ground work for another kind of, not intervention, but assistance to rebel groups. I mean, so you have a lot of strategic talk that's being made -- that's being publicly sort of expressed out there that could be laying the ground work for strategic help for rebel groups. Also for Russia and Iran and China and other countries that support the Assad regime --


GORANI: To perhaps distance themselves a little bit from the Syrian president.

MALVEAUX: All right.

GORANI: So we have all those reasons that are coming -- that are like the pieces of the puzzle. You sort of make it out. But is the "if" threat of chemical weapons being used against the Syrians an imminent threat? You have a lot of opinions out there that that's not the case right now.

MALVEAUX: Good balanced approach.


MALVEAUX: We like that. A lot of people just kind of beating the drums here. Want to get the other side as well. Thank you, Hala.

Sarin is the only nerve gas that we've been talking about so far in Syria, but the government is believed to have stockpiles of other deadly chemical weapons as well. I want to bring in Tom Foreman, who's taking a look at Syria and what they believe they have in their arsenal.


TOM FOREMAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Military analysts believe that Syria may have one of the most extensive chemical weapons stockpiles in the world spread through production and storage facilities throughout the country. This, they say, is the result of an aggressive development program started in the 1980s, aided by the Russians and the Iranians, and it's been cause for concern before, not only because the government there might use it, but also because maybe these weapons could fall into the hands of terrorists.

So precisely what are we talking about? First of all, mustard gas. This is an old chemical weapon. It was used in World War I. It doesn't act very quickly, but it's extremely painful. It burns the skin. It can burn the eyes. And when inhaled, it burns the lungs. It can be fatal, but more often it simply renders an opponent unable to fight anymore and it can create chronic health problems, like respiratory illness and blindness for the remainder of life for some of the people who are exposed to it.

Beyond that, let's look at some of the other ideas here. Sarin gas is one of the concerns out there. Sarin gas attacks the nervous system. And, in even small amounts, it can cause uncontrolled trembling, then convulsions, then unconsciousness and death.

And beyond that, there's even concern that they might have VX gas. Some scientists consider this one of the most dangerous chemicals on the planet. It was originally developed as a pesticide, but spread in a liquid form, only a few drops on your arm or your hands, would simply produce very quickly the same results of sarin gas, meaning a collapse of your nervous system and death to follow soon thereafter.

The simple truth is, too, all of these weapons could quickly be delivered almost anywhere that they wanted to. The simple truth is, you could hook it on to the top of a scud missile or any type of rocket and fire it over a great distance or put it into an artillery shell and fire it that way. If that is done, then it could poison fields out there for days or even weeks for anyone who walks through. Government there says they have no designs on doing any of this, but the possibility, the possibility, is what has many analysts worried.


MALVEAUX: Syria's embattled president might be looking for a way out now. Several countries in the Middle East and Latin America have offered to grant asylum to President Bashar al Assad. Brian Todd's got the details.


BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): His army is on the ropes, fighting for its life around Damascus and Aleppo. He may be in the process of readying chemical weapons. Right now, everything about Syrian President Bashar al Assad smacks of desperation. Now the U.S. State Department is looking into reports that he is looking into the possibility of seeking asylum for himself, his family, and their inner circle in Latin America.

MARK TONER, STATE DEPARTMENT SPOKESMAN: We do understand that some countries, both in the region and elsewhere, have offered to host Assad and his family should he choose to leave Syria.

TODD: Syria's deputy foreign minister was recently in Venezuela delivering a message from Bashar al Assad.

(on camera): The minister was also, according to Israel's newspaper Haaretz, in Cuba and in Ecuador bringing classified letters from Assad to leaders there. We couldn't get responses from Syrian representatives in the U.S. or from officials of any of those Latin American governments.

(voice-over): Multiple sources in the U.S., Europe, and the Arab world tell CNN there's no indication Assad is ready to leave Syria.

(on camera): Is he the kind of person that would take asylum or will he go down fighting, do you think?

ANDREW TABLER, WASHINGTON INST. FOR NEAR EAST POLICY: I think that there's a real chance that he'll huddle, along with his sect. The question is whether his sect will want him to huddle with them or not. He's been a failure as a president. He's a very erratic personality.

TODD (voice-over): Analyst Andrew Tabler has met Bashar al Assad several times, has worked with Assad's wife, Asma. The sect he's talking about are the Alawites, an off chute of Shia Islam, a small minority in Syria that Assad's family is part of which dominates Syrian politics. If Assad does leave, could he be investigated, eventually captured on war crimes charges?

SCOTT HORTON, INTERNATIONAL LAW ATTORNEY: Ecuador, Venezuela, Cuba, are countries where he could feel safe for the time being, but he has to be concerned about a shift in the winds and any of those governments as well. And certainly no one expects the regimes in those three states to continue indefinitely.

TODD: Right now, those nations' leaders are more sympathetic to Assad, but there's another ally even closer.

(on camera): Couldn't he just go to Iran? Is that a more feasible location for him?

TABLER: It's easier for him to go to Iran. It's a shorter flight. But in the end, the Islamic Republic is the place where President Assad and his family are going to be safe.

TODD (voice-over): Tabler says, if Assad goes anywhere else but Iran, there's a better chance of an assassin getting to him and exacting revenge for everything the Assad family has carried out in Syria. Not just over the past two years of this uprising, but over the past 40 years covering the rule of his father.

Brian Todd, CNN, Washington.


MALVEAUX: Tanks, armored cars roll into Egypt as protests target President Morsi. Is this a sign of another revolution? Michael Holmes, he's going to weigh in on all of this.

Plus millionaire tech mogul John McAfee arrested after being on the run. He is wanted for questioning about the death of his neighbor in Belize. We're going to show you the video of his arrest.


MALVEAUX: In Cairo today, tanks, armored personnel carriers rolled into the area. This is near the presidential palace. They were scattering crowds of protester who were fighting in the streets, and many Egyptians now, they are angry at the president saying that he has now made himself a dictator. Mohamed Morsi spoke just a short time ago.

I want to go live to central Cairo. Our Reza Sayah is there. Reza, the president spoke. What did he say?

REZA SAYAH, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Suzanne, we have to point out that he hasn't delivered his speech yet. He was scheduled to make it about an hour ago. We're still waiting on that address.

It really -- not too many people know what he's going to say, maybe with the exception of members of his inner circle. But we can tell you this. This is a president that's under tremendous pressure to restore peace and calm to Egypt. This is a country that is divided, and those divisions could widen unless he does something.

The best news right now is there's some peace and calm that has returned to the presidential palace. We are at the palace right now. I'm going to step aside and show you what looks like an airport runway, but that's actually the main road that runs in front of the palace. This is where you had the ugly clashes last night. On one side of the road you had the supporters of the president. On the other side you had opponents. And they brawled it out. The outcome was more than 600 people injured, five people killed.

The question was, would the clashes continue this morning? But in stepped, the Republican Guard, they basically asked everyone to leave the area. And most of the people did leave the area, especially supporters of the president, Suzanne. But within the past hour, what we're seeing is opposition factions. The opponents of the president stream in, in large groups. And we're anxious to see what the coming hours bring as we wait for the president's address.


MALVEAUX: OK. So, Reza, what are the people there, who are protesting against the president, what do they need to hear from him, what do they need to hear from him, because, obviously, they're afraid that he's taken too much power. What do they want to hear?

SAYAH: The opposition's position is that they want the president to cancel an annul this draft constitution. To cancel the referendum that's scheduled on December 15th and to start over. That's their position.

The president has given no indication that he's willing to do that. Yesterday the vice president, the president's spokesperson came out and announced that the referendum will take place on December 15th. And that's where you have the impasse. That's why a lot of people are eager to see what the president has to say. Is he going to back down, or is he going to stick with that scheduled referendum on December 15th?


MALVEAUX: And there was violence. Actually people died on the streets yesterday. Who, do we know, is responsible for the killing? Is this on both sides?

SAYAH: Yed, both sides are blaming one another, but it was an ugly scene last night. We've seen a lot of tense days over the past week and a half. Last night got out of hand. This is the first time where the two sides came together at one location and things were violent. When you looked at these people and you talk to them, what you noticed was deep-seeded mistrust and hatred.

There's elements within these two sides that simply do not like one another. That's really what's fueling the conflict. And the question is, is there someone that can step in? Could the opposition leaders step in with the president and get these two sides united? At this point, the two sides are digging in, determined to keep their position.


MALVEAUX: All right, Reza Sayah, thank you so much.

I want to bring in Michael Holmes from CNN International. We saw the last image we saw of actually people praying there in Tahrir Square, but break this down for us.

You have some people who are against the president, against the government, don't like what the president has done, and then Reza is talking about groups that normally don't like each other and are fighting on the streets. What do we make of who is actually out there in Tahrir Square and how big this thing is?

MICHAEL HOLMES, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Yeah, it's very different. There's also something we should point out called "the Cairo factor," if you like, and that is that Mr. Morsi and the Brotherhood are more unpopular in Cairo than in other parts of the country.

So you get a bit of a distorted view when you see these massive crowds out there. The Brotherhood has a lot of support, and you have seen a lot of those supporters bringing brought into Cairo to counter- demonstrate and what we've been seeing the last couple of nights is those clashes.

But it's a very different dynamic in Egypt now to what it was during the revolution. You know, it's wrong to make comparisons about whether this is a revolution-in-the-making or something. I think it's way too early to be saying something like that.

The whole dynamic is different. During the revolution, you had everyone from Islamists alongside secularists and alongside the intelligentsia who were all against this common foe who nobody really wanted to protect anyway.

Now, with the Brotherhood you've got this very organized, very well- supported in some parts of the country organization, and that is the Muslim Brotherhood. These guys go out to Tahrir Square and they shout for a few hours. It's not the same.

MALVEAUX: And, so, the people who are out there, are these the typical Egyptians? Are these people who are going to work? Are these young men who are unemployed and who are frustrated with their lot?

HOLMES: They're all of those, yeah.

MALVEAUX: They're all of those?

HOLMES: Yeah. They're all of those. What you don't have this time are the Islamists supporting the revolution and, so, what you have are the frustrated regular folks, if you like, and who are also opposed to the direction that this is going and that comes back to the constitution, as well.

MALVEAUX: And tell us about that. I mean, what direction are we headed? What's the next milestone here? Because people talk about referendum and the constitution, but essentially, I think, from what we can understand is that people believe that the president has too much power.

HOLMES: Too much power and the constitution is too religious, if you like, and this is where the opposition didn't do itself any favors. They didn't really push to be part of that constitutional development, if you like.

They're saying now they're going to boycott the referendum instead of getting out the no vote. They haven't done themselves any favors, but you're talking about a constitution that within Egypt is controversial and polarizing. It was drawn up by Islamists. It doesn't protect the rights of women and minorities, including religious minorities, big Coptic Christian population there. Journalists see it as being against the freedom of speech and Islamists overseeing the writing of law.

So that's the concern that those people have. Remember, under Mubarak, it was a secular nation and now it's not.

MALVEAUX: And, so, if you are one of Egypt's neighbors and you look and you see what's going on inside, are you worried? Are you concerned here? Does it look like an Arab Spring that would actually spill over to the region, or is this something that Egypt has to hand on its own and it will sort out?

HOLMES: The latter. It's going to be the latter. Other nations aren't worried about this. I think the West is probably looking at how Egypt is going in terms of the constitution and a bit worried about the new Egypt they will be dealing with when it comes to international relations.

My sense is here a lot of people have sort of written off the Muslim Brotherhood in other countries as well at various times. Invariably, they've been wrong. These guys are organized and they have strong support and, unfortunately, the guys on the street there not so organized, not as much support and don't forget the Cairo factor. It's not the same outside of Cairo.

MALVEAUX: All right, Mike, thanks. Appreciate it.

I want to bring in our Barbara Starr. She's at the Pentagon here. She's got more on the situation that is in Syria and the reports about the possibility of the sarin gas. Barbara, what are you learning?

BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Well, actually, Suzanne, we're standing outside the Department of Veterans Affairs in Downtown Washington.

Defense Secretary Panetta just left here after holding a series of meetings and he talked to reporters. We asked about Syria and Secretary Panetta for the first time speaking since the president's warning to Syria, Secretary Panetta says in his words the latest intelligence that he has seen now raises serious concerns, he says, that Bashar al-Assad in Syria is considering using chemical weapons.

So what is new from the Secretary of Defense is the first reference to the latest intelligence, highly classified, of course, that the administration is looking at that has led to some of these warnings from President Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. The question, of course, is what does the administration do now?


MALVEAUX: How are people reacting to this news, the fact that you've got the Defense Secretary now what it seems to be getting closer to some of the statements we have seen about real concern over the possibility of these chemical weapons?

STARR: Yeah. I think that's exactly the point. Secretary Panetta going on to say, as others have, but saying it very emphatically just a few moments ago, that Assad needs to know there will be consequences if he decides to use those chemical weapons against his own people.

And, of course, that's as much a message to Assad, to Iran, which is heavily involved in Syria right now, and also, to the Middle East allies in the region -- Turkey, Israel and Jordan, as well as Lebanon which borders Syria and are very concerned about this prospect. So what you are seeing really is the rhetoric, the concern, the latest intelligence and that this is now becoming a regional concern throughout the Middle East, Suzanne.

MALVEAUX: And, Barbara, final question, is this any closer to the red line that we heard the president refer to earlier in the week?

STARR: Well, what all of these officials have been saying is, you know, the red line, what they mean by this, we are told, is if Assad shows the intent to use.

I think the key question that none of us have an answer to is, if you're talking consequences, Suzanne, will those consequences happen, whatever they are after, God forbid, chemical weapons are used, or before if they see the intent, if they see those weapons being loaded up on Syrian airplanes artillery, missiles, rockets, where exactly is that?

The administration is not using a lot of precision there. They are talking about intent to use and saying that there will be consequence if he uses them, but where that action would really come in? When does the president get a targeting plan? When does the president have to make a decision? All things we don't know the answer to yet.

MALVEAUX: OK, Barbara Starr, thank you very much. Appreciate the update.

Syrian rebels are using ancient techniques to blunt these high-tech weapons. We're going to actually take an exclusive look.


MALVEAUX: The threat of a chemical weapons attack in Syria adds a new level of concern almost 22 months into the civil war. Bashar al Assad, his regime is now growing desperate with rebels closing in on the president in Damascus.

Fighting has already ripped apart the country's largest city, Aleppo. That's where Arwa Damon takes us to an exclusive look at the ancient sections of that city now turned into a war zone.


ARWA DAMON, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Aleppo's old city has not seen such devastation since occupied by the Mongol invaders eight centuries ago.

This mosque, for example, dates back to 1315. This is Syria's rich cultural heritage and now everywhere we look it's been scarred by war. Once bustling, winding streets, now a maze of ever-shifting front lines. Overhead, the thundering of fighter jets. A small han (ph), lodging for caravans down the ages lies ruins.

For more than three millennium Aleppo has been a crossroads for traders. We hurry through the courtyard of a traditional home. Sheets are strung across streets to block snipers line of sight. Those who dare venture quickly across. A unit of fighters records people's names and license plates. Only those who have shops here are allowed through.

Abu Bashir (ph) says they're trying to clamp down on robberies. He shows us the list, the highlighted names have cleared out all their possessions.

In one market, a shop recently hit by army fire still smolders. A man who doesn't want to appear on camera rushes to clear his wares. The stench of filth and cordite has replaced the once intoxicating smells of spices that wafted through these streets. Down one narrow street, we run into Haled (ph) carrying an infra-red camera he's about to install.

There are government snipers, so we've started putting up cameras to observe and target them, he tells us. A former electrician, Haled (ph) has, so far, managed to put up four and string together a jumble of power cables.

As we move toward the frontline, he picks up a mortar and points out the rebel's former firing position. Now, they've moved it up a block.

Step this way. There is a sniper, he warns.

This is the rebels' so-called field operations center, a flat-screen TV in a medieval setting. The camera that Haled wants to set up is going to be in front of the building that we can just see from here and right in front of it is a makeshift slingshot and that is how they're firing the mortars, an ancient weapon deployed in a very modern war.

In a narrow alleyway, the muezzin makes the call to prayer. There is no power to amplify his appeal and his voice echoes off the walls punctuated by the ricochet of bullets.

The heart of old Aleppo, now the historic battleground for the very uncertain future of Syria.


MALVEAUX: That was Arwa Damon on the frontlines in Aleppo.

This guy, he has been on the run, wanted for questioning about the death of his neighbor, but after secret meetings with the media, software giant John McAfee has now been caught. We actually have video of his arrest.