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Updating the Syrian Conflict Following Israeli Airstrikes

Aired May 6, 2013 - 15:00:00   ET


CHRISTIANE AMANPOUR, CNN HOST: Good evening, everyone, and welcome to the program. I'm Christiane Amanpour.

It turns out that there is more than one red line to cross in Syria. While the United States is looking for incontrovertible proof of its red line that chemical weapons were used, turns out that Israel has its own red line, stopping advanced weaponry moving from Iran through Damascus to Hezbollah in Lebanon, weapons that could target most of Israel.

This weekend, Israel conducted a series of devastating attacks on Syria, raising fears of a wider war. The Israeli airstrikes hit military targets near Damascus and along the Lebanese border. Syria's foreign minister told CNN the attacks were a declaration of war.

And in Lebanon, Hezbollah leader Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah last week vowed to defend the Assad regime, saying, quote, "Syria has real friends who will not let it fall to the U.S., Israel or Islamic radicals."

Hezbollah, of course, depends on Assad for its military capability. And so the fight for Syria is still on in earnest, with Assad forces reputedly regaining some rebel-held territory and a furious argument right now here in the United States by commentators for and against intervention.

Now Ghassan Hitto is a naturalized American citizen and until recently a technology executive in Texas. Now he is prime minister of the Syrian opposition, leading its government in exile. And I'll talk to him in an exclusive interview in a moment. But first, here's what's happening later in the program.



AMANPOUR (voice-over): As we delve deeper into those airstrikes in Syria, what were the Israelis calculating? We'll go to the source, the man who once ran Israel's Secret Service and from the start, Syria's children have been a target. Now they're in the middle of another battle in the classroom.


AMANPOUR: We'll get to that in a bit. But first, Ghassan Hitto, the Syrian-American, former Texas I.T. executive, who's just been appointed the first interim prime minister of the Syrian opposition. He says he'll name his government and move into Syria very soon.

And top of his agenda, to increase basic services for the Syrian people and also to make the case for the world to support the Free Syrian Army with anti-tank and anti-aircraft weapons as well as a no-fly zone.

I spoke to him just moments ago from his temporary headquarters in Istanbul, Turkey.


AMANPOUR: Ghassan Hitto, welcome to the program, thanks for joining me.


AMANPOUR: Mr. Hitto, I wonder whether you think you really have your work cut out for you, that it's going to be an uphill struggle, because I want to put out now a poll that the highly reputable and reliable Pew Institute has done, regarding help for the rebels.

What we have is practically every country that's polled, certainly countries in your region, are all opposed to the West arming Syria rebels. Only Jordan supports. But then even when Pew asked about Arab countries trying to arm the Syria rebels, we see the same thing. Everybody in your region is against, except for Jordan.

How do you account for that and what are you going to do to persuade them that you actually do need these weapons?

HITTO: What we -- what we say to this -- and I'm not sure -- and I know you said that this is a reliable poll -- but what we say to that is what is the alternative?

Is the alternative to allow extremist group to continue take hold and continue to grow in influence inside the country?

Do we wait until thousands and thousands more of Hezbollah fighters continue to pour into Syria and fight along the side of the Assad regime and killing the Syrian people?

Over 30,000 Hezbollah soldiers are inside Syria, fight along the side of the Assad regime. Well, 7,000 alone are in Luxir (ph), near Homs.

Do we wait for more Iranian soldiers and Iranian influence in the region?

We tell our friends, Arab friends and non-Arab friends and our Western friends to look at these things very closely. The interim government is the alternative, is the solution to bring order into Syria.

We believe, unlike what the poll and the report that you just mentioned, we believe we do enjoy a lot more support from our neighboring countries and our Arab friends and also our Western friends, and do believe that they do see that this government is the alternative and is the correct alternative and the correct solution for the problem in Syria.

I do realize that we have the -- our work cut out for us. No one said that this is going to be easy. It's quite challenging, actually. But the more we wait, the more we wait, Christiane, the problems are getting more complicated and more expensive to solve.

AMANPOUR: You mentioned Hezbollah and you said 30,000 fighters, which is obviously a lot of people. As you know, the Israelis this weekend bombed what they said were military installations in order to prevent advanced weapons moving from Iran through Damascus to Hezbollah.

That must be something you approve of, then?

HITTO: Absolutely not. The Assad regime and its brutality has allowed these foreign elements to intervene inside Syria. The intervention of Hezbollah and these fighters the presence of Hezbollah fighters inside Syria and the presence of alliance (ph) fighters and experts in Syria have allowed Israeli to go with these strikes.

We do not approve of any intervention that causes the loss of the Syrian people.

AMANPOUR: All right. I hear you on that. In terms of foreign fighters, as you know, the opposition has been criticized and tainted by the view that a lot of jihadi fundamentalists, extremists, Al Qaeda- affiliated, so-called bad actors, have really joined the fight and not only that, are probably doing the best fighting.

And not only that, probably if the rebels so-called opposition manages even to win in the end, who on Earth is going to be the victor? Nobody wants to see an extremist Syria. Isn't that something really difficult for you now? How are going to -- how does the opposition prevent a free Syria, as you would call it, from being a headquarters for Al Qaeda?

HITTO: Look, Christiane, the Syrian people are known for being moderate. They are -- they're known for rejecting any type of foreign ideology, any type of ideology that enforces its ideas on the people.

Syrian people are known for being entrepreneurs. They are ready to go back and carry on with their normal lives. When this government is ratified by the Syrian coalition, and is on the ground and bringing order to the life of the Syrian people, we believe that all of the Syrians will join ranks with this government, because that's what they're looking for.

I don't think -- and I don't believe that the Syrian people are interested in foreign fighters and Al Qaeda bringing its ideology into Syria. This is something that is totally foreign to the Syrian people and --


AMANPOUR: But they're there. OK, how do you -- how do you reject it?

HITTO: We must remain --

AMANPOUR: How do you -- they're there. How do you reject it and get rid of it once the battle is over? Look at Libya right now, Mr. Hitto.

HITTO: Sure. It's rejected by the interim government going in and starting to providing services to the Syrian people. We have to look at of how these foreign fighters are trying to win the hearts and minds of the people by providing them services.

We have to go in and fix the issues of electricity. We have to go in and fix the water issue, the drinking water, the water that's required for irrigation. We have to go in and repair flour mills. We have to go in and repair schools.

Over 70 percent of the schools in Syria have been destroyed. Over 870,000 homes have been destroyed by the Assad regime. When the interim government goes in and starts working and providing solutions to the people, those foreign fighters and those foreign elements will have no choice but to retreat.

We will -- we will avoid confrontation but at the end of the day, we will do whatever it takes to bring Syria back to its normal path, and that is a Syria that's moderate, a Syria that is looking into a bright future, a Syria that is full of hope, a Syria that has people ready to build it and take it forward.

I do believe -- and I'm banking on this and the Syrian people will be mature and will know that this is something that's not for them. We all have to believe in this. And I'm -- I certainly believe on this. And I'm betting my bottom dollar on the maturity of the Syrian people.

AMANPOUR: Now it is amazing that you, as American citizen, have left your career, have gone to Syria and have tried to do your best for your people.

Do you, on the other hand, worry that they will say, who is this man? He hasn't been here; he's a foreigner. He's backed by whatever, the conspiracy theorists, or those who are actually doing the fighting on the ground now will not look to you for authority? Are you concerned about that?

HITTO: Not at all, because I've done a few things. First and foremost, I stay away from all the political issues. And I present myself as a technocrat, as one who's going to put a government together, that has a government together that's ready to serve the people.

People are driven by their needs. And when we focus on their needs and we focus on what they want, they go along with that. The problem right now is that there is no -- no one is taking the lead on inside Syria, on the ground, to serve the people.

People are ready to receive this government. I have reached out to a lot of people inside Syria, both who are fighters and also those are working in the -- on the local councils and shopkeepers and housewives and teachers and all sorts of folks. And everyone is ready to receive this government and ready to move forward.

AMANPOUR: Mr. Hitto, what do you think of President Obama's red line? Do you think that's ever going to be defended, policed?

HITTO: I mean, look, Christiane, I've mentioned this before; our red line was established when the first child in Daraa was killed. That price for us was too high of a price to pay. Waiting for this red line and waiting for another red line and another line of a different color is just waiting too long. I think waiting for something or continuing to wait, of doing nothing, it's going to cause more and more loss of lives, is going to cause us to -- cause all work to be far more difficult than what it already is. We need to take action. We need to help the Free Syrian Army under the leadership of the SMC. We need to establish safe passages so we can provide aid to the Syrian people on a regular basis. We need a no-fly zone so this government can go in and start working and serving the Syrian people. So these red lines, they need to be maybe painted with more bright colors so they are seen clearly to the leadership of the United States and to President Obama, so we can take actions and not wait long until this problem become totally out of control.

AMANPOUR: Mr. Hitto, thank you very much indeed for joining me.

HITTO: Thank you, Christiane.


AMANPOUR: And after we take a quick break, we'll get a unique view of Israel's military calculations from the man who once led Israel's famed Secret Service.

But first take a look at this picture. Those are Israeli soldiers on patrol on the Golan Heights between Israel and Syria, an obvious flashpoint. But ever since Israel took possession in the 1967 war, the Golan has also become a major agricultural resource, producing fruits and flowers and wine and dairy cows with among the highest yields of milk in the world.

Syria, of course, has long been demanding the Golan's return. That's for nearly half a century now. We'll be right back.




AMANPOUR: Welcome back to the program. And we're continuing our coverage of Syria, now with the view from Israel.

Syria may call this weekend's Israeli strikes a declaration of war, but if you ask Israel, that is overblown. There are no winds of war, said one top military official today while out on a jog. And Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu isn't even in Israel; he's in Beijing, adding to the impression that all is in hand.

Israel is actually bending over backwards to convince Syria that it was simply going after Hezbollah-bound arms from Iran and that its airstrikes were not to support the Syrian rebels. Still, dozens of Syrian soldiers were killed and concerns are growing the Syrian conflict might become a wider war.

Ami Ayalon knows all the players in this region inside and out. He ran Israel's Secret Service, Shin Bet, and he joins me now in the studio.

Mr. Ayalon, thank you for joining me.


AMANPOUR: So let me first ask you, I know you're out of office, but let me first ask you from your unique vantage point, what was Israel's military calculation in this series of strikes?

AYALON: The way I understand it -- and it was said by some Israeli officials -- we felt that we do not have any alternative. We cannot see a creation of a situation in which irrational or not responsible organizations would possess this kind of weapons.

AMANPOUR: Who did you mean by those?

AYALON: It might be Hezbollah; it might be some extremist within the Syrian opposition. So we feel that this is for us, again, the way I understand our government, this is our red line. We are sending a message. We see it happening during the last few months. But especially when you add to this the information that Syrians are using chemical weapons, we have to show exactly our red lines.

AMANPOUR: And you've shown -- Israel has shown its red line publicly. How does that compare to what's going on about this issue of chemical weapons and U.S. red lines? What do you think about that when you see Israel taking action and not yet the United States?

AYALON: Look, first of all, we are living in the Middle East. Americans are living in America. So it is clear that sometimes our red lines are different from American red lines. We do not hide our red lines. Whether it is good or bad, this are the whole logic of red lines. So I believe that a -- the use of chemical weapons is a red line, once we understand that the Assad regime used chemical weapons --


AYALON: -- we have to send a very, very specific and clear message.

We have to explain sometimes for ourselves and to the Americans that we are living in the Middle East, and the Middle East, a tiger sometimes becomes a paper tiger if he's sending a message and not follow his message by his actions.

So we are sending messages in the Middle East whether it is toward Iran or whether it is toward Syria, finally when we feel that we are reaching these red lines. I believe that this is the way to understand our government.

AMANPOUR: So the message you're sending came in the form of airstrikes. This is what Syrian government told CNN about this.

I think we have it.


FAISAL AL MEKDAD, DEPUTY FOREIGN MINISTER OF SYRIA: This is not something that is strange. But we dealt with this, I mean, on several occasions. And we retaliated the way we want and the retaliation was always painful to Israel. And they will suffer again.


AMANPOUR: Syria's deputy foreign minister, also saying that this, what you did, was a declaration of war and that you will suffer in retaliation.

What is your reaction to that?

AYALON: Look, again, I'm not an official today. I hope that it is -- it will end by speeches. The way we see it -- or at least the way I understand my government it is not a declaration of war. Nobody in Israel -- and I say nobody in Israel -- wants another war with Syria. This is not the intention.

It was said by several people, officials in Israel, and of course, Syrians has to say something. I hope that it will be -- it will be finished.


AMANPOUR: So you think (inaudible) --

AYALON: (Inaudible) declaration (inaudible).

AMANPOUR: -- public statements because they have to?

AYALON: Yes, (inaudible).

AMANPOUR: And you don't believe there will be a military retaliation --

AYALON: I don't -- I don't know what to believe. I hope. It is a very risky time. It is a calculated risk. If you ask me, I can understand and even support my government. What I do ask -- and this is something that we are trying to say to other governments in order to see this action as a calculated risk, we have to (inaudible).

And what is important for me is what is the context?

The context is the Middle East. We are sending messages.

Whom are we speaking with? Whom are we sending these messages to?

And we have to understand that we are living in a new Middle East. And in order for our messages to be understood, we have to send a very pragmatic message to the same address and pragmatic message is to renovate or to create our relations with Turkey. Turkey will be very, very important and very influential when it comes to the day of tomorrow in Syria.

AMANPOUR: You mean the post-Assad as you believe it will be?

AYALON: Right. Yes. Well, we don't know exactly when and how it will be ended. But yes --

AMANPOUR: So Turkey very influential, but what about something that you're very concerned about that and that is Israel and Palestine? How does that get resolved?

And do you think there's any new momentum for that? Or is it going to be business as usual?

AYALON: Look, one thing I can assure you, it will not be business as usual. It will not be business as usual even if the American administration will give up on the idea of direct talks or even if we Israelis are trying for the last two years to create a virtual reality in which Palestine does not exist.

This is what we do, in a way. It will not be things as usual because Palestinians are living in this region. And more Palestinian-Israeli conflict became the major -- in the eyes of Palestinians, in the eyes of Arabs, in Damascus, in Amman and in Cairo, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict became the source of instability and hatred in the region.

So in order to create this future coalition that brings austerity (ph) as a cornerstone to face Iran, to face radicalism, Israeli-Palestinian conflict became the major cornerstone and we have to show progress on this track.

AMANPOUR: And you think there will be?

AYALON: Well, hope. In order to see some progress, American will have to understand that the concept of direct negotiations does not work and Israel will have to show independent progress in order for the Palestinian to be able to come negotiate with us.

AMANPOUR: Ami Ayalon, thank you very much indeed for your insights.

AYALON: Thank you.

AMANPOUR: And earlier this year, Ami Ayalon stunned the world, along with five other former heads of Israel's Shin Bet security service, in an unprecedented move.

They came together for a movie called "The Gatekeepers" in the Oscar- nominated documentary; they made brutally frank statements about these very issues that Mr. Ayalon has just been talking about, internal problems that jeopardize, in their view, the Jewish state.

And at our website, you can see part of that movie any my interview with its director. That's all on We'll be back with a final thought.




AMANPOUR: And finally tonight, Syria's future remains uncertain. But from the very beginning, more than two years ago, Syria's children have been caught in the crossfire with an estimated 4,000 killed.

But imagine a world where another war is being waged, in the classroom. For 40 years, the Assad regime has taught its own ideology and history, from nursery school to university. But as the "Los Angeles Times" now reports, the Syrian opposition is trying to counter that narrative in new textbooks. Here's a sample geography lesson.


AMANPOUR (voice-over): This map depicts Hatay province, a disputed territory on the border between Syria and Turkey; in the Assad-approved textbooks Hatay is said to belong to Syria. But that turns out to be government propaganda.

The new textbooks point out that Hatay province has, in fact, belonged to Turkey for the past 75 years. And that's just one attempt by the opposition to rewrite history.


AMANPOUR: In the new textbooks, pictures of Bashar al-Assad and his father, Hafez, have been expunged and the Syrian flag in red, white and black that waves for President Assad, has been replaced by the green, white and black of the opposition banner.

We've seen it before, in the Israeli-Palestinian dispute, for instance, and all over in many of these wars. Sooner or later, the clash of arms becomes a battle in the classroom for young hearts and minds.

And that's it for tonight's program. Meantime, you can always contact us on our website, Thanks for watching and goodbye from New York.