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THE SITUATION ROOM

Syria and Chemical Weapons; Interview With Rhode Island Senator Jack Reed; Russia Warns Against Strike on Syria

Aired August 26, 2013 - 18:00   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.


WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Happening now, breaking news, our special report, crisis in Syria. The Obama administration now says it's undeniable that chemical weapons were used in Syria, and it is weighing a military response. The most likely option, cruise missiles -- they could be filed from destroyers -- now deployed in the Mediterranean. We're going to show you what a U.S. strike could look like.

And it's extremely rare for Western reporters to make it into Syria these days, but our Fred Pleitgen, he is there right now. We're going inside Syria.

We want to welcome our viewers in the United States and around the world. I'm Wolf Blitzer. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

With all the signs pointing to a horrific massacre, rows of bodies, and wounded survivors, U.N. inspectors today braved sniper fire to collect evidence of a chemical attack in Syria. The Obama administration now says it's clear chemical weapons were used and may be a step closer to taking military action. Secretary of State John Kerry today accused Syria's regime of covering up a cowardly crime.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

JOHN KERRY, U.S. SECRETARY OF STATE: Let me be clear.

The indiscriminate slaughter of civilians, the killing of women and children and innocent bystanders by chemical weapons is a moral obscenity. By any standard, it is inexcusable. And despite the excuses and equivocations that some have manufactured, it is undeniable.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: Our correspondents are deployed in the Middle East and beyond to bring you the latest developments.

But let's begin with CNN's Fred Pleitgen. He's in Damascus with a very rare look at the situation inside Syria.

Fred, what are you seeing? What's been the reaction there?

FREDERIK PLEITGEN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, the big order of business today of course was the first day that the U.N. weapons inspectors were about to go out. And they really had a rocky start to their mission, Wolf.

Before the convoy even got going, the hotel that the weapons inspectors are staying at came under mortar fire. There was one mortar that dropped only three block downs from where the weapons inspectors Are staying.

And as we just noted, once they did get going, their convoy came under sniper fire. One of their vehicles was disabled. However, they did say that on this first day, they were able to gather some very valuable information. Let's have a look.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

PLEITGEN (voice-over): Six U.N. vehicles left central Damascus in the morning, heading to the outskirts of the Syrian capital.

(on camera): After several delays, the U.N. weapons inspectors are finally beginning their mission to the Damascus suburbs to try and get to the bottom of what happened there last Wednesday. It's a mission where countries like the U.S. says it might already be too late to find conclusive evidence.

(voice-over): But before reaching the areas allegedly hit by chemical weapons, their convoy came under fire from a sniper, the U.N. says. The lead vehicle was disabled in the incident.

BAN KI-MOON, UNITED NATIONS SECRETARY-GENERAL: But despite such very dangerous circumstances, our team returned to Damascus and replaced their cars and proceeded to the suburb of Damascus to carry on their investigation. They visited two hospitals. They interviewed witnesses and survivors and doctors and they also collected some samples.

PLEITGEN: Videos released by the opposition show the U.N. team on the ground speaking to alleged victims of the attack in a field hospital in the Mouadamiya district that was allegedly hit by chemical weapons last Wednesday.

Rebels blame the Assad regime, saying more than 1,300 civilians died as a result of exposure to nerve gas. The regime has pointed the finger at rebels. While the investigators have a mandate to determine if chemical weapons were used, they don't have a mandate to determine who used them. The Syrian government meanwhile continued heavily shelling the outskirts of Damascus, plumes of smoke visible over the skyline of the capital. The U.S. says the heavy shelling could destroy possible evidence of chemical weapons used.

The regime continues to deny its forces employed chemical agents and threaten retaliation should America intervene.

FAISAL AL MEKDAD, SYRIAN DEPUTY FOREIGN MINISTER: If the United States wants to be fighting all the time, OK. They can do it. But Syria will also resist any attacks and answer any such criminal actions.

PLEITGEN: After several hours gathering evidence, the weapons inspectors returned to central Damascus from a difficult and dangerous mission that many say was delayed far too long.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

PLEITGEN: And, Wolf, the weapons inspectors of course said right from the beginning that time is of the essence in this investigation. That's why they're going to be going out tomorrow again. We're not sure if they're going to be going to the same neighborhood that they visited today, the Mouadamiya district, which is in the southwest of Damascus, or whether they will try and get to one of the other sites.

There are of course several in the area around Damascus. We're waiting to see where exactly they're going to be trying to go. But again they're going to try to find more clues to see what's behind the attacks that happened here last Wednesday.

BLITZER: Any immediate reaction to U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, his strong words? Among other things, as you heard, Fred, he said that he called the Syrian foreign minister last week to complain, to protest these chemical weapons attacks, speaking with Walid Muallem, the foreign minister of Syria. That's a pretty high-level discussion between the U.S. and Syria right now.

PLEITGEN: It's a high-level discussion between those two countries, and also, considering there are no diplomatic between those two countries, that certainly is quite a statement by the secretary of state. There hasn't been any immediate reaction to Kerry's remarks right now, but what has happened is that Walid Muallem, the foreign minister of Syria, has called a press conference for 1:00 p.m. local time tomorrow, so we're going to wait and see what sort of reactions they're going to come forward with until then.

What has been going on is that the Assad regime has been making statements. The president himself, Bashar al-Assad, gave an interview to a Russian newspaper where he again reiterated that the Syrians believe that all of this is fabricated. He said that it would be "ludicrous" to think that Syrian forces would use chemical weapons on the front line where their own forces are stationed.

But, of course, we know the U.S. is not buying it, saying that there is evidence to suggest that chemical weapons were used and it really could only be the Assad regime who used them -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Fred Pleitgen reporting from Damascus for us. Fred, be careful over there. Thanks very much.

Here in Washington, the White House is weighing very carefully a military response to what's going on in Syria, insisting all options right now are on the table. Officials say the most likely option would be a cruise missile strike. U.S. warships are already deployed in the Eastern Mediterranean.

And joining us now, Senator Jack Reed, Democrat of Rhode Island, a key member of the Senate Armed Services Committee.

Senator, thanks very much for coming in.

SEN. JACK REED (D), RHODE ISLAND: Thanks, Wolf.

BLITZER: How close is the U.S. right now using military action in Syria?

REED: We're getting closer every moment with Secretary of State Kerry's announcement this afternoon that there's undeniable evidence that this is a regime-directed attack using chemical weapons.

We are moving closer. The hope I have, though, is first that we assemble such a coalition of European countries and NATO allies and worldwide that that political pressure might be sufficient. But my sense is, it probably will not, and that we might have to take further steps.

BLITZER: By unilateral -- by the United States alone?

REED: I think unilateral action would be a mistake. I think we have to enlist all of the -- a willing coalition. The statements by Great Britain, by France, by many others, the active statements of some of the Turkish leaders suggest that they could be and would be supportive.

But what the secretary has to do and the president is build his coalition...

(CROSSTALK)

BLITZER: Including from the Arab League, Arab friends of the United States?

REED: I hope so, because without their participation, it looks as if this is just a Western-vs.-Islamic struggle. It's not. This is to vindicate a basic rule of international law that these weapons will not be used, not by Iran, not by any power.

BLITZER: Well, putting together a coalition of the willing, if that's what you want to call it, that could take a while. And the sense I'm getting is that the U.S. would like to do something within the next few days.

REED: Well, time is important, but doing it right is more important.

And without this political cohesion, we won't be able not only to assemble the appropriate forces, but also over the long term to anticipate what the reaction might be from the Syrians and from others. We don't want to assume just a one-off action will solve this dilemma.

We have to prepare if we take action to follow through, and that requires a cohesive political grouping, not just military action.

BLITZER: So what kind of military options do you think are realistic, as far as the U.S. and NATO and other countries are concerned? REED: Well, the most realistic option at this point would be launching cruise missiles from sea, either surface ships or submarines, standoff airstrikes. We can have precision weapons that could be fired and keep our aircraft out of Syrian airspace and away from their anti-aircraft systems.

Those are the most likely alternatives that should be contemplated. But I think first we have to deliver a strong international message that this behavior cannot be countenanced. Second, we have to make it clear what our objective is, which is I think principally that these weapons will not be used and that the Syrians have to put them sort of in a situation where they won't be used.

And then we can work, I hope, on the diplomatic front to try to get some type of diplomatic traction with the overall issues in Syria.

BLITZER: What would the targets be?

REED: Well, the targets, that's what the military people will provide precise sort of advice to the president.

But the president has to choose now. I think you have to expect that they will probably be directed against command-and-control elements within Syria. Simply striking at an airfield and hoping that that symbolically will be enough, I don't think is adequate planning.

I think you have to have a whole series of targets, but I think the most effective targets would have command-and-control, because you could send a signal to the Syrian regime that if they don't agree to international standards, if they don't make it clear and make it obvious that they're not going to use these weapons, and that we can inflict additional damage on their command-and-control.

BLITZER: Has the administration consulted with you and other members?

REED: They have not consulted with me. I presume they are beginning a process of consulting with many members.

BLITZER: Should Congress pass a resolution authorizing the use of force before it is done?

REED: Well, that gets into a very difficult issue you just brought up in terms of timing.

If there is a strong coalition internationally, if we have precise objectives, and if we are also worried about a further use of chemical weapons, that might precipitate a response before Congress can come back together. Definitely, Congress has to be consulted. Under the War Powers Act, they have to be notified. In Libya, the president notified us, but did not seek specific approval.

But Congress should be a big part of this. Again, we have to look not just at the first few days, but anticipate that these operations are always longer and harder than you think about. BLITZER: Do you have any doubt about the intelligence? Because the secretary of state was firm. There is no doubt that the Syrian regime of President Bashar al-Assad deliberately used weapons against its own people.

Do you have any doubt about the accuracy of that intelligence?

REED: The intelligence seems to indicate very clearly that the regime was involved at the highest levels, that this was a conscious decision.

Again, it would be awfully helpful to us if that could be confirmed by the U.N. or by other inspectors, if there was clear evidence that could be put on the table. And it would be helpful in two ways. One, it makes our case much stronger in the world community, but, second, it would undercut the arguments by the Russians and the Iranians that this was not the regime, these were the rebels.

I think that would be very, very helpful, because the standard that we want to establish, it's irrespective of Syria. It's that these weapons of mass destruction, chemical weapons, will not be used indiscriminately against civilians. That principle is the one we'd be involved in with in defending.

BLITZER: Senator Reed, thanks very much for coming in.

REED: Thanks, Wolf.

BLITZER: Up next, what a U.S. military strike against Syria could look like. We're going to map it out for you.

Also, as U.N. inspectors look for evidence, does the U.S. have a smoking gun right now? How much proof does it need to punish Syria? I will ask a former weapons inspector who investigated Iraq's weapons program.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: If the United States pulls the trigger and acts to punish Syria, what type of military action could we expect to see from the Obama administration?

CNN's Tom Foreman is here with a closer look.

What are you seeing over there, Tom?

TOM FOREMAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, one of the things we know at this point is that there probably would not be a closing of all the airspace.

The White House seems to have ruled that out. There won't be boots on the ground. They have ruled that out. The focus right now seems to be largely on the idea that some destroyers here in the Gulf, four of them, each capable of carrying 100 Tomahawk cruise missiles, would come in and target certain places around the country here. The missiles have a tremendous range. They can be 500 miles from the shore if they wanted to and still send in missiles that would fly over nothing but Syrian airspace. The Tomahawk cruise missile is normally launched from ships or from submarines. It's about 20-feet long, about 3,300 pounds.

Pinpoint targeting. It can be fired with preset targets or it can be changed in flight. They can decide they want to send it to a different target. They can fly around and use nose-mounted cameras to even look at their targets before hitting, about 1,000-pound payload. And these have been proven very, very effective in targeting different regimes around the world.

And they have been used simply because they can fly around for quite a while before they're dropped in on their target. They're very hard to track, very hard to stop. What would the goals be? The goals would be limited, if you listen to what the White House has been saying so far. Take out the chemical weapons to a degree. Even military leaders say we don't really know where they all are. They're moving around. This would probably not be something that could wipe out their whole capability.

But they might be able to attack the command-and-control structure, make it harder to deploy such weapons. It would weaken the al-Assad military, and it would send a message, which, Wolf, as you know, is important to the White House and to much of the world to say these types of weapons will not be tolerated.

BLITZER: So with all these resources already in the Eastern Mediterranean, four warships, probably a submarine or two as well, why can't the U.S. make a move now if it wanted to?

FOREMAN: Well, that comes back to the political question really, the international political question. If you look at the United Nations, you essentially have Russia, China, and Iran out here saying that they would not tolerate this.

They're going to fight against any kind of U.N. decision to take this action against Syria, so the United States has to look at putting together some kind of other coalition. That may focus somewhat on NATO allies. There's been a lot of talk about that. And some of those that seem to be coming on board are NATO allies.

But the bottom line is the reason it's not being done right now appears to be the White House's deep concern about having some credibility in all of this, making sure that there are enough partners in a global sense agreeing that this is the thing to do, that it doesn't look like just the United States striking, even if they want to make it a surgical strike that only hits one part of the Assad regime -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Sending a message, clearly the U.S. officials believe that would be significant. Thanks very much, Tom Foreman, for that report.

The Obama administration says it's clear chemical weapons were, in fact, used on a mass scale in recent days in Syria. Does that mean the United States now has the smoking gun it needs to take military action?

Joining us now is Charles Duelfer. He was a former chief U.N. weapons inspector in Iraq and as a top CIA official later led the U.S. investigation into Iraq's weapons of mass destruction programs.

Charles, thanks very much for coming in.

CHARLES DUELFER, FORMER CHIEF U.S. WEAPONS INSPECTOR: Good to see you, Wolf.

BLITZER: Let's talk a little bit about what these U.N. weapons inspectors who are in Damascus right now -- when they went out to the site of this chemical attack, what are they looking for? What kind of evidence?

DUELFER: They're looking for evidence from the witnesses. They're looking for evidence from the victims.

They will take samples, sample which they can analyze at laboratories when they send them back. They will be looking for remnants of the munitions, which could be very interesting, because they could be sophisticated munitions that a military would have, or if it turns out unexpectedly to be the case that the insurgents had cobbled together some sort of C.W. capability, as Secretary Lavrov was suggesting, maybe they will find that. There's a mix of things they can find, even if it's been some time since the attack.

BLITZER: Sergei Lavrov, the Russian foreign minister, who insists it was the rebels who launched these chemical attacks, not the regime of President Bashar al-Assad.

You're shaking your head.

DUELFER: Foreign Minister Lavrov had spent five years as the Russian ambassador to the U.N. during the height of the Iraqi debate. So he knows how to play the Security Council. He knows how what the weapons inspectors can do and how to play that game and to sustain ambiguity.

(CROSSTALK)

BLITZER: He keeps warning the U.S. was wrong with WMD in Iraq, so don't be so sure you know what you're talking about right now. He keeps playing that as well.

Listen to the secretary of state, John Kerry. He made this point today about the U.N. weapons inspectors.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

KERRY: The U.N. investigation will not determine who used these chemical weapons, only whether such weapons were used, a judgment that is already clear to the world.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: Now, explain what he's talking about. Why can't the U.N. weapons inspectors determine who actually used these chemical weapons?

DUELFER: Technically, their mandate, as given to them by the secretary-general, was that they are only meant to establish technically whether chemical weapons were used.

The attribution, who did it, is not part of their mandate. But here again, this is a case where the weapons inspectors are being put into the middle of a very hot political cauldron, where all parties are kind of keying off of what they say.

It's ironic, but now the Obama administration is in a position somewhat like the Bush administration was, where they were kind of teed up and ready to go militarily, or so it appeared, when the U.N. is going in and now may be seen as a bit of a disrupting influence in that. Washington will be seen as going preemptively if they don't wait for the U.N. process to play out.

You hear now Secretary Kerry saying we have already got the information we need. We have got a conclusion. Well, the weapons inspectors haven't made a conclusion.

BLITZER: But the weapons inspectors -- and you were a U.N. weapons -- they could determine who actually launched these kinds of chemical weapons. But what you're saying is, for political reasons, Ban Ki-Moon and the United Nations have told these weapons inspectors we don't want you to check that, just tell us if they were used? Well, that sounds so absurd.

(CROSSTALK)

DUELFER: It is, but it's not quite that simple, because of the legal status that they're operating under.

When the Iraqis' inspections were being conducted, it was under a Security Council resolution, which mandated that they look for exactly those questions. The technical legal authorization for them is somewhat different in this case.

BLITZER: And when the secretary says after five days that whole area can be contaminated, you can't determine anything, it's too late now, but the U.S. knows for sure that the regime did it, do you buy that?

DUELFER: No. The weapons inspector can find out a lot. They were going there originally even to investigate attacks which took place months ago. They can find out a lot of very interesting information.

I agree that the United States has other sources. Presumably, the National Security Agency can listen to people besides the United States, so they may have data which the weapons inspectors may not have and they may be quite convincing in the United States. But what the weapons inspectors provide is credibility across the board. When they say something, presumably all countries will say, OK, we can accept that. They don't have a dog in that fight.

BLITZER: We will see what this U.N. team comes up with, what the report is to New York, to the United Nations, and we will see what the Obama administration does.

DUELFER: It will be very interesting.

BLITZER: Yes. Charles, thanks very much for coming in, Charles Duelfer, a former U.N. weapons inspector.

DUELFER: Thank you.

BLITZER: Up next: Russia is warning against any U.S. strike. We're going to go to Moscow for the latest.

Also, how would the Damascus regime respond to a U.S. military strike? I will ask a leading expert on Syria. That's coming up.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Welcome back to our special report, "Crisis in Syria."

Happening now: the crisis sparking growing fear and diplomatic drama in neighboring Jordan, where U.S. military leaders, they are now meeting with other Middle East allies and beyond. CNN's global resources are on the story.

Also, Syria experts -- a look at what happens next in the wake of that apparent chemical weapons attack.

And a U.S. soldier is honored not only for his heroism in Afghanistan, but his honesty about what followed.

I'm Wolf Blitzer. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

Inexcusable, undeniable, and a moral obscenity, remarkably strong language from Secretary of State John Kerry today talking about Syria's apparent chemical weapons attack on its own citizens last week.

The tough new tone is raising concern about a possible U.S. military intervention in the country's two-and-a-half-year-old civil war. And the developments are ratcheting up tension in capitals around the region, indeed around much of the world.

CNN correspondents are working the story in Russia, in Jordan, and in Israel.

Let's begin with CNN's Phil Black in Moscow.

PHIL BLACK, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, despite the allegations of a large-scale chemical weapons attack, Russia's position on the possibility of military intervention in Syria hasn't changed, and so nor has its message to the United States and its allies: Don't even think about it.

Russia's foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, says there's not enough evidence to blame the Syrian government for this attack, and says there's actually substantial evidence and a lot of common sense suggesting Syrian opposition forces were responsible.

And he's also cast doubt on the authenticity of some of those videos which appeared online claiming to show the aftermath of the chemical weapons attack. He says he believes some of them were uploaded hours before the attack took place.

The Russian government says the opposition force's motivation for carrying out such an attack against the Syrian people would be to scuttle any chance for the peace process.

Russia, the United States, other parties have been working together to hold a big international conference that would hopefully settle the conflict in Syria diplomatically once and for all. But Russia says it doesn't believe the opposition wants that conference to take place and would prefer to fight for an outright military result.

Russia compares the possibility of any sort of military strike in Syria to America's earlier wars in Iraq and Libya and says, just like those conflicts, this one would be illegal. It would destabilize the country and the region -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Phil Black in Moscow. Thank you.

The escalating conflict has Jordan in a very vulnerable position, both diplomatically and geographically. CNN senior international correspondent Nic Robertson is in Amman. We want to warn you: his report contains some very disturbing images.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

NIC ROBERTSON, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, Jordan's position has been very clear. They say they want a diplomatic solution. Indeed, when you look at their position right now over these military meetings that are going on here involving Saudi Arabia, the United States, Qatar, Turkey, Britain, France, Germany, Italy.

The Jordanian position is really to play down the profile of this meeting. It doesn't want to be perceived as hosting a meeting where there's going to be a decision over intervention in Syria based on these alleged chemical attacks. Jordan feels that that would put them in potentially a very dangerous situation: missile strikes, potentially chemical missile strikes, even, from Syria would be one of their concerns. Terrorist strikes, as well, precipitated by the Assad regime, would be another one of their concerns.

It is pretty much an open secret here that there is weapons smuggling through the Jordanian border into Syria, into the hands of Syrian rebels going on. Saudi Arabia says it's supplying weapons. The Jordanian government's position on that is that it's doing everything it can to stop the smuggling across the border, and that it doesn't want to aid and inflame the military situation, if you will, inside of Syria.

Jordan really at the moment feels vulnerable for many reasons, buffeted by what's being going on with the Arab Spring, buffeted by the tensions that exist in the country here, the king not as popular as he used to be, allegations of official corruption in the country. All these things make Jordan a little less stable than it used to be. It's trying to stay out of trouble, Wolf.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

BLITZER: Nic Robertson in Amman, Jordan, thank you.

Israel is warning that if Syria is allowed to get away with a chemical weapons attack, its enemies will be emboldened. CNN's Jim Clancy is in Jerusalem, and he's getting Israeli reaction.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

JIM CLANCY, CNN CORRESPONDENT/ANCHOR: Wolf, Israel has long been concerned about Syria's stockpile of chemical weapons, but before last week, was more concerned they might be transferred to Syria's ally and Israel's arch enemy, Hezbollah.

The Iranian-backed militant group based in Lebanon has tens of thousands of missiles aimed at the Jewish state. But the alleged use of chemical weapons and the mass casualties caused has raised alarm bells.

Prime Minister Netanyahu declared that both Iran and Hezbollah are right now watching what will be the world's response if it's proved that the chemical arms were employed by the regime. He describes Syria as a testing ground and warned it was ample evidence we can't allow the world's most dangerous regimes to acquire the world's most dangerous weapons.

Israel will not be the one to intervene in Syria in this case. But it's not coy about its hopes that Washington and the Europeans will send a strong message, and not just in writing -- Wolf.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

BLITZER: Jim Clancy in Jerusalem for us. Thank you.

The most recent American military intervention came in Libya. That was back in March of 2011. Working with NATO allies to establish a no-fly zone and protect Libyan rebels and civilians, the U.S. fired about 200 Tomahawk cruise missiles, mainly aimed at destroying Moammar Gadhafi's air defense system.

Each of those missiles has a production unit cost of about half a million dollars, but the real price tag for each missile, about $1.4 million. That comes out to just north of a quarter of a billion dollars for those cruise missiles that were fired.

The United States also flew hundreds of aircraft sorties over Libya. Lost an F-15, by the way, jet fighter during the operation. The crew, fortunately, survived.

While the missiles are fired from long distances off the shore, offshore, the U.S. -- the use of manned aircraft would certainly bring the risk of American casualties if the U.S. were to get so involved in Syria. That would be the unlikeliest option, putting U.S. boots on the ground in Syria. And of course, that would make casualties a near certainty.

Up next on our special report "Crisis in Syria," how would Bashar al-Assad handle a U.S. military strike? I'll ask someone who knows the Syrian leader.

Plus, one-time U.S. ally Iraq used chemical weapons during its brutal war with Iran back in the 1980s. Did U.S. officials know what was going on? Stand by.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Welcome back to our special report. As the Obama administration weighs its option, Syria is warning the United States it will resist any military action.

Joining us now, CNN senior international correspondent Nick Paton Walsh. He recently reported from inside Syria, as well as Lebanon. Also joining us, Andrew Tabler. He's an expert on Syria at the Washington Institute for Near East Policies. Also spent a lot of time in Syria. What, you spent, like, seven years living there.

ANDREW TABLER, WASHINGTON INSTITUTE FOR NEAR EAST POLICIES: That's right.

BLITZER: So how is Bashar al-Assad, the Syrian leader, likely to respond to this very brutal blunt warning today from the secretary of state?

TABLER: We can already tell from his own words, he's going to blame everything on a conspiracy of Israel and the United States, and then what he's going to do is also say -- and somebody said this in speeches -- that this is America's Vietnam, that it's just like Iraq. Even though the situation is completely different.

And then after that, he's probably going to go on the diplomatic offensive with his allies and try and wrap this all up, he hopes, diplomatically.

BLITZER: Nick, you've spent a lot of time in the region. If the U.S., together with some NATO allies, maybe with the support -- tacit support or even active support -- of Turkey, some of the Arab countries, does launch military air strikes against targets in Syria, what's likely to happen? You've spent a lot of time in the region.

NICK PATON WALSH, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, the region really is already on a knife edge in many ways. Lebanon, for example, I think the key place you'll see full-out, that's already barely holding itself together because of the sectarian violence there has spilt over inside Lebanon. Already imbalanced by having a million Syrians in a population that originally was just four million.

So the key question we're going to have to look at, as Andrew says, is it's likely that Damascus will blame the U.S. and Israel. They're already trying to suggest that, in fact, the Syrian rebels they're fighting are somehow working with Jerusalem, with Israel.

So you'll have to watch Hezbollah. What's their move going to be? They've been very open now how they're fighting on the side of the Bashar al-Assad regime. They historically have always said their goal has been resistance against Israel, and that's been somewhat corrupted in the eyes of some because of the fact they're now involved in an inter-Arab conflict, killing other -- other Arabs, Sunni Syrians, for the most part.

So we're going to have to see what their reaction is.

BLITZER: All right.

WALSH: Do they launch a secondary offense against Israel to try and galvanize people and become kind of a lightning rod for Arab dissent across the region? That's one serious risk.

So U.S. airstrikes aren't simply a way of changing the balance on the battlefield in Syria. They're a way of injecting potentially one of the most complex and polarizing issues, the existence of the United States and Israel, into that conflict again, Wolf.

BLITZER: Andrew, you've spent a lot of time, you got to know President Bashar al-Assad. First of all, do you have any doubt about the U.S. intelligence assessment that he did use chemical weapons on a massive scale in recent days?

TABLER: No, I don't. Based on the evidence we have coming out, and I think Secretary Kerry outlined this, whether it's the videos or the samples, I think that the regime did use chemical weapons.

BLITZER: Why would he do that? He would know the world was going to find out.

TABLER: Bashar al-Assad has always been like this. He's always been a very unpredictable character. And actually, based on the Obama administration, has laid down this red line over a year ago and then moved it several times. I think he thought that he could push the envelope again. And that he could actually show his own people that no one is going to come to their rescue. I think in the case of President Obama, at least so far, he -- Assad calculated incorrectly.

BLITZER: What would happen if the U.S. does launch air strikes, Tomahawk cruise missiles or even more serious air strikes? Iranian support for Bashar al-Assad and Hezbollah in Lebanon support Bashar al-Assad?

TABLER: I think that already they're so involved in the conflict that what it would do is it would cause them to then get more deeply involved. But actually, what will that involve? Will it involve more assets on the ground? Probably not. Hezbollah has already stretched spending. They can't go that much further into Syria.

Iran could step up their assistance financially and with the IRGC. We'll have to watch and wait. But this -- this conflict overall is not getting any better. This is just going to be one chapter in a very long struggle we have in Syria.

BLITZER: Nick, a lot of U.S. officials, as recently as a few hours ago, they're still really worried that the opposition, the rebels, that there's a huge al Qaeda presence that seems to be growing. These are no great friends of the United States or other allies in the region. Certainly they hate Israel as much as Bashar al-Assad probably does, as well. So if the U.S. does get involved, isn't there a risk of bolstering al Qaeda in Syria?

WALSH: That's the major issue they face here, I think. Too harsh a military response, too serious a deprivation of the Assad regime will, perversely almost, be something they don't need at this particular time, because the people poised to take advantage of that are the radical Islamists within the Syrian rebel movement: Jabhat al- Nusra, the Islamic states of Iraq in Syria.

So many, I think, concerned to be sure that whatever they do sends an adequate message to Damascus, punished for the use of chemical weapons, but doesn't change facts on the battlefield quite so harshly. And that's the real predicament here, that no matter what the U.S. does, there's no real good outcome it can hope for at this stage.

BLITZER: Nick Paton Walsh reporting for us. Thanks very much.

Andrew Tabler, thanks very much for coming in.

Up next on our special report, a one-time U.S. ally used chemical weapons during a brutal war back in the 1980s. Did American officials know about it then? Does that undercut American outrage now? What was Iraq doing under Saddam Hussein? Stand by.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: May be hard to imagine, but the United States once supported Saddam Hussein's Iraq and its brutal war with Iran. While the U.S. now weighs military action against Syria, there are new details emerging about the use of chemical weapons by Saddam Hussein's Iraq. Brian Todd reports.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): America's outrage over the alleged Syrian atrocity goes right to the top.

BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: It is very troublesome.

TODD: But at one time, a key U.S. ally used chemical weapons on the battlefield. In the 1980s, Saddam Hussein got support from U.S. Intelligence in his war against Iran. Specifically, help in pinpointing Iranian positions.

According to a new report in "Foreign Policy Magazine," Saddam's forces fired shells containing sarin and other nerve agents on Iranian troops in a key series of battles in southern Iraq in 1988.

Retired Air Force Colonel Rick Francona, a U.S. military liaison to Iraq at the time, says the "Foreign Policy" article got it wrong when it quoted him as saying that U.S. officials knew in advance that Saddam was going to do that.

COL. RICK FRANCONA (RET.), U.S. AIR FORCE: We did not know that the Iraqis were going to use chemical weapons in advance.

TODD: Francona says he didn't know that until he went to the battlefield and found injectors he says the Iranians used to treat the effects of sarin gas. He says he confronted his Iraqi counterparts.

(on camera): And what was the Iraqi response?

FRANCONA: Their answer was that "We used a lot of smoke. Maybe they were confused," which is, you know, just -- just a deflective answer.

TODD (voice-over): But did other U.S. officials know ahead of time that Saddam would use chemical weapons against the Iranians? Neither the CIA nor the Defense Intelligence Agency would comment on the "Foreign Policy" report.

William Webster, who was CIA director at the time of those battles, told me the agency knew Saddam had chemical weapons. Knew he could use them. But had no specific knowledge beforehand that he'd fire them at the Iranians.

Still, questions of an American connection don't end there.

(on camera): According to this report by the Center for Non- Proliferation Studies five years ago out of this office in Washington, more than 20 companies, including some from the U.S., sent hundreds of metric tons of precursors for chemical weapons to the Iraqi and Iranian regimes in the 1980s, but it's not clear if those companies actually knew that those regimes were getting those materials.

(voice-over): Amy Smithson, a chemical weapons expert, says the companies believed the chemicals were not being used in war.

AMY SMITHSON, CHEMICAL WEAPONS EXPERT, CENTER FOR NONPROLIFERATION: At that time, these companies were told that these chemicals were going to textile production in Belgium.

TODD: But why did U.S. support for Saddam Hussein continue even after he used chemical weapons?

MICHAEL O'HANLON, BROOKINGS INSTITUTION: We felt we had no choice but to weaken the ayatollah and the extremist Iranian regime at the time, but it was a pretty regrettable way to carry out that policy.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

TODD: We contacted "Foreign Policy" magazine for a response to Rick Francona's claim that he was misquoted as saying that U.S. officials knew beforehand that Saddam Hussein intended to use chemical weapons in those 1988 battles. A senior editor of "Foreign Policy" said they stand by the accuracy of their reporting and says they've got documentation which says U.S. officials knew before those battles, previously, that Saddam Hussein had previously used chemical weapons and, therefore, had the will to use them again -- Wolf.

BLITZER: That's a little different, though, than what apparently is in the article. They knew he had -- everybody knew he had chemical weapons, but did the United States know specifically that Saddam Hussein was going to use chemical weapons against the Iranians or -- or against the Kurds at Halabja?

TODD: This gentlemen, Rick Francona, says that he's misquoted when "Foreign Policy" said that he said what Americans knew before those battles, that Saddam was going to use those weapons.

"Foreign Policy" says, "Look, we have got documentation that the Americans knew as far as back at 1984 that Saddam had those weapons and he'd used them against the Iranians in other battles, that he had the will to use them again." There may be a misunderstanding of the communication in timelines but "Foreign Policy" does stand by the accuracy of their statements.

BLITZER: Brian Todd reporting for us. Thanks very much.

We'll be right back. More of this special coming up.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: A rare Medal of Honor award today. Here's Jake Tapper.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

JAKE TAPPER, CNN CORRESPONDENT/ANCHOR (voice-over): When President Obama presented the Medal of Honor to Staff Sergeant Ty Carter he not only heralded Carter's heroism on the battlefield at Combat Outpost Keating during one of the deadliest attacks of Afghanistan...

OBAMA: It was chaos. The blizzard of bullets and steel into which Ty ran, not once or twice or even a few times, but, perhaps, ten times and in doing so, he displayed the essence of true heroism.

TAPPER: ... he pointed out that Carter has made it its mission to de-stigmatize the posttraumatic stress that hundreds of thousands of U.S. troops and veterans are dealing with.

OBAMA: Ty has spoken openly, with honesty and extraordinary eloquence, about his struggle with posttraumatic stress.

TAPPER: Carter was once a skeptic of what he calls PTS. He doesn't want the "D." He says it's not a disorder.

STAFF SGT. TY CARTER, MEDAL OF HONOR RECIPIENT: I didn't believe it was real until I experienced it. I thought it was just an excuse to get out of duty or not do a job. Once it hit me and I realized it, I was blown away. How could I be so ignorant?

TAPPER: No longer. During the horrific battle at Combat Outpost Keating, an enemy RPG explosion caused Carter to lose some hearing.

CARTER: Ever since that day I've had this high-pitched ringing in my ears.

TAPPER: In the dark, quiet moments, the constant ringing in his head brings him back to the battle.

Since he left the outpost, Carter has been receiving regular treatment for posttraumatic stress. It's a treatment that is allowing him to continue his career path in the Army.

Someone not so fortunate was one of Carter's battle buddies, Private Ed Faulkner Jr., who suffered from both posttraumatic stress and a drug problem and was discharged from the Army a few months after the battle at Combat Outpost Keating.

When Faulkner returned to his parents' home in Burlington, North Carolina, his posttraumatic stress got severe. He would stay up late watching videos of the attack that insurgents had posted online.

Not even a year after the attack, Faulkner overdosed on methadone and Xanax. There was no evidence of suicide, but either way, friends felt his death was a result of the horror of his time in battle.

CARTER: I honestly believe that he was the ninth victim of Combat Outpost Keating, and I also believe that he won't be the last.

OBAMA: Any of our troops or veterans who are watching and struggling, look at this man. Look at this soldier. Look at this warrior. He's as tough as they come, and if he can find the courage and the strength to not only seek help but also to speak out about it and take care of himself and to stay strong, then so can you.

TAPPER (on camera): Do you think the Pentagon and our society, America, understand what a crisis this is for hundreds of thousands of troops?

CARTER: I think the Army understands. The problem is, is that getting help has to start with the soldier.

TAPPER (voice-over): Jake Tapper, CNN, Washington.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

BLITZER: A moving story indeed. That's it for me. Thanks for watching. "ERIN BURNETT OUTFRONT" starts right now.