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THE SITUATION ROOM

Crisis In Syria Special; Interview With California Congressman Adam Schiff and California Congresswoman Loretta Sanchez; Lawmakers Divided Over Syria Strike; Inside The Mind of Syria's Leader; Like Father, Like Son? Is Bashar al-Assad More Irrational?; Why Russia Is Sticking By Syria

Aired August 27, 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 HOST: Happening now, breaking news. The SITUATION ROOM special report. "Crisis in Syria." The Obama administration has no doubt who is responsible for horrific chemical attack in Syria and says there must be a response. U.S. forces are ready to go once they get an order to strike.

In a CNN exclusive, we're going to show you the mass grave for victims of that chemical attack as we go inside Syria.

And he's on Facebook and Instagram, but he's also overseeing the mass killing of his own people. We will take a closer look at the master of deception, the Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad.

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 U.S. warships and cruise missiles poised to strike on very short notice, the Obama administration is laying the groundwork for a punishing response to a deadly chemical attack on civilians in Syria, and it is laying the blame right at the doorstep of Syria's regime. As U.N. inspectors try to gather conclusive evidence, we're about to show you some very graphic and disturbing images of the aftermath of that attack.

CNN's Frederik Pleitgen is the only Western correspondent in Damascus. He's on the phone with an exclusive report for us right now.

Fred, what is the latest information you're getting?

FREDERIK PLEITGEN, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: The latest information we're getting, Wolf, is that right now the Syrian artillery is pounding the outskirts of Damascus once again, which is of course the place of where those alleged chemical weapons attacks happened.

What we managed to do, Wolf, is we managed to get video from an independent very trustworthy filmer from inside the Zamalka district. It is also an outskirt of Damascus and it was the place that had the highest death toll in that alleged chemical attack last Wednesday.

And the person who went there said there is a big lot there that is used as a mass grave. Part of it has already been plowed over because there's so many bodies in there. There's one little space left for further bodies. And that space is son going to probably be full as well because there are still a lot of unidentified bodies inside a field hospital there.

A lot of those bodies are children, and the problem is they're unidentified, and people can't bury them as long as the bodies aren't identified. The local field hospital is trying to find out -- is trying to find relatives, so that the bodies can be buried.

But there's also a lot of people telling a miraculous tales of escape from the poison gas. There's one man the filmer bumped into who had a makeshift gas mask he made himself out of a plastic cup, out of some cotton, and some coal to try to make a filter. And that's how he escaped there. There's various other tales the same way. But it is still a very dire scene.

Meanwhile, however, the Syrian government continues to say it's not behind what happened here last Wednesday in those alleged gas attacks. I managed to speak exclusively today to the country's information minister., who is a very powerful person here on the ground. Let's listen into some of what he had to say about possible impending American airstrikes.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

OMRAN AL ZOUBI, SYRIAN INFORMATION MINISTER (through translator): If the United States administration has proof that we used chemical weapons, then they should present this proof to rest of the world. If they don't have proof of evidence, then how are they going to stand up to the world public opinion and to the world public opinion and explain why they are attacking Syria?

(END VIDEO CLIP)

PLEITGEN: That was Omran Al Zoubi there, the information minister of Syria. And he was also saying that he believes that the U.N. chemical weapons expert who are on the ground here need more time to do their work. But we know that today they didn't manage to get out there. They were actually going to go to that Zamalka district today.

They didn't manage to get out there because of security concerns.

BLITZER: I know you have been meeting with Syrian officials, Fred. Do they seem to be ready for some sort of U.S. cruise missile or airstrike? Are they nervous about that? What are they saying?

PLEITGEN: It's very interesting.

I'm sort of reading feelings that are changing among Syrian officials. A couple of days ago, they were very firm and they said if the U.S. wants to try and strike Syria, then the Syrian government will have some sort of answer ready for them. That's still something they're saying but you can tell they realize that they really wouldn't have a response to airstrikes, especially if there were limited action the U.S. would take, if there were targeted strikes, especially of chemical weapons facilities. I don't believe the Syrian government would strike back. We have seen it in the past. I was here when the Israelis struck a gigantic ammunition depot right outside of Damascus and set a mountain on fire for several days. There was a lot of rhetoric afterwards and there was a lot of talk, but there was no response, because the Syrians know first of all their air force and their air defenses are mostly from the 1980s. They have some modern stuff, but it's no match for what the U.S. has.

And also we have to keep in mind this army is stretched very, very thin on the battlefield fighting the civil war in the country. And the last thing they have the power to do is stop the U.S. from conducting airstrikes here, Wolf, and the Syrian officials definitely know that is the case.

BLITZER: Yes. A lot of people remember when the Israelis bombed that Syrian nuclear reactor a few years ago, there was no retaliation either against Israel from the Syrian air force for that as well. Fred Pleitgen, we will get to you, Fred Pleitgen reporting to us from Damascus.

Four U.S. warships all armed with highly accurate cruise missiles, they are deployed in the Eastern Mediterranean right now and the defense secretary, Chuck Hagel, says the U.S. military only needs the order from the president to act.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

QUESTION: But if the order comes, you're ready to go like that?

CHUCK HAGEL, U.S. DEFENSE SECRETARY: We're ready to go like that.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: There's still no final decision on a strike according to the White House. The Obama administration trying to rally though its allies who could add firepower of their own.

CNN's Tom Foreman is here to show us what that military action potentially could look like.

What are you seeing, Tom?

TOM FOREMAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, destroying Syria's chemical weapons capability is a tall order at best, because while outsiders have long known about sites in this country connected to the chemical weapons program, military analysts widely believe the weapons themselves have probably been dispersed to dozens and maybe hundreds of unknown sites within the country.

Even if U.S. warships were to come in here and launch cruise missiles from the Mediterranean, which targets would they choose here? Intelligence analysts suggest the key targets would be less the weapons themselves than the systems the Syrians would use to deliver them. For example, you might look at major airfields here. Airplanes can carry chemical weapons quickly and closely to their intended targets. That means it would be important for bases that matter to the Syrians to be attacked and taken out of action. That would make them probably attractive targets.

Someone in the Syrian military has to call the shots and direct chemical attacks. So, U.S. forces would likely try to disrupt the command-and-control structure here. The ability of commanders to send out commands to their troops, for the troops to follow them for them to move assets around the battlefield. So those command-and-control centers would also be in the cross hairs. Then there is the question of artillery. Here's one of their tanks. But they have many, many artillery pieces all over this country far flung in many directions. They can also be used to fire chemical weapons.

There are, in fact, so many of them that we would not be able to fire enough missiles to track them all down and knock them all out. We would only take out a fraction, but that emphasizes the real point here, which is punishment, sending a message about what happened rather than obliterating Syria's chemical weapons capability which in a matter of a couple days of strikes would probably be impossible.

BLITZER: I know there's been some concern raised about unintended consequences of a cruise missile attack. What's going on, on that front?

FOREMAN: There are twofold worries there, Wolf. One is what if you make a strike on some chemical facility somewhere and you inadvertently set off a chemical release that attacks a population nearby?

Obviously that's something nobody wants there. The other question is just the idea of civilian casualties. Whenever you're firing missiles, even very, very accurate and controllable ones like cruise missiles, you can make mistakes. And the results can be catastrophic. So obviously American military commanders or coalition commanders if they're involved would want to be very mindful of that -- Wolf.

BLITZER: They certainly do. Thanks very much, Tom Foreman, for that report.

There's a growing chorus of outrage and blame from top U.S. officials and a drumbeat signaling looming military action. Vice President Joe Biden says there's no doubt the Syrian regime is responsible for the chemical attack, though White House Press Secretary Jay Carney stresses any action would be limited.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

JOSEPH BIDEN, VICE PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: The president believes and I believe that those who use chemical weapons against defenseless men, women, and children should and must be held accountable.

JAY CARNEY, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: I want to make clear that the options that we are considering are not about regime change. They are about responding to a clear violation of an international standard that prohibits the use of chemical weapons.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: Our national security analyst Peter Bergen is here in THE SITUATION ROOM. We're also joined by our senior international correspondent, Nick Paton Walsh, who has reported from the front lines in Syria.

Peter, you write that Syria is now a problem from hell. What do you mean?

PETER BERGEN, CNN TERRORISM ANALYST: I think the Obama administration is in an interesting spot because overthrowing Assad, as Jay Carney just mentioned, is not their aim.

That might seem counterintuitive, but they're concerned about --

(CROSSTALK)

BLITZER: I think that's their long-term aim, but not in the short- term by the limited strikes.

BERGEN: Yes, but even I think -- they don't like Assad, but they're concerned.

The two most effective groups fighting in Syria right now are effectively al Qaeda-affiliated organizations and Hezbollah backed by Iran. So whoever prevails in that fight is not going to be an ally of the United States exactly. And so when these strikes come, they're going to be calibrated in such a way they do punish Assad for his us of these weapons, but not enough to actually overthrow him. That's a kind of interesting calculus, but I think that's the calculus that they're making.

BLITZER: Nick, you reported from inside Syria last year and earlier this year. Why do you think Bashar al-Assad has been ramping up this escalation now, if you believe the U.S. and others, by using chemical warfare?

NICK PATON WALSH, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: I suppose if you're being ultimately cynical, he was perhaps using the alibi of U.N. inspectors being in town to get away with it. Why would you do that when you have the very people who are supposed to be monitoring right inside your city limits?

And then of course where was he targeting? This is the rebel-held areas all around kind of his heartland in Damascus, long rebel strongholds, areas they wanted to seize back. You heard Fred reporting heavy artillery shelling. They're trying to clean these areas out too. So it may simply have been an objective they long sought to take and wanted to seize that particular alibi of having U.N. weapons inspectors in town.

Some have also suggested perhaps this went off with greater efficiency than they had necessarily hoped, that they weren't trying to kill as many people as they actually did. Chemical weapons are phenomenally imprecise science even at the best of times. But it's really important to point out we're looking at a man here who's isolated, been his back against the wall for best part of a year at the least, and perhaps in that fight for survival, maybe he is in many ways quite happy to drag anybody else in the conflict if it simply prolongs his chances of living longer.

BLITZER: Well, Peter, if the U.S. were to launch cruise missile strikes or even airstrikes for two or three or four days against various targets inside Syria, then stop, what will have been achieved?

BERGEN: Well, it's not regime change.

(CROSSTALK)

BLITZER: Bashar will still be in power.

BERGEN: He will still be in power. You might get lucky and presumably some of his housing might be on a target list. But we have seen in the past, right at the beginning of the first -- the second Iraq war, we tried to kill Saddam Hussein with a strike. He wasn't in a place he was supposed to be.

You can't rely that you're going to actually take out the leadership. Assad as Nick has just pointed out, he's not, I think, amenable to rational kind of pressure. So it probably won't change the situation very profoundly. It probably would prevent him from using such weapons in the future.

BLITZER: Peter Bergen, thanks very much. Nick Paton Walsh, thanks to you as well.

The crisis in Syria certainly dealt another blow to the financial markets here in the United States today as Wall Street worries about a possible military strike. The Dow dropped 170 points.

Up next in our special report, if the U.S. were to attack Syria, what would happen next? What Newt Gingrich is worried about. Stand by for that interview.

And Syria's president, Bashar al-Assad, he's on Facebook and Instagram right now. He's also overseeing the mass slaughter of his opponents. We're going inside the head of what's called the master of deception.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Despite all the signs pointing to an imminent military strike against Syria, some prominent voices are adamantly opposed to a strike, suggesting the country's bloody civil war is not something the United States has any business getting involved in.

Joining us on the phone right now, the new co-host of "CROSSFIRE," the former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich.

Newt, the defense secretary, Chuck Hagel, a man you know, he says the U.S. military is ready to go in launching some sort of strikes against Syria. What do you think? Is this is a smart idea? NEWT GINGRICH (R), FORMER SPEAKER OF THE HOUSE: Well, I'm sure they're ready to go. And I think it's not a very smart idea.

The number one threat to the United States in the Middle East is Iran. We have now spent several years chasing after Libya, chasing after Egypt, and now we're going to chase after Syria. None of them are mortal threats to the United States. But an Iranian nuclear weapon is.

Furthermore, if we fire off 10, 20, 30 Tomahawks, the question becomes, and then what? We won't have eliminated Assad's chemical capacity. We will probably have enraged the Russians. We may well increase the amount of supplies that the Russians send to the Syrians.

This is -- there's no policy, there's no strategy behind this kind of feel-good emotionalism. And, yes, we have a lot of power, but using it blindly I think is not a good idea.

BLITZER: Well, listen to John McCain, the senator from Arizona, the Republican presidential nominee back in 2008. Listen to what he said.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN (R), ARIZONA: The president of the United States over a year ago said that if Bashar Assad used chemical weapons, it crosses a red line. We know for sure that he's used them at least once. Now here's the second time. Horrific, horrific.

And if the United States stands by and doesn't take very serious action, not just launching some cruise missiles, then again our credibility in the world is diminished even more, if there's any left.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: So what do you say to Senator McCain?

GINGRICH: Well, I work backwards from his final comments, if there's any left.

No -- very, very few Americans are prepared to wage a Syrian campaign, which it sounds to me what John McCain is describing. I don't know hardly any American who believes that coming out of Iraq, which, by the way, had 97 people killed this weekend. Think about that. This campaign that was supposedly a success, 97 Iraqis were killed this weekend. Still occupied in Afghanistan. Watching the mess in Libya. Trying to help in Mali.

Looking at Egypt in chaos. I mean, the idea we should go out and take on Syria next, I just think is gross overextension.

BLITZER: So the U.S. should just simply let the slaughter -- more than 100,000 Syrians have already been killed over the past two-and-a- half years -- let the slaughter go on?

GINGRICH: Well, the bomb that was set off in Boston was set off by a Chechen. Between 1999 and 2007, the Russians killed between 100,000 and 300,000 Chechen civilians.

The truth is we don't know the accurate number. I think it's very selective morality to say this is the one we're going to work on because this is this week's headline. I think the region is a mess. I think we need a decisively new strategy. And I think randomly firing off missiles is not a strategy. It's just an act of public relations.

BLITZER: But if the president of Syria, Bashar al-Assad, if his regime goes down, wouldn't that be a really serious blow to Iran, which you see as a much more serious threat to the U.S. in the region?

GINGRICH: Sure. But other than John McCain, who is suggesting that we undertake enough activity to bring the regime down?

We're not prepared to arm the rebels because we now have discovered that most of the rebels are Islamic radicals, including al Qaeda. So there are no good guys available in Syria right now. The Russians are clearly prepared to back Assad. He and his father have been friends of Russia since 1970. And this idea that I saw in on article that we're going to shame Putin, people need to get in their heads Putin was a senior KGB official.

It's impossible to shame him. He's going to do what he thinks in a cold, calculating way is in Russia's best interest. He clearly does not think allowing the United States to defeat Assad is in Russia's best interest.

BLITZER: The former speaker of the House, the host of the new "CROSSFIRE," Newt Gingrich, thanks very much for joining us, Newt.

GINGRICH: Thank you.

"The New York Times" Web site is down because of a -- quote -- "malicious external attack." Within the past hour, some desktop users were still having problems. But the company's mobile Web site and apps were up and running. One security analyst tweets it looks like the hacker group -- quote -- "Syrian Electronic Army" -- that's a hacker group -- "had compromised the servers that route traffic to the Web site."

We will stay on top of this developing story.

Up next in our special report here in THE SITUATION ROOM, lawmakers are divided over a possible strike against Syria's regime. We're going to hear from two members of Congress.

And why is Russia so determined to stick up for Syria's regime?

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Happening now: Russia leads the international charge against U.S. military strikes in Syria amid escalating tensions with the United States.

Plus, he's on Facebook, he's on Instagram, but he's also overseeing the mass killing of his own people. We're going inside the mind of the so-called master of deception, the Syrian president, Bashar al- Assad.

And you have already seen the horrifying images. Just ahead, we're taking a closer look at the lethal effects of a chemical weapon attack.

We want to welcome our viewers from the United States and around the world. I'm Wolf Blitzer. This is a special edition of THE SITUATION ROOM, "Crisis in Syria."

The U.S. military is standing by for what looks like a looming strike against Syrian targets, punishment for what the Obama administration says was a brutal chemical attack. But while America and its allies weighs a military move, lawmakers are divided over a possible strike.

Joining us now, two members of Congress, both Democrats, both from California.

Loretta Sanchez serves on the Armed Services Committee. Adam Schiff is on the Intelligence Committee.

Thanks to both of you for coming in.

Representative Sanchez, you have said that this could be a disaster if it's complicated as it could be, and there could be unintended consequences for the United States if we were to launch strikes against Syria.

What's your concern?

REP. LORETTA SANCHEZ (D), CALIFORNIA: Well, my concern is that the American people may not have the appetite for a long-term effect.

And in other words, just shooting in some missiles isn't really going to take care of the situation. It might aggravate the situation. You have Syria tied to Iraq. You have got the Hezbollah in neighboring Lebanon. The whole area's already a difficult area.

You have refugees going into other countries. So to think -- for Americans to believe that just by shooting a few cruise missiles, we have made our statement and away we go, it's just not the way that I believe this plays out, if that happens.

BLITZER: Representative Schiff, I believe you think the United States right now has no choice, but it must launch strikes.

REP. ADAM SCHIFF (D), CALIFORNIA: If this is confirmed, Wolf, I think we have to act.

Otherwise, we will have seen serial use of chemical weapons by the Assad regime. If we don't act on this red line now, I think we will be sending a message not only to the Assad regime that they can continue the use of chemical weapons, but to others around the world who may contemplate that. BLITZER: But explain this. And then I want Representative Sanchez to weigh in as well -- 100,000 people have already been killed by conventional weapons, bombs or whatever. Another thousand, yes, may have been killed over the past few days with chemical weapons.

But what's the difference if 100,000 are killed one way or another 1,000 are killed, let's say, with chemical weapons?

SCHIFF: Well, Wolf, you're absolutely right: 100,000 that have died are deeply tragic humanitarian crisis of really unprecedented recent proportions. That doesn't mean, though, that we can, in the face of chemical weapons attacks, sit still. The chemical weapons have always been viewed differently because of their terrifying impact ,ever since World War I.

And we have a core national security interest in making sure that those weapons do not become just another tool in the military tool box. Ultimately, if they do, they'll be used against us. And I think we have -- we have to act now. Otherwise, I think our credibility is very much at stake.

BLITZER: all right. Let's let Congresswoman Sanchez respond. He says the United States must act right now. You sort of disagree, right?

SANCHEZ: Well, what I agree upon is that chemical attacks or biological warfare, as my colleague has said, is completely and totally unacceptable.

I guess what I'm worried about is that just shooting a few cruise missiles isn't the end of it for Americans. And if we are to go in, if the president consults with the Congress, the leadership, those in armed services or intel or foreign relations, and ultimately makes the decision to send those cruise missiles in, I think everybody has to be on notice that that probably isn't the end of it.

And is America ready to see at the ultimate of playing that out, its soldiers in Syria? And I don't believe that we are. So we have to really consider, and I think the president would be wrong not to consult with the Congress in particular.

BLITZER: Because you know --

SANCHEZ: There are a lot of other things we can do --

BLITZER: I was going to say, Congressman Schiff --

SANCHEZ: -- this is major.

BLITZER: Congressman Schiff, the U.S. went in with relatively short- term objectives in Iraq, in Afghanistan, lasted for a decade-plus in both countries. Still in Afghanistan.

Even in Libya the U.S. had relatively modest objectives. That hasn't necessarily turned out all that great either. Even if there's a limited air strike over the next few days, aren't you concerned the U.S. could get bogged down in what the American public clearly doesn't want? Another U.S. military campaign in the Middle East?

SCHIFF: Well, this is a concern and for this reason I have been opposed to arming the rebels, becoming immersed in the civil war. But I think the use of chemical weapons is really different. Qualitatively different, tragically different.

And I think we really have to act here. But the president, you're right, Wolf, is going to have to set the mission, the scope of the mission very carefully. He's going to have to make it clear, not only to the American people, but also to the Syrian people that this isn't going to be the cavalry riding to the rescue to topple Bashar al- Assad. But this is going to be a punitive, powerful response, a deterrent response to the use of chemical weapons.

That's important to make sure that we don't get entangled in this war to try to avoid the consequences that Loretta is mentioning. But I think, properly defined, it can be done and I think it will be done in concert with our international partners.

BLITZER: Representative Sanchez, you think the president needs congressional authorization before any strike?

SANCHEZ: Certainly the president has the power to go in and come later and talk to the Congress about it. That's a given. I would say that those who have his ear have sent messages to him to say, yes, at least consult with the leadership of both parties before you decide what you're going to do.

And by consult I mean really ask for advice and, ultimately, it's his decision. He is the commander in chief, and he will do what he needs to do, what he feels he needs to do. But I think having Congress, at least having come and talk to them and heard their advice is incredibly important.

Do I think that he needs to call us back into session and have some sort of a proclamation or resolution come forth from the Congress? No. And I don't think that this warrants that at this time.

BLITZER: You agree?

SANCHEZ: I think there's a lot of other things that Congress can do.

SCHIFF: I agree that the president can act. If this is a limited strike, limited duration, limited in scope, there's precedent for him to act.

I would like the Congress to be called back into session. I think we should be discussing and deliberating this and consulting with the president, even if it doesn't come to a vote. If the president goes beyond that, Wolf, and wants to commit the United States, then absolutely we need a vote.

BLITZER: Adam Schiff, Loretta Sanchez, thanks to both of you for coming in.

Up next in our special report here in THE SITUATION ROOM, what makes Syria's leader tick? We're going inside the mind of the man called the master of deception. The president, Bashar al-Assad.

And after years of slaughter, why is Russia still standing by Syria's regime? Is it because of an old rivalry with the United States?

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: And the breaking news just coming into THE SITUATION ROOM, the State Department now saying its special envoy on North Korean human rights, the ambassador Robert King, has been officially invited by the government in North Korea on a so-called humanitarian mission to try to free the American who's held there, Kenneth Bae.

Bae has been held in North Korea since November after being convicted of committing what are called hostile acts against the country. The State Department saying it's hoping that he'll be pardoned and grantingspecial amnesty on humanitarian grounds so he can be reunited with his family and seek the medical treatment he needs.

The visit by a high-ranking U.S. official to North Korea, the first in a long, long time set to take place this next week.

Our special coverage of the crisis in Syria continues right after this.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: He is sophisticated, western educated in London with a glamorous wife. But Syria's leader may be even more brutal than his infamous father. So what makes Bashar al-Assad tick? Brian Todd has been looking into this part of the story for us. What are you finding out, Brian?

BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, Bashar al-Assad is, by most accounts, often pleasant, even charming on the outside. It's when he's out of sight making critical decisions with those closest to him that he acts with cold, brutal calculation.

This time, however, those calculations may have betrayed him.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

TODD (voice-over): Bashar al-Assad, some analysts say, may have badly misread the signals. Believed it when his cronies told him President Obama wouldn't enforce his red line on chemical weapons. A staggering miscalculation, experts say, driven by Assad's own unpredictable swings of behavior.

ANDREW TABLER, WASHINGTON INSTITUTE FOR NEAR EAST POLICY: Bashar al- Assad, kind of like his father, is quite erratic; he's quite moody. He goes from one side to the other. Bouts of rationality and irrationality. TODD: Andrew Tabler is among few westerners to gain access to Assad's inner circle. He worked with Assad's wife, Asma, running a charity in Syria, and has met with Bashar al-Assad. He describes Assad as delusional, conspiracy minded, but also persuasive. Coming across in interviews as the antithesis of a murderous dictator.

When CNN's Christiane Amanpour asked him in 2005 about reports that he'd threatened Lebanon's prime minister --

BASHAR AL-ASSAD, SYRIAN PRESIDENT: First of all, it's not my nature to threaten anybody. It's -- I'm a very quiet person and very frank. I wouldn't threaten.

TODD: And in 2011, when ABC's Barbara Walters pressed him on whether he'd ordered his forces to fire on the opposition --

AL-ASSAD: They're not my forces. They are military forces that belong to the government. I don't want own them as president. I don't own the country.

BARBARA WALTERS, ABC NEWS: No, but you have to give the order.

AL-ASSAD: No, no, no.

WALTERS: Not by your command?

AL-ASSAD: No, no, no. There was no command. There was no command to kill or to be brutal.

TODD (on camera): What do you make of that bearing? He's so polite and soft-toned?

TABLER: I think he's a master of deception. I think that the regime, both the package of Bashar and his wife, Asma, it's very seductive. And it draws you in. How could someone who seems so reasonable command such a horrific regime?

TODD (voice-over): Illustrating what Tabler calls Assad's two faces: He was trained as an ophthalmologist. He has Facebook and Instagram accounts, has enjoyed being seen with his glamorous wife out on the town, from Aleppo to Paris.

But from his bunker, he's overseeing the killing of tens of thousands of his own people. What's he thinking now?

TABLER: He's going to think about "How am I going to react to these strikes?" What we can see from past strikes of Israelis is that actually Bashar does very, very little in terms of a direct response. But over time he might carry out other kinds of attacks on American assets.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

TODD: That means the militant group Hezbollah, a key ally of al- Assad's, considered a terrorist group in the west, might carry out some kind of asymmetric attack on American interests. Al-Assad is likely talking to them about a response to the American strikes, the possible American strikes right now, experts say, along with his other close friend, Iran -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Brian, as frightening as Bashar al-Assad might be, some experts on Syria say he's actually not as bad as his own brother. Is that right?

TODD: That's right. Al-Assad's younger brother, Maher, analysts say, is even more brutal than Bashar. He runs a key military unit. He also oversees a paramilitary unit called the Shabiha, which means "Ghosts." They crack down on the opposition, and they control Syria's borders. They're a pretty nasty unit. And this -- this Maher is said to be more brutal than his brother and a very heavy influence on him.

BLITZER: Brian Todd, thanks very much.

We just heard Brian Todd report. Let's go a little bit deeper right now with Andrew Tabler. He was in Brian's report. He's an expert on Syria at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. Also the author of the book "In the Lion's Den: An Eyewitness Account of Washington's Battle with Syria."

Just -- because you've studied all of the -- Assads, shall we say. Who is more brutal? The son, Bashar al-Assad, or the father, Hafez al-Assad? Because we remember what happened in the early '80s in Hama, when 20 or 30,000 fellow Syrians were slaughtered within a matter of a few days.

TABLER: I think they're actually equally brutal historically. But Bashar al-Assad, much more unpredictable than his father. His father, for all of his faults, was somebody who that, once he said yes to something, especially diplomatically, you could take that to the bank and sort of build policy around it.

Bashar would just say yes to everything and then after, turn around and do the opposite. And that was, I think, was some of the logic behind the earlier interview that we saw there concerning Bashar al- Assad's decision making in killing over 100,000 Syrians.

BLITZER: Is he that intelligent, that sophisticated? We know he got the job because his father was Hafez al-Assad. But is he a brilliant guy? Or is he just an average guy who happens to be in this incredibly powerful position?

TABLER: I think he has average intelligence. I think he's kind of crazy like a fox, though. In the end, only by adding all of this up and looking at his behavior can we see the true Bashar al-Assad. The fact of the matter is that he's a smooth talking, extremely brutal dictator who heads one of the most centrally-controlled regimes. He's completely responsible for the regime's conduct. He and his brother, Maher, and the family are directing the Syrian regime's response to the Syrian uprising. And they're the ones who are responsible for any kind of use of chemical weapons. Not only in Syria in the past but also into the future. BLITZER: Because early on, I as someone who has watched Syria over these many years, I assumed -- I thought when Bashar al-Assad saw what happened to Muammar Gadhafi in Libya, he would get -- get the point and get out of there, seek asylum some place as quickly as possible. Save his himself, his family, his wife, his kids. But he's held pretty firmly there.

TABLER: That's right. I think the lessons of Egypt, Tunisia and then Libya told him and his regime the most important thing is no reforms, hold on, try to shoot your way out of a conflict. The problem is they don't have enough bullets.

And the demographics after the Hama uprising, in the ten years after the Hama uprising, there was a huge spike in birth rates. And the Sunnis in the country far outnumber the minorities in the country now. And they can't shoot their way out of this crisis. And that has led Bashar al-Assad to use surface-to-surface missiles and chemical weapons on his own people.

BLITZER: So the opposition right now, there seems to be what the U.S. would call the good guys. Those who are friendly towards the west, towards Turkey and the United States. But there's also the al Nusra, the al Qaeda, the Islamist elements that seem to be on the uptick right now. Is that right?

TABLER: That's right. They've grown over time. Mostly because they haven't been armed. The moderates in the country, the ones we know in the supreme military council, the ones we support, haven't been armed. Instead the jihadists and some of the salafist groups have been armed by private contributors from the Arab Gulf and beyond. So they're -- they have been able to shoot above their political weight in a country that is really not prone to extremism. And over time, the Syrian opposition has found a number of al Qaeda affiliates popping up among the rebels.

BLITZER: If the U.S. launches cruise missile strikes or air strikes in the coming days, what happens next?

TABLER: I think immediately we'll look for a response from Bashar al- Assad, and the response will be forthcoming. I think --

BLITZER: What kind of response?

TABLER: I think the first response will be rhetorical. I don't think that he'll attack Israel, because that would end his regime faster than anything else. And because --

BLITZER: The Israelis would --

TABLER: -- the Israelis are very good at laying down red lines. And they have laid down red lines with Bashar al-Assad time and time again, and he hasn't hit back. There could be asymmetrical attacks pulled off by Hezbollah --

BLITZER: What does that mean? TABLER: That would mean, like, terrorist attacks against U.S. targets. Could be against allied targets. It could be immediate. It could be into the future. And that would be the immediate way that they could strike back.

BLITZER: Because a lot of American officials have told me they're worried about cyber retaliation.

TABLER: Well, just a few minutes ago, as you reported, the Syrian electronic army took down "The New York Times" site. They've also attacked the NASDAQ sites, the western market sites. They have other ways that they can attack. The longer that pocket of the regime holds on, the more unstable and the more instability comes out of Syria.

BLITZER: Andrew Tabler, thanks very much for coming in.

TABLER: My pleasure.

BLITZER: We'll keep on calling on you.

Up next on our special report, tensions heating up between the United States and Russia as Russia leads the international charge against military strikes in Syria.

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BLITZER: Even as one horrific act of slaughter merges into another and as evidence mounts of brutal chemical weapons attacks, Russia keeps sticking by the Syrian regime. Is it a matter of sticking it to the United States or something more?

Our foreign affairs correspondent, Jill Dougherty, is here. She's a real expert on U.S./Russia relations. What is going on?

JILL DOUGHERTY, CNN FOREIGN AFFAIRS CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, look, the rhetoric really is heating up. Here's this one zinger from Russian deputy prime minister Dmitri Rogozin, who goes in and tweeted today, "The west handles the Islamic world the way a monkey handles a grenade."

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DOUGHERTY (voice-over): There's no love affair between Russian President Vladimir Putin and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, but their countries have been in a tight embrace since Soviet times.

WALID MOALLEM, SYRIAN FOREIGN MINISTER (through translator): the Russian and Syrian relationship is an historical relationship that goes back decades and is still continuing in the same momentum to this day.

DOUGHERTY: Syria has been buying its military weapons from Russia since Assad's father, Hafez al-Assad, ruled the country. And Moscow is still fulfilling some of those Soviet-era contracts.

Russia's naval facility in Syria's port of Tartus is Moscow's only remaining Mediterranean repair spot for its ships.

There are ties of blood. At least 25,000 Russian women are married to Syrians according to Russian media. And ties of religion. The largest Christian denomination in Syria, as in Russia, is the orthodox church, and Moscow fears if Islamist rebels win, they will be decimated.

But the deepest reason the Kremlin sticks with Assad is Russia's anger over any unilateral military action or regime change by the west.

It started with NATO's 1999 air campaign against Russia's ally, Serbia. It got worse when the west launched air strikes against Libya's Muammar Gadhafi in 2011.

ANDREW KUCHINS, CENTER FOR STRATEGIC AND INTERNATIONAL STUDIES: Mr. Putin basically came to the conclusion that never again. This will never happen again. That they will stick by Mr. Assad and Syria. Not because they particularly like Mr. Assad. But because they see him as the legitimate president or legitimate leader of Syria.

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DOUGHERTY: And Russia now claims there's little difference between President Obama and President George W. Bush, and they predict that if Assad falls, what comes after him could be even worse -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Jill Dougherty with that report, thank you.

Up next on our special report, the deadly effects of a poison gas attack.

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BLITZER: Tom Foreman is back with a chilling look at what sarin gas can do.

TOM FOREMAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Sarin can be launched in an artillery shell or a missile. It can be dropped from an airplane. It goes out as a liquid but as it spreads out, it very quickly and easily turns into a gas.

We showed it there, but the truth is, it is colorless, it is odorless. You would have no idea you were even being attacked by it, even though it's much more lethal than cyanide.

What does it do to people? Well, it can cause blurred vision, rapid breathing, heavy sweats, confusion, headaches; in the worst cases, nausea, convulsions, paralysis, and as it shuts down the ability of the body to breathe, even death, and in the worst cases, that can come very, very quickly, perhaps within even one minute.

BLITZER: Tom Foreman, thanks very much.

That's it for me. "ERIN BURNETT OUTFRONT" starts right now.