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Crisis in Syria; Israel's Intel on Syria Attack; Imagine a World

Aired August 28, 2013 - 17:00:00   ET


CHRISTIANE AMANPOUR, CNN HOST: Good evening, everyone, and welcome to the program. I'm Christiane Amanpour, reporting live tonight from France, where we are, once again, hearing talk of a coalition of the willing led by the United States, ready to launch strikes in the Middle East with or without U.N. Security Council approval.

Parliaments, generals, ministers are all being called back from vacation and some of the strongest reaction comes right here from the French President Francois Hollande. He says his country, this one, stands ready to punish whoever made, quote, "that vile decision" to use chemical weapons against innocent civilians.

The British foreign secretary, William Hague, also gave Syria a strong warning today.


WILLIAM HAGUE, FOREIGN SECRETARY OF GREAT BRITAIN: This is the first use of chemical warfare in the 21st century. It has to be unacceptable. Now we have to confront something that is a war crime, something that is a crime against humanity. If we don't do so, then we will have to confront even bigger war crimes in the future.


AMANPOUR: Now the British Prime Minister David Cameron is proposing a U.N. Security Council resolution and CNN has learned that the initial draft, at least, contained the critical wording authorizing all necessary measures to protect civilians.

But in the last few minutes it's been confirmed that Britain has said it will not partake in any military action against Syria until the U.N. weapons report is in and the inspectors are still there continuing their investigation.

And the shameful truth is that the world has let Assad's previous chemical attacks go unpunished by Prime Minister Cameron's own account, there's evidence of 10 of them so far, the last one in April. And at that time, the leader of the Free Syrian Army gave me this prophetic warning.


GEN. SALIM IDRISS, SYRIAN OPPOSITIOIN FORCES: We are afraid that the regime will continue to use chemical weapons and we are very concerned that when the regime feel that he is doing to rule everything, he will use the chemical weapons very heavily.


AMANPOUR: And that red line was crossed again, as we know, to much more devastating effect just last week.

But how far will the West go to punish the perpetrators?

The most recent images from Syria have a stark echo of those from Iraq. These pictures which show the aftermath of a gas attack in Halabja, that killed more than 3,000 people back in 1988.

Now public opinion in the United States and in Europe is currently firmly against intervention. Russia, of course, remains opposed; again the world is asked can we stand by and do nothing?

Italy's foreign minister says that her country won't take any action without U.N. approval. Foreign Minister Anna Bonino is meeting with her French counterpart in Paris tomorrow as well as with President Francois Hollande. She wants to see the evidence, as she told me when we talked earlier today.


AMANPOUR: Foreign Minister Bonino, thank you for joining me. Welcome to the program.


AMANPOUR: U.S. allies, for instance Britain, is putting a resolution on the table at the U.N. Security Council this evening authorizing protection for the Syrian civilians.

Do you believe that resolution will be approved by the Security Council?

BONINO: Well, I hope it will be. I don't know the text, and this is another worrying situation in which European member states or allies are never consulted when some, let's say, U.K. in this case, are tabling a resolution without the previous consultation.

But, in any case, I hope that today we'll gather a consensus to the Security Council. But I don't know the text. I'm sorry.

AMANPOUR: But how likely do you think it is? Do you think Russia will agree? Do you think China will agree? It is calling for authorization to take action to defend and protect Syrian civilians.

BONINO: Well, I don't know. I don't think for -- for the moment. And it's also worrying that people are already preparing a coalition of the willing even before they're tabling a resolution at the U.N.

So the two tracks seems to me contradictory, one way or another, even if, frankly, I don't know what they -- this coalition is really willing to do, punish Assad and end the conflict? I don't know. It's totally non- clear to me.

AMANPOUR: So do you believe there will be an attack on Syria by the United States, France, Britain?

BONINO: Listen, I -- we are strong allies of the U.S. This is not under discussion. But I do -- and I strongly believe that chemical weapons are a crime against humanity and what happened is really unacceptable. And the responsible have to be brought to be accountable and brought to justice.

But the question is, again, that without a U.N. Security Council resolution, I don't think, frankly, that it's wise just to intervene.

We are intervening, apparently, militarily in a sort of a powder keg and normally throwing further matches doesn't help the situation. And I hope that -- and no one could oppose, in my opinion, a verified U.N. report and the U.N. findings.

And I hope that will be -- that is the case that we definitely have a fool-proof evidence of what happened before deciding military intervention based on the selective intelligence.

AMANPOUR: Well, the pictures are dramatic, Foreign Minister. We've seen this happen before in Syria. Even the British say that it happened about 10 times previously, much smaller incident. To me, the pictures look like the pictures from Halabja in the `80s when Saddam Hussein gassed his own people.

Surely the world has a responsibility to stop that kind of breach of international law.

Will Italy approve and join any action to punish the regime of Bashar al-Assad?

BONINO: Italy has made it crystal clear that what -- we will not join coalitions of willing without the mandate of the Security Council. And that has to be -- it's very important because I -- the -- preserving a multi-lateral system based in the U.N. is of key importance.

And, again, I strongly hope that all the capitals who have selective intelligence will be willing to share the intelligence with other partners and make them at the disposal of the U.N. relevant body and relevant inspectors.

AMANPOUR: Well, you're going to be meeting with your French counterpart, Laurent Fabius, and also with the French president, Francois Hollande. They have been the most bullish, almost, on this. They feel they have the evidence; they have said they're ready to punish those who have taken this "vile decision," in the words of President Hollande to gas innocent civilians.

So the French seemed convinced. The British seem convinced. The Americans seem convinced.

Why are you not convinced?

BONINO: Well, exactly because proof and evidence have to be shared and make it public and also have to be verified, in my opinion, by the U.N. inspector or a U.N. body.

Selective intelligence has already been the cause of some other intervention, which didn't prove very positive. And I think we should not repeat the experience, and we should be very, very cautious in intervening again in what is already a powder keg.


AMANPOUR: So a big dose of caution there from Italy, as the foreign minister calls for the evidence to be made public.

And as the world waits for the findings of the U.N. investigators.

When we come back, the crucial Israeli intelligence -- my interview with General Amos Yadlin, former chief of Israeli military intelligence and the view from Syria's ally, Russia. I asked that country's E.U. ambassador if they will accept and approve the U.K.'s draft resolution.



AMANPOUR: Welcome back to the program. Let's turn now to evidence of last week's chemical attack in Syria.

In an exclusive interview with CNN's Fred Pleitgen in Damascus, the Syrian information minister has challenged the United States to show its evidence to the world.


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


AMANPOUR: Now a diplomatic source tells CNN that Israeli intelligence overheard Syrian commanders discussing the movement of chemical weapons to the Damascus suburbs just before the attack took place.

Israel has given that information to the United States and I spoke moments ago with General Amos Yadlin, the former chief of military intelligence in Israel.


AMANPOUR: General Yadlin, welcome to the program. Thanks for joining me.


AMANPOUR: Let me ask you, there have been many reports that some of the crucial intelligence on the chemical attack was gathered by Israeli intelligence. They say that they've monitored conversations between Syria and army commanders, talking about moving chemical weapons supplies.

What can you tell me about that and about how and whether Israel would be able to gather that intelligence?

YADLIN: I can promise you that Israel is covering Syria from intelligence point of view in a very efficient way. And when I have Secretary of State Kerry speaking two nights ago with such confidence about who employed the chemical weapon, I knew that the American intelligence agencies gave him a very good report and analysis based on all the collections.

And since the two countries are cooperating, sharing data and analysis, I'm sure the Israeli input was very significant.

AMANPOUR: So you believe that Israeli electronic surveillance could have picked up this conversations between these commanders?

YADLIN: Yes, it is a very reasonable assumption. I'm saying that the American intelligence community is very, very careful after Iraq 2003. And I know personally most of them, I know personally General Clapper, who is the DNI.

And once again, when I hear the determination of Secretary Kerry, I know that the intelligence is very solid. And when he says that Assad have done it, I think the American public and the international community should trust that this is a very reliable intelligence.

AMANPOUR: All right. Well, that is from your unique vantage point.

Let me ask you this, then. If there is a U.S. backed French-English supported strike on Assad, is that good or bad for Israel?

YADLIN: Israel is not part of this civil war and not part of this attack. However, I think the interests are overlapping and what's important to America, to Great Britain and to France is important to Israel. And let me tell you what is important.

The fact that a leader employed chemical weapons against his people is something that's unforgivable and should not be repeated.

This is interest of Israel as well as the rest of the coalition. The fact that Assad, who have killed 100,000 people, this is a moral position, a moral interest, 100,000 people, not with chemical weapons, not with unconventional weapons, with simple rocket bombs and airplanes and tanks, this man should be punished.

AMANPOUR: In that case, what does the U.S. and whoever coalition partners it manages to gather, what do they need to do to make that strong signal that you are calling for?

Because up until now, the public sort of sphere is full of the notion of limited strikes on maybe some airfields, on some weapons depots, but not wide-scale strikes to topple the regime or seriously degrade the regime's military capability.

What should the U.S. do?

YADLIN: It should be limited in the fact that this is not a boots on the ground. It's not another war in the Middle East country that you have to send your Marines and Army. It should be limited by the means, but not by the scope and not by the target.

At the end of the attack, Assad should see that he have lost very important centers of power, of his regime. It can be the air force; it can be the air defense; it can be the chemical weapon military array. It can be the surface-to-surface missile. He should understand that using a chemical weapon is something that in cost-benefit calculation, is playing against him 100 times.

AMANPOUR: General, in cost-benefit calculations, what do you think the cost to Israel will be?

Will Assad, will Syria respond?

Will its allies, Hezbollah, respond, if there is an attack?

YADLIN: I think that America's discussed in the last couple of days two strategists, one a strategy of punishment and deterrence, and second, a strategy of changing the powers in Lebanon and in a way getting rid of Assad.

They have decided to go to the first strategy. This strategy keep Assad in place even though with a different power. Assad calculation will be based only on the survival of the regime. The bottom line is that the chances, if the attack on Syria will be limited focused and a punishment attack and not an attack to overthrow Assad, the chances that he will choose an attack on Israel are quite low.

Even though we have to be prepared, we have to be prepared because this dictator already proved that he not always play according to a rationale that we exercise.

AMANPOUR: On that note, General Yadlin, thank you very much for joining me.


AMANPOUR: So there, General Amos Yadlin, absolutely convinced that the evidence is in and it is irrefutable. The U.N. secretary-general, however, Ban Ki-moon, is urging a divided Security Council to, quote, "find the unity to act on Syria."

That, though, isn't looking likely. Russia and China have previously vetoed any resolutions that are critical of Syria and this week Moscow warned that military intervention could have, quote, "catastrophic consequences" for the whole region.

So what will Russia's next move be?

A short time ago, I spoke to Vladimir Chizhov, their ambassador to the E.U.


AMANPOUR: Ambassador Chizhov, thank you for joining me. Welcome to the program.


AMANPOUR: Ambassador, the British are putting together a draft resolution which they're submitting to the Security Council. They are basically saying it's unacceptable for the use of chemical weapons by the Assad regime and that all necessary means have to be taken to protect Syrian civilians.

Can Russia accept and approve and vote for that resolution?

CHIZHOV: Of course any use of chemical weapons by anyone is deplorable. But before putting a draft resolution to the Security Council, I believe that those countries who support this move should provide evidence of that chemical attack and the perpetrators.

I understand that there has been a lot of talk by Western leaders about undeniable evidence. But none of that has been provided to the Security Council.

We believe that the first thing --


AMANPOUR: Well, if it is provided, Ambassador --

CHIZHOV: -- wait for the conclusions of the U.N. inspectors on the ground.

AMANPOUR: -- if it is provided, would you accept --

CHIZHOV: If it is provided, then the Security Council will have to decide.

But so far, the only evidence that has been put to the Security Council was the one that Russian experts provided on the March episode in Aleppo, which clearly indicated the implication of opposition forces in Syria.

AMANPOUR: The Western allies of the United States -- France, Britain and others -- say there is no doubt that any use of chemical weapons would have been by the Assad regime, that they are in control of the chemical weapons and not the rebels. They do not have access to that.

I guess the question is now after so much talk of red lines, after so many years now of this violence, with 100,000 dead, do you not agree the time has come to teach the Assad regime a lesson and to make it understand that it cannot continue using these chemical weapons?

CHIZHOV: The time has come for a political solution of the Syrian crisis. And I'm afraid that the latest initiative of blaming the Assad regime for using chemical weapons without any evidence to support that would clearly undermine the efforts undertaken by both Russia and the United States to convene the so-called Geneva 2 international conference.

AMANPOUR: What is Russia saying to President Assad right now?

How are you trying to defuse this situation?

CHIZHOV: Well, the first thing we've been saying that please assist the U.N. inspectors to conduct their mission and that has been done.

And they are still on the ground. And I think that before they deliver their report, any conclusions would be premature. And of course, we have been urging President Assad and his government quite successfully, I must admit, to agree to participate in the Geneva 2 conference.

AMANPOUR: What is your answer to the British foreign secretary, William Hague, who says this is the first chemical warfare of the 21st century; it cannot be allowed to stand because if it is, then even worse will happen in the future?

Do you not agree that the use of chemical weapons today has to be stopped and has to be punished in the most definitive way?

CHIZHOV: International law stipulates that use of force is acceptable only in two cases. If there is a resolution to that effect, by the U.N. Security Council, or on the basis of Article 51 of the U.N. charter, which is individual or collective self-defense.

But I don't see any ground to recall the Article 51 in the current situation in Syria.


AMANPOUR: Ambassador Vladimir Chizhov, giving us the view from Russia.

And when we return, we'll look back to a time when disputes of this kind could possibly be solved with a phone call on a permanently connected hot line that could cut through all the diplomatic and political obstructions when we come back.


AMANPOUR: And a final thought to now, imagine a world where enemies on the brink of war are just a phone call away. Fifty years ago, nuclear war between the United States and the Soviet Union seemed a terrifying possibility. That, of course, was the Cuban missile crisis.

And President John F. Kennedy was forced then to negotiate with his Soviet counterpart, Premier Nikita Khrushchev with letters and back-channel intermediaries, as ballistic missiles topped with nuclear warheads headed toward Cuban launch pads.

When the crisis was averted, both the U.S. and the Soviet Union decided never again should war without words be so easy. And so a telephone hot line was created, one for President Kennedy and one for Premier Khrushchev. It was used notably during the Arab-Israeli War in 1967 to reassure the Soviets that U.S. ships in the Mediterranean were not intended for use against them.

The stakes, of course, are much different today, but we're pretty sure there's no such hot line between Presidents Obama and Assad.

And that's it for tonight's program. We continue to cover this breaking story. And meantime, you can always contact us at our website, Thanks for watching and goodbye tonight from France.