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U.S. Closer to Attacking Syria; Britain Condemns Attack; Russia Argues Against Strikes; Lebanon Concerned about Refugees; What Would Can Do About Assad; Lawmakers Demand an Official Say; Interviews with Rep. Scott Rigell, Rep. Adam Smith

Aired August 28, 2013 - 12:00   ET


SUZANNE MALVEAUX, CNN ANCHOR: Welcome to this special hour on the crisis in Syria. We'd like to welcome our viewers here in the United States as well as those watching from around the world. I'm Suzanne Malveaux.

RICHARD QUEST, CNN ANCHOR: And I'm Richard Quest, in for Michael Holmes today.

MALVEAUX: We are zeroing in on all aspects of the crisis in Syria as a U.S. military strike appears imminent. It was one week ago today that the world watched in horror the aftermath of an apparent chemical weapons attack in entire neighborhoods near Damascus.

QUEST: It is likely not an if, but a when that the U.S. will launch an attack. So we are devoting the entire hour to this crisis. It's something CNN does better than any other network in the world. We are the only network broadcasting live from inside Syria. Our Fred Pleitgen is on the ground with the latest from Damascus. Also our military experts will join us to take a closer look at the military options and the possible targets in Syria.

MALVEAUX: Also, the dissension in Congress over whether to strike Syria or not. Some members of the House made it clear in a letter that they want more answers from the president.

And, of course, watch your 401(k). We're going to take a look at how the stock market is also reacting. Will you feel the impact of a potential strike?

First, want to get you up to speed with the latest developments.

A U.N. weapons team back out today collecting evidence at one of the sites where civilians are believed to have been gassed to death. But U.S. officials are not placing much stock in the U.N. mission.

QUEST: A State Department official says too much time has now passed for the investigation to be credible. Right now, western powers are building a military coalition. President Obama has the support of Britain and France. They have signaled they would join in a military intervention against Syrian government forces. Syria remains defiant. Its prime minister says western nations are fabricating scenarios and coming up with false alibis to justify military intervention. MALVEAUX: We want to bring you inside of Syria now. CNN is the only network broadcasting live from Damascus, giving you a view of the crisis like nobody else can.

QUEST: Fred Pleitgen joins us from the Syrian capital.

And what we are hearing, we're seeing, obviously, the U.S., the British and the French, the Syrian foreign minister is saying that they have the materials to defend themselves and surprise others. So how is it now being viewed from where you are?

FREDERIK PLEITGEN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, it's interesting, Richard, because I was just out and about town in Damascus and I was speaking to regular people. And on the face of it, a lot of them will tell you that they're not really afraid for their safety. They will tell you that they believe that it was not their regime that used chemical weapons.

But there is a lot of nervousness. If you then speak to them off camera, there are some people who have told us that they're actually stockpiling things like canned foods and dried foods. The thinking that some sort of war might have come.

I wouldn't say at this point that it's fear. I would say it's nervousness. I would say it's uncertainty where people are not sure what exactly this escalation could bring. And I think most people here believe that it is going to happen, but they don't really know whether or not it's going to tip the scales on the battlefield and what it will mean for them in the future.

So certainly while you're not seeing a mass exodus here from Damascus -- in fact, things are moving quite normally here in the Syrian capital -- there is a big sense of nervousness, Richard.

MALVEAUX: And, Fred, tell us, the people that you talked to in Syria, do they welcome the possibility of an imminent strike?

PLEITGEN: Well, I mean, I'm in the government controllable part of Damascus, so people that we speak to generally are very sympathetic to the Assad regime. So most people here actually believe that it is the U.S. basing a case on false evidence. So things, obviously, that the regime is saying as well.

And I was speaking to the country's information minister just yesterday and he also said, if the United States comes forward and shows us the evidence, then certainly they might have a case, but so far he says there isn't a shred of evidence to support what the United States is saying publicly, and so therefore the - as you heard also the prime minister saying that he believes that this is all a false pretext. And you do have people here on the ground who simply cannot believe that their government would have used these kinds of weapons against civilians, Suzanne.

QUEST: Fred Pleitgen who is in Damascus today.

And another western assault on the Arab world could come with serious consequences. So now to the reaction from key capitals.

MALVEAUX: Our Matthew Chancy, he is in London, where the government has drafted a U.N. Security Council resolution, quote, "condemning the chemical weapons attack by the Assad regime." Our Phil Black in Moscow, where Russian leaders are leading the international charge against a strike. And our Mohammed Jamjoom, he is in Beirut, countries bordering Syria would feel the impact of any stepped up fight. So we want to hear first from Matthew in the British capital.



And the use of chemical weapons in Syria is unacceptable and the world should not stand by. That was the decision reached by Britain's national security council of top security chiefs here in Downing Street earlier today. Britain's prime minister says he has now submitted a draft resolution to the U.N. Security Council calling for necessary measures to protect civilians, as the west's military forces prepare for a possible strike.


Russia is still using lots of powerful language, arguing against any sort of military strike on Syria. It believes there is no evidence worthy of blaming the Syrian government for using chemical weapons. It suspects Syrian rebels were responsible. And it's accused the United States and its allies of making up excuses to justify some sort of military intervention in the country. So it is very unlikely Syria (ph) will support any U.N. resolution that includes the threat of force.

MOHAMMED JAMJOOM, CNN CORRESPONDENT: I'm Mohammed Jamjoom in Beirut, where there's a tremendous amount of concern about what the escalation of a Syrian conflict might mean. Like other neighbors of Syria, Lebanon has experienced a spillover of violence. There have been bomb blasts in the past few weeks that have killed dozens, injured hundreds.

Adding to the volatility, an unending influx of refugees. According to the U.N., at least one in every six people here in Lebanon is now a Syrian refugee.


MALVEAUX: So what can the U.S. and world allies do to stop the raging civil war, especially now that it appears a red line has been crossed with the likely use of chemical weapons?

QUEST: Christiane Amanpour joins us now from France.

And, Christiane, before we talk about the options and what's likely to happen, let us remind ourselves what President Obama said last year, and this very important term being used, the "red line."


BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: We have been very clear to the Assad regime, but also to other players on the ground, that a red line for us is, we start seeing a whole bunch of chemical weapons moving around or being utilized. That would change my calculus, that would change my equation.


MALVEAUX: So, Christiane, I want to ask you first here, how does the U.S. accomplish its goals to disable Assad from unleashing another chemical attack and bring them to the negotiating table for a political settlement with the Syrian rebels, without being drawn into this larger regional conflict?

CHRISTIAN AMANPOUR, CNN CORRESPONDENT: I think that's an incredibly difficult line to tread really. What is happening right now is that President Obama and his allies, France here, President Hollande, and David Cameron in England, are really bringing kicking and screaming into actually having to make good on that statement about not being able to cross the red line with impunity. If you remember, it was back just this spring when there was another chemical attack by the Assad forces. It was deemed by the international community. Though that one, we were told, wasn't big enough to merit a response.

This one now is big enough. And the French president has said today and this week that he stands willing and ready, France does, to punish those who have taken, quote, "this vile decision to use chemical weapons against innocent civilians."

You heard just what our reporters reported from David Cameron. Here is what's going to happen. David Cameron is going to present - the British will present this draft resolution to the United Nations today. But, if it's true that the language they're using calls for all necessary measures against the Assad regime, it is likely to fail because that is the strongest language that you can use and implies most implicitly the use of force. So that is a situation that we're waiting to see what happens.

Beyond that, the U.S. is trying to get a consensus with its NATO allies and with the Arab League so that it can bypass any kind of U.N. in order to go and take what some are calling punitive strikes. By that I mean strikes that are limited to just sort of a major slap on the wrist to tell Assad, you cannot keep using these chemical weapons, but not strikes that are aimed at crippling him or toppling him.


MALVEAUX: All right, a limited strike. Thank you, Christiane, appreciate it.

Here's more of what we're working on for a special hour of AROUND THE WORLD here.

What you're watching here, almost 40 members of Congress, including Democrats and Republicans alike, they are now demanding President Obama talk to them before ordering military action in Syria. We're going to talk to one of them up next.

QUEST: And inside the mind of Syria's President Bashar al-Assad. One man who has spent time with Assad says he can be equally delusional and persuasive, charming, and cold-blooded.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: He's quite erratic. He's quite moody. He goes from one side to the other. Bouts of rationality and irrationality.



MALVEAUX: The White House is deciding right now how to respond to Syria's suspected chemical attack. Members of Congress are not holding back either in voicing their opinions on what the United States should do. Senator John McCain, last night on "The Situation Room," explained it this way.


SEN. JOHN MCCAIN (R), ARIZONA: If it's just some strikes with cruise missiles, then it will not only not do any good, it may be counterproductive and help Bashar Assad with his propaganda. So I greatly am concerned about what kind of strikes these will be and what they will entail.


QUEST: Other lawmakers are demanding the president get their approval before launching any military action. Thirty-one Republicans and six Democrats in the House have sent a letter to the president, quote, "engaging our military in Syria when no direct threat to the United States exists without prior congressional approval would violate the separation of powers that is clearly delineated in the Constitution."

MALVEAUX: Republican Congressman Scott Rigell wrote the letter and he joins us from Washington.

So, Congressman, thank you so much for joining us. Let's talk about this a little bit. The war powers resolution, it does allow the president to launch a military strike with a congressional declaration of war, or a congressional authorization for use of force, or if the United States is attacked. So, in this situation, not like the Libya operation in 2011, the administration got around that saying the U.S. wasn't engaged in official hostilities. Do you feel like it's appropriate that the president has to reach out to you this go-around or take the Libya model?

REP. SCOTT RIGELL (R), VIRGINIA: It's clear to me, and an increasing number of my colleagues, as expressed in the letter that has doubled in support from yesterday to today, went from 40 co-signers to 80 as of right now and I'm certainly confident we'll have more than 100 by the end of the day, that we are calling on the president to say, Mr. President, if you believe that the facts are compelling, that the strategic interest of the United States are so clear here, you need and really indeed must, to be in adherence with the Constitution, he must call us into joint session, lay the facts before us and seek and receive specific statutory authority to engage U.S. forces, because we have not been attacked, nor is an attack imminent on the United States. So absent those two conditions, he must, according to our Constitution, come to this body and engage us, and, in fact, get specific statutory authority.

MALVEAUX: And, congressman, is your contention here that there is a process, a protocol that has to be followed, or are you looking for additional information or evidence of what's taken place on the ground? Because we did hear from Jay Carney yesterday who said, look, the DNI (ph), the official intelligence report, is on its way. It will be provided in redacted form to members of Congress, which essentially do show that Assad was responsible for a chemical weapons attack.

RIGELL: This is not an acceptable substitute for engaging the institution itself. I appreciate and respect the fact that the president is engaging members of Congress. This is good and I encourage more of it, both on the Senate side and the House. But it is not, in any respect, a substitute for formally calling us into session, a joint session, laying before - laying the facts before us without disclosing, of course, sources of methods and intelligence, then we, as the representatives of the American people, can weigh in on this, as we should.

Look, the president is looking for validation from around the world for his actions here. I applaud that as well. But the real moral foundation upon which to engage U.S. forces is found in the American people.

QUEST: Right.

RIGELL: And as called for in our Constitution.

QUEST: Bear with us, Congressman. We've got the ranking member of the House armed services committee, Congressman Adam Smith, also on the line, who's just returned from visiting the Syria-Jordan border.

Congressman Smith, do you believe firstly that the president needs to get some form of congressional approval before he might take any action? And how would you vote anyway?

REP. ADAM SMITH (D), WASHINGTON (via telephone): Well, first of all, the historical precedence is no, that the president doesn't require congressional action for a variety of different things.

Certainly it happened in Libya. But it's happened in a number of other places as well, Grenada, Panama. Number of times, presidents for decades have acted without Congress giving approval.

The constitution is a little bit murky on the issue. The historical precedent is they don't. Personally I think it would be better if they did, if they got congressional approval. And in this particular case, I am still highly skeptical of how effective it's going to be to do a one-time strike on Syria. We have to be -- it's not going to be that effective.

Number two, what if Syria strikes back? What if Syria shoots at one of our shoots or one of our planes or tries to attack us in another way?

Are we prepared to get into that kind of acceleration of a conflict that I think the president has been very clear and I think very right that would not really position and shouldn't engage our military?

And certainly, what Assad is doing is terrible, but we're not in a military position to go in there and fix that. And I'm awful leery, worried about us committing ourselves to something that might start us down a path to something we shouldn't start down.

MALVEAUX: Congressman, can you describe for us, because you were visiting the Syria-Jordan border there, who did you talk to? What did you see?

What is taking place on the ground? Were you on the Syrian side? Were you on the Jordanian side? And what did you make of what's happening there, what you just saw?

SMITH (via telephone): We were on the Jordanian side, but only about ten or 15 feet from the Syrian side. We were there with the military and government and getting their briefing on their border security efforts.

Right across the border, you've got all of the Syrian border checkpoints. Gosh, as you go along that border, there's 50 or 60 of them. And on a daily basis, they're being contested between the rebels and Syria, various different level groups in the regime.

From one day to the next, the regime controlled a certain number of those border checkpoints and the next day it changes. There's an ongoing fight over those border checkpoints, right across the border from Jordan.

QUEST: Congressman Rigell, just want to ask you, if I may, if there was a vote, assuming for the purposes of this question, you are being invited now to have a vote, would you vote for some form of military action, or giving the president the authority for some form of military action?

RIGELL: Based on the information that I have now, and the inadequate case as I see it that the president has laid out, the ambiguity that is present, I would vote no.

But the process by which we need to navigate through this, which is for him to call us into join session, would give us the opportunity to allow for a more rigorous examination of the data and the case to be made.

So I am open to the argument, but at this point, the answer would be no.

MALVEAUX: All right, Congressman Rigell as well as Adam Smith, thank you so much. Appreciate your time. Interesting, Richard, because there is a window here. The president is planning on going to Russia, St. Petersburg. That's on Tuesday for G- 20 summit. And you've got the British parliament voting on this tomorrow. So you've got a five-day window.

Would that be enough time for members of Congress to come back, approve this, have the president lay out his case and carry out those strikes?

QUEST: And you've got the United Nations requesting that whatever is done and however it's done, at least wait until the inspectors leave or finish their job is the way it's more correctly put, and that doesn't happen until Sunday.

MALVEAUX: All right, members of Congress scheduled to return from the summer recess, that's September 9th. They could be called back any time now.

We'll bring in our Wolf Blitzer who is covering the Syrian crisis from Washington. Hi, Wolf.

WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR, "THE SITUATION ROOM": Suzanne, thanks very much.

You know, this is a very, very sensitive, tricky issue from the president, whether to seek congressional authorization.

Back in 2007 when he was a United States senator, he said this. He said in a "Boston Globe" interview, "The president does not have the power under the Constitution to unilaterally authorize a military attack in a situation that does not involve stopping an actual or imminent threat to the nation."

Gloria Borger and John King are here with me.

Gloria, the president as a senator was very specific on this, and the question is, yes, the Syrian regime represents a major threat to its own people, but does it represent what the president calls an imminent or actual threat to the United States?

GLORIA BORGER, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, welcome to the presidency, right?

This is a president who is probably stunned that he's saying what he's saying now. You have a different perspective when you're in the Oval Office. There's no doubt about it.

Here's a president who's defending drones, who's defending NSA surveillance, who's talking about a surgical military strike, who's just winding down two wars and who clearly, if he had his druthers, would not want to do this.

But having drawn a red line, as he's done once, and now again, and there's a use of chemical weapons, they believe it's clear incontrovertible evidence, which they will probably declassify some of it to present to the American public. But having drawn that line, Wolf, the credibility of the United States and this president seems to be on the line, so he's created a box for himself.

BLITZER: The president will be asked by skeptical members of Congress and the American public where is the threat to the United States?

Where is the imminent or actual threat to the United States from what Bashar al Assad's regime in Damascus is doing?

JOHN KING, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: He can make the case there's a humanitarian crisis that sort of trumps that, that makes it in the national interest.

He can make a case that Israel is right there on the Syrian border and that's the key U.S. ally in the region.

He can make the case that if Syria continues to disintegrate and if Assad's using chemical weapons there, what is the domino effect in the rest of the region?

The question is, Wolf, what case will he make? We haven't heard from the president yet. We've heard from Secretary Kerry. We've heard from the vice president.

And you just heard a very important interview there with two members of Congress, one a conservative Republican, one a liberal Democrat.

If there were a Republican in the White House, there would be a lot more Democratic signatures on that letter. Democrats are muting their criticism, muting their questions of the president out of partisan loyalty right now.

But you're beginning to see more and more liberal members, anti-war members of Congress, like Barack Obama was when he was in the Senate, first starting to question shouldn't he come to Congress first? This is not an imminent threat against the United States. That means the president's got to do some outreach.

And then questioning, can you do this? You just heard --

BLITZER: And remember, Barack Obama as a senator voted against -- or spoke out against going to war in -- against Iran.

BORGER: Right. I think a lot is going to depend on how this administration defines the mission. We've already heard them say it's going to be narrow.

But I do think that the American public, as well as these members of Congress, want to hear how the mission is defined and what the goal of the mission is.

We know they want to punish Assad. We know they want to degrade him and deter him. But how do you do that?

And the question that Adam Smith just raised on this show is, how effective can we be if we're just launching cruise missiles? Is it worth it? Will we be able to achieve any kind of mission that's actually worth it?

BLITZER: And John McCain told me yesterday that it could make matters even worse by underscoring a U.S. impotence, if you will, if it's just a token cruise missile strike as opposed to what he wants, which is something a whole lot more robust.

KING: If Assad survives an American military action, given anti- American sentiments in the region, it could in some ways make him a hero. It could help with the propaganda not only in Syria, but around the Arab world and all the way over into Iran.

There's a number of questions here, Wolf. Imagine, what the administration is trying to plan is blunt force trauma in Syria that doesn't impact the rest of the region.

Look how tightly that is packed. That is going to take quite a military operation.

BLITZER: John King and Gloria, both of whom'll be back in "The Situation Room" at 5:00 p.m. Eastern.

Suzanne, Richard, back to you guys at the CNN center.

QUEST: Thank you for that, Wolf Blitzer in Washington.

Now Syria has some powerful allies in the region and that includes Russia and Iran. The country has isolated many of its neighbors.

And after this short break, we'll take a closer look at the Syrian regime's friends and enemies.