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U.N. Meets on Syria Resolution; Syrians on the Ground; Markets Worry Over Oil Prices; Assad: Master of Deception; Mulling Military Options

Aired August 28, 2013 - 12:30   ET



SUZANNE MALVEAUX, CNN ANCHOR: Welcome back 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.

We just learned that the meeting between the permanent members of the United Nations on a Syria resolution has just ended. There were no comments yet from the United States or U.K. We are still waiting for any potential announcements.

Meanwhile, the U.N. inspectors are back out again today collecting evidence for last week's alleged chemical weapons attack. Now, these pictures, they were posted online just a short time ago showing inspectors talking to survivors at a medical facility near Damascus. U.S. officials are not placing much stock in the U.N. mission.

RICHARD QUEST, CNN ANCHOR: A State Department official says too much time has 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, who signal 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: So who are the Syrian regime's friends and who are its enemies?

First, the enemies, Syria has been suspended from both the Arab League and the Organization for Islamic Cooperation.

When Bashar al Assad came into power unopposed back in 2000, there was hope that he would usher in a more open Damascus, but he isolated many of his neighbors in the region, including Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya.

He does have powerful friends, however, in Iran, Russia, and China, countries that provide Syria with military and financial aid.

Want to bring in Tom Foreman in Washington. If you look at the map there, you see there's friends, there's enemies, there's plenty on both sides.

So what would this accomplish if there was a limited missile strike? Would it actually change this game, this regional game, if at all?

TOM FOREMAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: It depends on how those friends react. If you think about Syria, it's not actually that big of a player on the world stage. About 22 million people there, about two Los Angeleses. That's another way of looking at it.

But its friends are very powerful. Let's take a look at those. If you bring in some of the biggest players here, Iran, Russia, and China, why do they care about Syria? Why would it matter to them?

They do have long trading relationships with them. Russia and China in particular have had a lot of dealings with arms with them, in addition to certain natural resources like natural gas, that sort of thing.

And this may be the more important part over here. This is seen by many factions out there, particularly the Iranians, Syria is seen as a front line in their stand against the West, against Israel, against the United States and the Western powers.

They see Syria in that fashion. That's why they're watching so closely and why they would react to whatever happens there. The question is, as you pointed out, how would they react? How deeply would that go?

Beyond that, let's look at the other part of the equation. Here's the U.S. and many of its allies, whether they join in this or not, would generally stand with them as members of NATO, that sort of thing, joined by groups like Saudi Arabia, Egypt maybe, depending on what's happening in there.

What are their interests in this? Why do we care so much in this, or why do these care? Well, because there's always the issue of world energy supplies coming from the region and what impact this might have on them.

There is also the protection of Israel, a longtime ally there and where it fits into the equation if Syria continues tipping out of control.

On top of which we should note, as we pointed out earlier in the show, all the refugees pouring into the neighboring states, what that can do.

And of course, there's the credibility of President Obama in all of this.


MALVEAUX: Tom Foreman, thank you so much for really giving us a sense of the big picture there, if you will.

QUEST: The friends and the enemies. Excuse me.

Of course, the big concern is for the safety of the people of Syria where more than a hundred thousand people have been already killed in the bloody civil war. And a military escalation will directly impact those still living there, of course.

MALVEAUX: And parts of the country are war zones, every neighborhood really potentially a front line.

I want to bring in our colleague Hala Gorani, and, Hala, you've been talking to people on the ground. You covered Syria for at least a decade. Are they nervous? Are they scared? What are people telling you right now?


Look, Tom mentioned the population of Syria. We're talking 22 million people, a death toll of a hundred thousand, and it's facile to sort of compare numbers, but look at a country like the United States with 300 million. If you were to make a comparison, that's like having, I don't know, a million dead people, 10 million displaced, 10 million children who are now living in camps without being able to go to school.

Every single Syrian has been affected by this, every single one, even those who don't live in neighborhoods there constantly being shelved. I'm talk about neighborhoods in Aleppo or Damascus that are regime- controlled, where there is not daily violence, but where there is very little electricity, very little supplies, very little food and the constant worry that you or you loved ones will be killed or hurt.

QUEST: But the ability of the rebels to have waged their campaign for so many years against a regime that has such a tight control of the country is of itself telling of what's the situation in Syria.

GORANI: Look, the rebels are tenacious, let's be honest here. They are able to hold entire neighborhoods in cities like Aleppo.

However, the regime is the one with the military might to bomb from the air, and to, as in this case, as is suspected, gas its own people in the suburbs of Damascus, so you do have a stronger party here.

The rebels are able to hold out because they're getting arms. They are getting arms now. They're not getting the kind of arms they say they need to defeat the regime.

The big question is going to be now, if there's a strike, will it change anything? My guess is not so much if it's limited in scope and duration.

MALVEAUX: Do they still want it anyway, though, Hala? The people you've talked to, do they say, OK, we want it?

GORANI: It depends. This is one of the misconceptions, OK? One of the misconceptions is that everyone in Syria is against the regime. Not everyone in Syria is against the regime. You have those who want the regime over some of the rebels because they fear what might come next. They're afraid of extremists on the other side. It is a very complex situation and certainly not one that you can solve with one or two cruise missiles, that's for sure.

MALVEAUX: All right, Hala Gorani, thank you, Hala.

QUEST: We should never be seen to be putting dollars before lives and bodies, but there's no question that what's happening at the moment in the global economy is exceptionally fragile, and the slightest disruption could, of course, have widespread consequences.

So, after the break, the economic implications of the Syrian crisis.


QUEST: If there's one thing financial markets dislike, it is uncertainty. What we're seeing in Syria, of course, has increased the possibility of military strikes against the country and that's created a growing uncertainty in the investor world.

MALVEAUX: We have actually seen investors rushing out of stocks, oil prices going up.

Want to go to Christine Romans in New York to talk about some of this here. And, Christine, first of all, explain to us, Syria is not a major oil producer like Libya, nor is it a major transit point for gas and oil exports like Egypt.

So why would a potential U.S. military strike in Syria affect oil prices?

CHRISTINE ROMANS, CNN BUSINESS CORRESPONDENT: Because Syria has friends and Syria has enemies, and the worry in the markets is that some sort of conflict that drags in those friends and enemies, some sort of proxy war, a battleground right there in Syria, would be very dangerous for a region that has long borders and long history of tension about oil and the transit of oil. So that's the big concern there in the oil markets.

Earlier today, we talked to the CEO of Pimco and asked exactly what is the big concern here about a conflict and more broadly, about oil and rising oil prices for the rest of the world, and this is what he told us.


MOHAMED EL-ERIAN, CEO, PIMCO: The last thing the global economy needs today is another headwind that would slow what is already a very sluggish recovery.


ROMANS: Let's talk about oil prices right now. They are at 18 month, almost two-year high for oil prices. That's something that's going to trickle down into higher gasoline prices if indeed this does continue.

And, you know, gasoline, to Mohamed El-Erian's point, gasoline is something that takes money right out of consumers' pockets. There's this rule of thumb that every cent increase is about a billion dollars right out of consumers' pockets at a time when you don't really have a driver in the world of economic growth.

So that's what the big concern is for the whole world, about an economy that is maybe fragile right now for some sort of broader conflict and higher energy prices.

But we're watching the energy part of this story very closely. Also watching gold. It went up yesterday. It's, you know, a little more muted today.

Stocks, bonds, just about every kind of market, as Richard well knows, is moving in some way to the cross currents of what we're seeing as the situation unfolds in Syria.

QUEST: Christine, thank you very much, Christine Romans in New York.

MALVEAUX: Cyber-attack cripples "The New York Times" website, shutting down for more than 18 hours.

Up next, pro-Syrian activists say they're behind it.


MALVEAUX: Some supporters of the Syrian government say that they are the ones behind a cyber-attack on "The New York Times." For more than 18 hours, the paper's website was down. The Syrian Electronic Army is now claiming responsibility.

I want to bring in Deborah Feyerick who's following it from New York. And, you know, Deb, with electronic, social media being so critical to how we get information these days, how significant is it that, first, they not only go after "The New York Times," but secondly, they're able to disrupt the service?

DEBORAH FEYERICK, CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, you know, Suzanne, Richard, it's critical in the sense that they were able to essentially hijack "The New York Times" site so that people simply could not gain access to it. It disappeared.

And they did this by rerouting traffic to a different i.p. address. Now it appears the integrity of "The New York Times" website was not compromised, just people's ability to get there.

And one former law enforcement official described it, saying it's like switching signs on the highway and sending people down the wrong ramp.

Now the group, as you mentioned, claiming responsibility is the Syrian Electronic Army. It's believed to support the government of Syrian President Assad.

But, really, it could be anyone. That's what they're looking into now. It's a sophisticated attack. It targets an outside search engine.

And, as a matter of fact, two weeks ago, a search engine was targeted that tends to direct traffic here to us at CNN, also "The Washington Post" and "Time" magazine. It does happen several times a year. This is something -- you know, I was speaking to somebody, and they were very clear. They said, look, this is not about hackers really. It's about "hacktivists," people who are either trying to get attention, make a point or perhaps voice discontent over an article that may have appeared in "The New York Times."


MALVEAUX: All right, Deb, they are getting our attention. It worked.

QUEST: Certainly one way of doing it.

Erratic, moody, and irrational, that's how some people are describing Syria's president.

In a moment, we'll hear from someone in touch with Assad's inner circle.


MALVEAUX: Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is a mystery to many. He is young. He's only 47 years old. He was appointed president after his father died in 2000. But how does he actually think?

QUEST: Our Brian Todd spoke to a man who gained access to Bashar al- Assad's inner circle and he calls the president the master of deception.


BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT (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 INST. FOR NEAR EAST POLICY: Bashar al-Assad, unlike 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 threatened Lebanon's prime minister --

PRES. BASHAR AL-ASSAD, SYRIA: First of all, it's not my nature so threaten anybody. It's -- I'm very quiet person. I'm very frank. But 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 are not my forces. They are merely the forces that belong to the government.

BARBARA WALTERS, ABC NEWS: OK, but your government -

AL-ASSAD: I don't own them. I'm president.


AL-ASSAD: I don't own the country, so they're not my forces.

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

AL-ASSAD: No, no, no.

WALTERS: Not by your command?

AL-ASSAD: No, no, no, we don't have - nobody - no one's 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 and then --

TABLER: That he's a master of deception. I think that the regime, that 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 overseen 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 by the 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.

TODD (on camera): That mean a key ally of Assad's, the militant group Hezbollah, considered a terrorist group in the west, might carry out some kind of asymmetrical attack on American interests. Assad is likely talking to them about a response right now, experts say, along with his other close friend, Iran.

Brian Todd, CNN, Washington.


MALVEAUX: The U.N. has no consensus on what to do in Syria, but the U.S. says that its forces are ready to go. We're going to take a look at the possible military options, up next.


QUEST: So the question is, if military action is taken, and sooner rather than later as most people seem to believe, what would be the result and what would be the targets? If we take a look at the potential for U.S. military targets in Syria at the moment, you get an idea of the sort of things that they will be looking for -- weapons delivery systems, militia training camps, and command posts, very much avoiding deliberately the chemical stockpiles or anything, that if you like, might make a bad situation much worse.

Joining me now is CNN's military analyst, the retired General James "Spider" Marks.

And, Spider, looking at this -- the targets, how easy will it be, if you like, a, to find the targets, b, to isolate them, and, c, to attack them?

JAMES "SPIDER" MARKS, CNN MILITARY ANALYST: Well, Richard, nothing in warfare is easy. It may sound simple, but even the most simple task is difficult. So let's describe it in those terms. And then, first of all, understand that the intelligence collection capability of the United States, as well as our allies, is ongoing 24/7 and it's been in place continually. So what we call target folders are being updated all the time with the very latest information.

QUEST: Right.

MARKS: So there is with great confidence that they will strike against very certain targets. Now the issue is, what is within that target? Has something already migrated out of it? Has somebody taken some stuff and moved it away?

QUEST: All right.

MARKS: But we could go after training sites. We can certainly go after command and control. And, most importantly, Assad's ability to execute his war-making machine and to give him a sense of what he knows and what he doesn't. What we really want to do is blind him.

QUEST: Abut -- but let's look at it from the other side, if you like, from the allies or from the American and British point of view and look at how the ships, as they would move into position in the eastern Mediterranean and move across. Now, as we can see from this animation, the ships are, if you like, in position. They make their various attacks into Syria. But how much risk are these ships themselves at from any potential attack that might come back from Syria out?

MARKS: Well, the United States has a very robust integrated air defense system that is not only unique and organic to the Navy, but it's connected to a satellite base system. So any time any launch would occur from Syria, from some rocket or missile en route or targeted against those naval vessels, we would know that and the Navy would be able to alert against it and put up a defense to neutralize it. That doesn't mean it's 100 percent, but it is very, very close. So these ships are not necessarily at extreme risk, but they are very, very aware of what their conditions are, their vulnerabilities are, but they'll still be able to execute the tasks.

QUEST: General, good to have you and your interpretation and analysis on this. Thank you for joining us.

MARKS: Thank you.

QUEST: And that's it for me for this hour of AROUND THE WORLD. I'm Richard Quest.


MALVEAUX: And CNN NEWSROOM starts right after a quick break.